The Explainer: Return of the Liberals

Tonight, we continue our look at the parties that make or break presidents, with a focus on the second-oldest political party in the country today, the Liberal Party.

And so, tonight it’s Liberal Night on the Explainer. I’m Manolo Quezon.


There, but for the grace of God, go the Liberals. For as the country confronts the kind of company the President keeps, like the Ampatuans, the Liberals of today know full well that from the very start she should’ve been a Liberal and made it her ruling party.

And yet it’s in large part because of it’s decision to part ways with her in 2005 –despite her being its honorary President- that the Liberals and its candidates are widely considered the frontrunners today. The LP, founded in 1946, is not only the second-oldest party in the country today, it’s one that’s had a truly checkered past.

To be sure, it’s produced three presidents: Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino, and Diosdado Macapagal.

And two others, shown here, Ramon Magsaysay and Ferdinand E. Marcos, spent their political careers as Liberals until they switched parties to run for the presidency. By all accounts, if Marcos hadn’t abolished the two party system under martial law, at least two of his potential successors might’ve been Liberal presidents, too: Gerardo Roxas and Benigno Aquino Jr.

But the real start of the Liberal Party –and where it got it’s name- goes back twenty four years before 1946, when the party was founded, to the year 1922, when the ruling Nacionalista Party split into two factions over many issues, including how to handle the American Governor-General Leonard Wood and his antagonistic attitude to Filipino leaders.

The NP split into the Partido Nacionalista, and the Partido Collectivista Liberal. The split was the result of years (1916-1922) of increasing conflict between the two houses of the Philippine Legislature, with the Senate in particular resenting the tendency of the Speaker of the House, who viewed his political role as that of a de facto prime minister, and his political and legislative powers as stemming from his leadership of the dominant party to act as sole political leader for both chambers.

One of the young leaders drawn to this more republican framework was a young governor soon to turn representative, Manuel Roxas. Sergio Osmena, Speaker of the House at the time of the party split, moved to the Senate to challenge Manuel L. Quezon, then Senate President. His challenge failed and Roxas replaced Osmena as Speaker.

In 1933 the Nacionalistas, reunited in the meantime, split again, over the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Independence Act. This time, Roxas sided with Osmena in the Pro faction versus Quezon and his Antis.

Speaker Roxas and Senate President pro tempore Osmena had gone to Washington and secured and independence law at last.

Quezon was unhappy with this and eventually broke with the two over his believe the law could be improved; the showdown resulted in the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act being rejected in Manila and a new law, the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which improved matters by disallowing US Army Bases after independence and making naval bases negotiable, and allowing for economic measures to be negotiated some more.

The two factions reunited once more after that and Roxas became a loyal Nacionalista again, still No. 3 man in the political totem pole, until World War II.

After World War II with Quezon dead, it was Osmena and Roxas who duked it out to be first president of the independent republic in 1946. Roxas said of Osmena what had been said in 1922: that he was too controlling and unwilling to share power. The fight was on.

Aside from ambition there were other, real issues at hand, too. Osmena was cautious, and unwilling to set aside the economic conservatism of prewar years. Roxas argued that with the country wrecked, massive foreign investments were required and this meant more flexibility in terms of economic policy.

The Liberal Party’s policy of close cooperation with the United States in military and economic matters, was ratified by the public and in the beginning, popular; it remained so during the Cold War when the partnership was seen as an antidote to Communism.

The shifting of American interest from its ally, the Philippines, to former enemies such as Japan, and the preoccupation with Europe on the part of American policymakers, however, resulted in increasing friction between the Philippine and American governments: veteran’s compensation and benefits, and a lingering desire to put Philippine-American relations on a more equal footing, pushed political leaders toward a more assertive and independent attitude towards the United States.

Defining a more independent foreign and economic policy began tentatively under President Quirino, who succeeded Roxas in 1948. But Quirino was also saddled with agrarian revolt in Central Luzon, and party infighting when his leadership was challenged by Senate President Jose Avelino, who notoriously declared, “what are we in power for?”

And this proved the ultimate problem of the Liberals after the death of the charismatic Roxas: it was suddenly a collection of tired, increasingly discredited, old men. Both Quirino, seen on the right in dark glasses, and the other man kneeling in the foreground, Jose Yulo, the prewar Speaker, seemed exhausted and unable to control the corruption of their partymates.

