Threat and opportunity

Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo has reiterated former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s warning during the March 18 launch of the 1Sambayan coalition that unless “the opposition” fields only one candidate for President in 2022, the results of those elections are likely to replicate what happened in 2016.

Although one of the least qualified among five candidates, and without ever having been previously elected to a national post, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency then with some 16 million votes, or about 33% of the total, with the remaining 67% being divided among his four rivals.

Despite the depths of corruption, incompetence, lawlessness and brutality into which Philippine governance has since fallen, through various means fair and foul, Mr. Duterte and company, say the public opinion polls, have managed to retain substantial support among the population.

Whether regime mismanagement of the economy, its pandering to China, and its failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the chances of the Duterte candidate next year remains uncertain, due to, among other subterfuges, the administration’s continuing disinformation campaign via its keyboard army of trolls, its hacks in print and broadcast media, and its overpaid bureaucrats in the State media system.

Although there are signs that a number of its allies, apologists, and cronies are eyeing the presidency despite Mr. Duterte’s own daughter’s ambitions for that post, it is too early to tell if the Duterte camp will be divided enough to encourage more than one candidate from its own ranks to run next year.

“The opposition,” however, would do well to assume that it will face only one Duterte candidate, whoever that may be come May 9, 2022. But in its search for the viable candidate who can win next year over the likes of Christopher “Bong” Go, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., Manuel Pacquiao, or Sara Duterte, the forces opposed to the present regime will have to expand “opposition” ranks beyond the Liberal Party of Manuel Roxas II and the so-called “yellows” of the Aquinos, the Magdalo of Antonio Trillanes IV, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) of Jejomar Binay, and other political formations outside the Duterte clique.

The 1Sambayan coalition of pro-democracy individuals and groups convened by Justice Carpio is an effort to create a broad, multi-sectoral alliance of anti-authoritarian forces that could put an end to the current nightmare. The usual online and old media partisans of the Duterte regime attacked it as a group of “strange bedfellows.” They could not comprehend the fact that its ideologically mixed membership is indicative of how broadly resistance to despotic and incompetent rule has become during their patron’s troubled reign. Composed of right-wing, centrist and left-wing groups and individuals, 1Sambayan is united by its shared resistance to the lawless tyranny that hijacked and has since been ravaging the Philippine Constitutional order.

That unity, however is not enough. The Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus noted in his The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, that the man or woman opposed to the evils of the times — the individual who says “no” to “the ignorance that claims for itself the right to kill” — at the same time also implicitly says “yes” to certain values.

In the Philippine context, opposition to autocracy and tyranny —the term “anti-Duterte” doesn’t quite do it justice — is premised on the affirmation of, and support for, the enduring need to restore and nurture the democratization and development process, the values of honesty, competence, and respect for the Constitution, the rule of law, and human rights in governance.

But it is nevertheless still necessary to put together the specifics of a platform of governance the alliance of pro-democracy forces can offer the electorate and the country come 2022 as an alternative to the terrors of the present.

The specifics should start with a comprehensive analysis and critique of the current state of the country and its impact on the people’s lives and fortunes. Equally needed is a hard look at the roots of the legions of problems that despite decades of independence continue to besiege this country and its people that have visibly multiplied and worsened during the last five years, and are threatening to drive Philippine society back to the Stone Age.

From that critique and analysis can a short- and long-term program of government be drafted. Because of the Duterte regime’s failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely to remain among the country’s leading public health problems even by mid-2022. A coherent national policy to address it, which will assure the citizenry enough vaccines and accelerate their administration towards achieving herd immunity should be among the immediate focus of a new administration as the necessary condition for reviving the economy and lowering the unemployment rate.

But there is also the urgency of restoring and expanding the democratic space that the current regime has severely constricted. Ending State violence against its own citizens and human rights violations by government forces should be a priority. A declaration that a new administration will hold offenders accountable, together with the filing of cases in court against the most egregious violators of the right to life and due process, will send to the police and military the message that the reign of impunity has ended. To help the return to the rule of law, a Truth Commission will have to be created to hold to account those responsible for the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have attended the Duterte regime’s “war on drugs” and its campaign against human rights defenders and activists.

As complex as a viable short-term program of government will be, the long-term part will be even more complicated. It will have to cover the political and economic reforms needed to prevent the return of autocratic rule, and to bring the country into the 21st century.

The adoption of the land reform and industrialization program that enabled the Philippines’ neighbors to prosper is the foundation on which economic and social reforms should be based, even as such political reforms as the encouragement of the truly disempowered and marginalized sectors to organize themselves into party-list groups so as to democratize governance becomes State policy, in contrast to their demonization, red-tagging, and exclusion during the current regime.

The long and the short of it is that to win in 2022, “the opposition” will have to craft a program of government that will not only address the immediate concerns of much of the population. The Duterte regime is also demonstrating daily how vulnerable the political system is to the most brazen forms of manipulation. That system therefore needs to be reformed, and, together with it, the unjust economic and social structures that sustain it.

The 2022 elections are a historic opportunity to address the decades-long fundamentals of existence in the country of our sorrows that have condemned millions to short, brutish lives and that have long been in need of the changes that self-rule promised.

As huge a threat as the Duterte episode has been to human rights and to the health, well-being, and the very lives of the Filipino millions, its passing is also a rare opportunity to correct the political and economic aberrations that made it possible. For “the opposition” to squander that opportunity by being focused on winning power solely to be rid of the Duterte autocracy would make it no better than the grotesque regime it seeks to replace.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
June 3, 2021

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