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The Future of the Liberal Order in the Philippines, Part I

Philippine Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo has taken over the leadership mantle for the liberal cause, if you will, in the Philippines. Occupying the second highest position in government and being chairperson of the Liberal Party, Robredo by default has inherited such responsibility from former president Benigno Aquino III.

As the de facto leader, however, Robredo has not charted a vision for liberals and future liberals on how the country can restore some semblance of a liberal order that is more tailored to the Philippine situation. Reacting to the news or current events is passive and does not bode well for long term viability of the party or the ideology. She is clearly banking on a positive outcome in the May elections to jump start a liberal agenda.

The Liberal Party’s liberalism ideology puts a premium on “freedom, justice, and solidarity (bayanihan)” but left these undefined. In practice, the Liberal Party vis-à-vis the opposition, is following a similar tact of attacking authoritarians on human rights and freedoms “to save democracy” much like during the Martial Law years. But using the Marcos bogeyman is out of tune with today’s reality like the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao that the Supreme Court found legal not only once but twice.

One element of such a vision should be about winning elections. You can advocate for good governance until you turn blue but it will not become a reality if you lose in the elections. Every position, whether local or national is important and should be part of the strategy but relative to the vision, the senatorial election carries enormous importance in May because of the role the senate plays.

But the question is, will Otso bets do well? If the current trend holds, only Bam Aquino and Mar Roxas might make it. This is because the administration candidates are well-funded and polling well: Grace Poe, Cynthia Villar, Bong Go, Sonny Angara, JV Ejercito, Nancy Binay, Koko Pimentel, Pia Cayetano, Sergio Osmeña, Lito Lapid, Imee Marcos, Jinggoy Estrada, Bato de la Rosa, and Bong Revilla. Not that they are the best, but their names are well recognized by the electorate and has the blessings of the president.

Rebuffed by admin bets on the political debate challenge, Otso bet Romulo Macalintal called out Catholics to stand up for their faith amid continuing attacks against the Church particularly from the president and to prove the existence of a “Catholic vote.” Well, he sounded desperate and might be disappointed comes May.

Romulo’s call for Catholic vote is actually problematic similar to the VP Robredo’s defense of the Catholic Church. This is problematic because of the constitutionally enshrined wall between the state and the church. Robredo and by extension, “Team Leni” tend to carry the cudgel for the Catholic Church but doing so carries some risks.

For example, Robredo’s opposition to the government proposal for distributing condoms to high school students mirrored that of the bishops. Seen now with rising number of cases of HIV, the distribution idea as a public health matter was sound. Besides, this proposal is a liberal idea. Another was her retort to Duterte’s comment on the Church longevity and death threats to bishops. These attacks are abominable but does she need to respond in support of the church? The Catholic Church can defend itself aided by the media.

In 2016, then VP candidate Robredo offered as a solution on resolving health issues, “100% PhilHealth coverage” that the Aquino administration could not deliver. Two years later, Duterte recently signed into law the Universal Healthcare (UHC) Act that will “provide access to quality and affordable healthcare for all Filipinos.” Robredo was not at the signing ceremony nor was her voice heard supporting the bill before it was signed.

Clearly, the rise of Rodrigo Roa Duterte ushered in a new brand of nationalism foreign to many Filipinos particularly the elites. The often simplified explanation is that Filipinos have gotten tired of traditional politicians and the elites who promised them the heavens but could not deliver them out of poverty and misery. In other words, Duterte’s win was a product of protest votes and the beneficiary of such wrath was the Liberal Party candidates who fit the bill of elitism except Robredo who was a new face in the block. This election then is not only a referendum on the president but Robredo’s since she’s been in public view for the last two years.

This new brand of nationalism or the Duterte variant is shaping the nation-state by attacking “the privileged few” – the Catholic Church included. Duterte is trying to exhort nationalism through attacks on the oligarchy (the Yellows), the Church, the United Nations, and the West particularly the U.S., through his bloody drug war and anti-corruption campaign. His attacks particularly on the clergy, if done on a different era would have been career ending but the Teflon president who publicly kisses and curse is enjoying an 80% approval rating.

Duterte is also imploring big business to embrace a new spirit of citizenship forcibly like the closure of Boracay and now the reclamation of Manila Bay. His message is quite clear: show commitment to the men and women who labor to bring you tourism fortune, to those slums dwellers who live around you, the middle class who work for you, and the consumers who buy the goods and services you sell – by being responsible. His message was not only for a new sense of citizenship but patriotism – an appeal to their emotions. It sounds like an oxy-moron because companies are not people, they are profit oriented labels. But clearly, these profiteers have emotions too (and probably saw better opportunities with a more disciplined citizenry).

Many predicted that Duterte would not succeed with the Boracay closure because of supposed legal challenges. But big business heard him. Same thing with Manila Bay, the reclamation is now underway. Just the other day, Duterte signed something that is unheard of:Executive Order 75 that orders all agencies to identify government-owned lands that can be distributed to land reform beneficiaries – this also includes Church lands - taking away a talking point from the New People’s Army, nationalists and liberals.

Frankly, Duterte seems to be more liberal than many of the LP members. But unlike many of the liberals who were or are not bold enough to go for the jugular, Duterte is showing the kind of leadership needed for the times. The liberals might not like it, but this is a different time that calls for unity to help the president with better guidance and directions.

President Fidel Ramos said it during the occasion celebrating the Centennial of the Proclamation of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1998, “We have arrived at where we are as a consequence of our collective will—as the fruit of our common resolve—to transcend our differences and to create and enlarge that common space within which all of us can work and build a modern nation.” Liberals take heed. It is not enough to just keep on criticizing.

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