In 1953 their tandem lost to Magsysay in the biggest first term landslide we’ve ever seen; Yulo challenged Magsaysay’s successor, Garcia, in 1957 but also lost.

But in that election, for the first time ever, a Vice-President not from the same party as the elected president, was elected. That was Diosdado Macapagal, as loyal a party man as has ever lived. His election also marked a shift in generations within the party, and points to one of its secrets of success: whatever their limitations, the Liberals always groomed new talent, that’s why Roxas had Marcos as a protégé, and Quirino had identified Magsaysay as an up-and-coming leader; he’d also encouraged Macapagal to rise through the ranks.

By 1961, infused with new blood, the Liberals once more recaptured Malacanang but then that old problem, corruption, once again haunted the government. Never consider corrupt himself, Macapagal was confronted by a scandal involving an American businessman, Harry Stonehill, who’d given contributions to many leaders. Macapagal tried to pass the blame to his Vice-President, Emmanuel Pelaez, who then split with Macapagal and weakened the party.

In 1965, Macapagal tried to be reelected with President Roxas’s son, Gerardo Roxas, as his running mate, but lost heavily.

And this, in turn, accelerated a new generational shift in the party, especially after Sergio Osmena Jr., who’d been so at odds with his loyal Nacionalista father that he became a fixture of the Liberals, went down to defeat in 1969 against Marcos.

With Marcos constitutionally limited from running again, and Osmena (on the left) already having lost his bid for the presidency, Gerry Roxas, with the glasses, assumed the party leadership and other Liberal leaders, like Jovito Salonga on the right, took center stage.

On August 21, 1971, the Liberal senatorial miting de avance was attacked with grenades and candidates like Salonga, shown here, barely survived. Everyone blamed Marcos though thirty years later Salonga would declare the attack was actually ordered by Jose Ma. Sison of the Communist Party.

The Liberal senatorial ticket won big, one of the biggest sweeps, ever, actually, campaigning in wheelchairs and on crutches.

The only question left was whether it would be Gerry Roxas or Ninoy Aquino who’d be the next president; but Marcos proclaimed martial law, arrested Ninoy, and systematically harassed and starved the Liberals.

They were reduced to depressed and in many ways discredited men in the early years as Marcos seemed unstoppable and even popular.

We know, however, how it ended up: since the Liberals took collective decisions seriously, they kept disagreeing on what to do about Marcos and his fake elections. In the end, it took the death of Ninoy Aquino for the country, and not just the Liberals, to decide the only way to fight the dictatorship was peacefully, even by means of rigged elections.

But the Liberals never regained their pre martial law strength. Jovito Salonga became the first Senate President after martial law, and the formerly thoroughly pro-American LP helped maneuver the removal of the US Bases, showing how far the party had evolved.

But it was never more than a bit player in subsequent governments. The President, from the start, junked her father’s party and joined other parties; then, in 2005, when her presidency got embroiled in controversy, the question of what to do about led to a split among the Liberals. Lito Atienza insisted the rules were ignored in deciding the question; others, like Frank Drilon, insisted they’d properly junked the President. The split continues to this day, but Atienza obviously bet on a losing horse.

Last year, the Nacionalista Senate President, Manuel Villar was ousted in the first salvo of the 2010 campaign. The methodical campaign of Manuel Roxas II, who took over as party chief from Drilon, seemed all set.

In August of this year, the death of Cory Aquino propelled her son, Benigno Aquino III, to the forefront and Roxas, seeing the public clamor, set aside his ambitions to support Aquino’s candidacy. Aquino, in turn, asked Roxas to be his running mate. Elder party members, recalling not only the rivalry of Gerry and Ninoy, but also President Roxas’ refusal to abandon his quest for the presidency upon an appeal by President Osmena, commented on Mar Roxas statesmanship.

And indeed, this is the strength and weakness of the Liberal Party: its history, since martial law, has been of idealism that gets in the way of political pragmatism. Now, however, it faces the task of managing to balance both.

When we return, we’ll meet a true Liberal stalwart for a peek into where the LP is now, as it grapples with something it hasn’t experienced since 1972: frontrunner status as the party to beat.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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