MANILA, Philippines — It was not supposed to be like this, because it has never been like this. In our short Fifth Republic we have gotten accustomed to presidents, long past their peak popularity, anointing candidates no one really expects to win. And they don’t, with the possible, sole, exception of Fidel V. Ramos.
And yet, last Friday, much as he went through the ritual of raising hands, President Duterte ended up raising no one’s hand as his official bet to succeed him to the presidency. The careful observer, watching Inquirer.net’s YouTube video of the proceedings, might have noticed that in practically every instance it was the administration senatorial candidate who raised the President’s hand, and not vice-versa. Even a less-careful observer might have noticed the sudden substitutions: gone, for example, were two Cabinet members supposed to shine on the slate, Silvestre Bello III and Arthur Tugade.
Out of steam
The sight the President and his ruling coalition presented was of a collection of politicians out of steam, out of ideas, and out of touch with each other. Another Cabinet man supposed to adorn the official slate was Harry Roque, who instead spent the day like a child left behind in a grocery store, telling anyone who would listen that he was waiting to see if the President’s daughter would, in the end, file her candidacy for the presidency.
Social media feeds turned Hugpong green, with cascading images of the Ruling Fist.
But in the end what took place was, for lack of a better word, an epidemic of emergency substitutions.
Tugade, his candidacy permanently indicted by the Pandora Papers, withdrew; among those in his place, was John Castriciones, founder of Partido Federal ng Pilipinas, the vehicle of choice for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s presidential bid. And who knows how Roque and so many other hopefuls ended up feeling, when Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa bounced in front of the cameras in a green shirt to announce he would file as the presidential candidate of Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban). An orange jacket was found for him in time for the deed: but the President was no longer there for the hand-raising.
Ad hoc combinations
The Marxist phrase that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, could breezily apply to what took place last Friday, except it doesn’t apply to the ruling coalition alone.
With the exception of the Panfilo Lacson-Tito Sotto combination which emerged whole and remains so, all other combinations have proven more ad hoc than preplanned. Leni Robredo-Kiko Pangilinan may have been made possible by the strategic slide down to a senatorial candidacy for Antonio Trillanes IV, but can’t avoid the hangover of dashed expectations for a larger opposition coalition.
Duterte ex machina
Isko Moreno-Willie Ong in a sense suggested a (momentary) stall when a tandem widely expected to feature Grace Poe in the second slot failed to materialize; Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao-Lito Atienza was a case of throwing in the towel as far as PDP-Laban is concerned, and the reduction of a presidential dream to a kind of exhibition fight; while Marcos and Bong Go were, respectively, half a tandem that somehow couldn’t formalize things into a formal partnership, even though the President had taken himself out of the equation.
As the clock counted down last Friday, what passed for a ruling coalition strategy was the promotion of the expectation of a Duterte ex machina in the form of his daughter descending from Davao. (A report of her supposed hotel sightings in Metro Manila was strongly denied by her staff. —Ed.)
Starting with Roque, the man who gave everything up in order to breathe life into his prospective legislative career, the rerun of the substitution script can only be unrewarding, but positively hurtful, for those who dared to take things at face value in 2016 and again in 2021. For all their affection for Dela Rosa, he is a poor substitute for Daughterte: even if one clings to the hope of a substitution by November.
Cohesive but smaller
A few politically conscious citizens may grumble loopholes in rules so obviously abused need closing, and a halfhearted attempt might follow. Most, instead, are focusing on 1992 as the scenario that’s relevant, not least because after a dramatic six years of a dominant political creed, it’s a mad scramble to pick up the pieces. What last Friday clarified, is that there remain two wings of the ruling coalition still negotiating a union—and Marcos is one of them.
The opposition is cohesive, but is starting off smaller than it had hoped, unable to entice Pacman or Moreno. Divided, too, are those posturing to be a third force, as a Moreno-Sotto duo should have been the logical “aggrupation.” Pressure remains, then, for a further consolidation and thus clarification, to take place.
But that’s the problem of expecting a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. In an era where division is expertly promoted, attempting anything approaching cooperation, much less, unification, is that much harder. A November surprise may be inevitable—but so is a November disappointment.