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The Philippine Opposition Needs a Strategic Thinker, Part 1

Vice President Leni Robredo finally admitted that she is open to running for president in 2022 as reported by national dailies in Manila. But at the same breath, she pointed out the obvious that 2022 is still three years away. “A lot can happen, we’ll see” she said. Well, she’s right about that but as the legendary National Football League coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Hope is not a strategy.”

The loaded statement left many possibilities to unpack for it hinges on events that can shape future political outcomes. One possible outcome is the president himself not finishing his term because of an unforeseen event like death (natural or by assassination) or incapacitation. President Rodrigo Duterte has been rumored many times to be suffering from a serious condition. He has also challenged the military and police before to kill him if he has been bad. The opposite of course, is that he stays alive and kicking during his term.

Another possibility is that the human rights accusations against Duterte will finally catch up with him at the United Nations or even at home, but it is unrealistic to expect that something will happen to Duterte while in office. World leaders who committed worse human rights violations are still in office. This is because of due process that takes forever at the world body. As long as there is a functional justice system in the country that addresses such cases, Duterte is pretty much shielded from international arrest. Also, the police and the military idolizes him for his oversized balls and will likely shield him.

Of course, there are myriad other possibilities that can happen between now and 2022 including those related to the Chinese, but we can rule out impeachment and coup for now. The last elections solidified Duterte’s control of Congress and the government. This leaves impeachment dead as a viable solution. Being a hero to the men in uniform, Duterte is safe for now. Any coup to prosper will need a sizable military and police support.

On the contrary, some untoward events could spell trouble for the opposition. The sedition charges filed against the vice president and numerous other opposition personalities could prosper in the court of law. Duterte’s appointees at the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan consist of the majority and could spell trouble for the charged opposition members. At the very least, they suffer the same faith that Sen. Leila De Lima is going through now and that is being in limbo.

The most significant blow to the opposition would be for the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) to agree with former senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s electoral petition to nullify VP Robredo’s 2016 win. Robredo is also an impeachable official. Many in the opposition believes that Duterte will not cross this line but Robredo might have already sealed her faith with acts of “disloyalty” to the republic with her alleged involvement in a campaign to removed Duterte through extrajudicial means and her previous campaigns sorties in the West and the United Nations about Duterte’s war on drugs.

The involvement of Solicitor General Jose Calida is making the opposition uncomfortable. Calida has become a cause celebre and a grand wizard of sort for his significant legal victories including the booting out of the former Supreme Court Justice Malou Sereno, revival of sedition charges against former senator Antonio Trillanes and the upholding of martial law in Mindanao twice by the Supreme Court.

These developments materialized because of the opposition’s colossal collapse during the last election. Political miscalculation such as aligning with the Left, focusing the campaign on the merits of Team Leni versus their opponents or Duterte himself, and hammering on issues versus engaging in political combat with their opponents. If elections were about good manners and right conduct, the bright and well-educated opposition candidates would have won hands down.

These mistakes or political miscalculations reflected a leadership without a good grasp of the people’s pulse. It also reflected a naïve leader’s banking on hopes versus a sound strategy. To amplify, one of the ideas floated before the election was that if Duterte’s candidates win, VP Robredo will most likely be impeached. Well, clearly the voters did not buy it.

One opposition strategy was to sell the virtues of the Aquinos and the Yellows as protectors of democracy. The opposition was banking on goodwill. The late president Cory Aquino after all was heralded by the Catholic Church as the Joan of Arc of Philippine politics responsible for deposing the late strongman, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III kept the legacy alive by preventing a hero’s burial for Marcos.

When the opposition sounded the alarm that democracy was in peril because of Duterte’s dictatorial bent, his attack on the judiciary (sacking of Sereno), hero’s burial for Marcos at the Libingan and his vulgar attack on the Catholic Church. The groundswell they were banking on from Catholics never materialized. Not physically during the Marcos burial, on Sereno’s sacking or even attack on the church.

It turned out that majority of Filipinos love democracy but reflected their understanding (or lack) of it by their choices in the ballot. One explanation for the drubbing is that Filipino voters could not relate how democracy could be in peril when they see Duterte going after criminals, corrupt officials, and siding with the poor against the oligarchs. The Marcos burial was a sideshow that has been in public display for decades and the people have gone tired of it. They met the burial issue with a cold shoulder and even elected another Marcos to the senate.

One contributing factor for their debacle was the opposition’s choice to stick with former president Benigno Aquino III and the Yellows. The Yellows are viewed as elitist with their “Daang matuwid” and “Otso diretso” mantras that emphasized righteousness. The people made the Aquinos account for the failed land reform program under them with the Hacienda Luisita massacre as exhibit A. The Aquinos’ embrace of the oligarchs who cornered the utilities industry – water and electricity - has directly impacted the poor and the cross they carried due to higher rates and lack of supply has clearly added to the people’s anger. Noynoy Aquino’s mishandling of the Mamasapano Massacre was too fresh to ignore and viewed him as incompetent. Total debacle at the last election was a direct manifestation of the people’s anger. Indirectly, it rewarded the president with high favorability and trust ratings despite constant criticisms from opposition leaders. His firm hold on Philippine politics allowed the entry of Duterte’s children, Paolo and Sarah and who are seen as a possible successors. Duterte’s bigger coalition in Congress will hasten their ascendancy to power despite Duterte’s drama. Furthermore, Duterte’s influence in the highest court means that he will be shielded from his alleged sins or criminality after leaving office.

So, we ask, “Quo Vadis” opposition? Et tu VP Robredo?

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