Unbalance of forces
What the senatorial campaign has proven so far is the old truism that, in a national campaign, incumbency is a practically insurmountable advantage. Familiarity does not breed contempt with the electorate, which may have a short memory but is all the more wedded to incumbents and recently incumbent to the exclusion of most other alternatives.
None of these incumbents present a problem for the President in the closing half of his term, though they will, because of their durability before and after him, prove fickle allies—particularly in terms of the possibility of abolishing a nationally elected Senate, or establishing a unicameral parliamentary system, before 2022.
The President lavished energy and resources on his man Friday, Bong Go, and his personal Himmler, Bato dela Rosa. It is even possible that Francis Tolentino has framed himself as the continuing revenge of the local barons, worming himself within spitting distance of the winning margin. While Go can be expected to serve as the liaison between the Senate and the Palace, and Dela Rosa will be the attack dog in the Upper House, the most they can do is watch the back of the President for the remainder of his term and into half of the next administration. But beyond that, they are outnumbered and will be outfoxed by the returning incumbents, who will start plotting for 2022 as soon as the results of 2019 come in.
Grace Poe was poised to be the rallying figure for what many have hoped to achieve for quite a few electoral cycles, which is the creation of a “third force” distinct from the reformists versus the populist-loyalists that dominated confrontations over the past 30 years. But the limits of her political persona, which revealed itself in 2016, manifested again in 2019. Just as she could not fully commit to the reform coalition in 2016, splitting it instead and thus defeating both herself and Mar Roxas in 2016, she has been unable to stand firmly enough over the past three years to distinguish either herself or any coalition that could potentially rally around her.
So, while she can possibly do a repeat performance of proving to be a top senatorial vote-getter, there is a difference between being popular enough for that, and demonstrating the mettle to take on all comers in a post-Duterte era.
What she’s done, instead, is to prove to be yet another pliable politician lacking firmness of purpose: She revealed her loyalist colors by praising the Marcoses in Ilocos, returning to the pre-2004 identity of her parents; though she couldn’t hit as hard and with the tactical cunning of a Panfilo Lacson, who has more adeptly played the role of the loyal opposition. Lacson collaborates with the administration in most things and takes it to task seldom, but often enough to carve out an identity as a smarter, even tougher, version of the President — all the better to make a bid for his constituency in 2022.
The President was used tactically to heap scorn on the few oppositionists they actually considered a threat, which reveals the administration’s own estimates concerning potential risk: Roxas and Chel Diokno, primarily, but also Pilo Hilbay, to the extent of ensuring he remained in electoral obscurity. Roxas himself continued to bear the burden that helped sink his campaign in 2016: carping from the elements who’d helped split the then administration in 2016, and who straggled into the ranks of the opposition in 2019 to continue sabotaging his campaign.
There are personal triumphs for the veteran and tyro in the opposition: Returning to Roxas, he is a father again at 61, which transcends the grime of politics; Hilbay found love on the campaign trail in the person of Agot Isidro, a happiness that surpasses the intrigues of political life.
But to Diokno belongs the most significant achievement: bringing back to the public’s consciousness not only the stellar record of his father, but also introducing the broader public to his personal virtues as a lawyer and a person, serving as a bridge between the middle and the left who have found common cause and a space for dialogue and cooperation in his campaign.
The closing weeks of the campaign, as measured in the polls, suggests that the ratio of administration (say, three: Go, Dela Rosa, Imee Marcos) is 25 percent solidly for the President to the opposition’s (say, two: Bam Aquino, Roxas) 16 percent. The “loyal oppositionists” (or “critical collaborators”—say, Poe, Cynthia Villar, Sonny Angara, Pia Cayetano, Lito Lapid, Nancy Binay, Jinggoy Estrada) represent 58 percent and consider themselves “neutral,” though actually for the President. This squares with public opinion as the surveys have measured it.