Column: The pork barrel and the Left

A new lease on political relevance. Published on October 28, 2013.

There are various shades of red in the political spectrum, but for the sake of argument I will adopt the convention in use in many newsrooms and identify the Philippine Left as those associated with the National Democratic Front (NDF). These political forces include some of the most successful party-list groups in our history, such as Bayan Muna.

Their success is apposite, because it explains two telling political developments in the last decade. At the same time, their indisputable mastery of the parliamentary arena, or at least of the processes of entry into that arena, obscured the specter of irrelevance that haunted the Left during the first three years of the Aquino administration. The pork barrel scandal, however, has altered the political landscape dramatically.

The argument, in other words, is that the pork barrel scandal has given the Left a new lease—if not exactly a new purpose—on life.

I do not mean to say that Bayan Muna, Gabriela and allied organizations were dying in slow motion after Noynoy Aquino’s election in 2010 and didn’t even know it; only that the limits of their political influence, and of their growth as a national political force, had become clear, and stark.

But before they were against Gloria Arroyo, they were for her—or at least they were allied with her. Their tactical alliance in the 2001 elections, the first of four polls under Arroyo’s presidency, was a political development that proved consequential. The results of the 2001 midterms, just four months after Joseph Estrada was deposed, were a decidedly mixed bag. Both Arroyo’s coalition and Estrada (represented by proxies like his original wife) could claim victory. Bayan Muna’s first outing as party-list group, however, was an unqualified success; it won over 1.7 million votes—hundreds of thousands more than the next party-list group, and well over a million more than necessary to win a single seat.

An article in Bulatlat.com from that era (it all seems like such a long time ago, I think the word is precisely right) parsed the numbers. “The total number of votes it got was three times bigger than that of the 1998 leader (Apec) and was almost equivalent to the combined votes of the top five placers during the same year. It was also way past the total garnered by the three major political parties, the combined votes of five ‘leftist’ party-list groups (Akbayan, Sanlakas, PM, Amin and Atin) and those of seven reformist groups (Butil, ABA, Abanse! Pinay, Ako, Bagong Bayani, Bandila and PDSP).”

It must have been political number-crunching of this kind that drove the Left to reposition itself in the 2004 presidential elections; it poured resources into allied party-list groups, such as Gabriela and Anakpawis. The drop in the number of votes Bayan Muna received in 2004 was considerable (down to 1.2 million or so) but hardly material; it still won the maximum number of three seats. From only three in 2001, however, the Left claimed a total of seven seats in Congress in 2004.

As I understand it, the tactical alliance with Arroyo continued in the 2004 campaign, but it was an unpopular stance even within the Left. It was certainly unpopular among certain members of the military. The restiveness in the ranks in the early years of Arroyo’s term—the second political development—was fueled in part by the access Bayan Muna enjoyed to pork barrel funds. I cannot find it now, but an article in a military journal in 2002 or 2003 questioned the wisdom of inviting organizations associated with the NDF into the parliamentary arena, when their pork barrel could be used to fund the NDF’s armed wing, the New People’s Army. It was a sophisticated version of the kind of argument current at the time (it also surfaces every time a Leftist personality runs for the Senate).

Bayan Muna has always denied any such thing; and like many others I continue to think that the benefits to be gained from a national policy encouraging a shift from the armed struggle to the so-called parliamentary struggle outweighs the costs. But pronouncements and protestations against the pork barrel today from the always-articulate spokesmen of the Left have helped disguise the historical fact that, a decade or so ago, it was precisely the Left’s use of the pork barrel that stirred military unrest.

After President Aquino’s election, the voice of the Left became markedly more shrill (I hope to devote more time to fleshing out this observation one of these days). It was or it seemed like Edsa all over again; the people had made their choice decisively—and the Left found itself on the wrong side of history yet again. They opposed almost everything the Aquino administration did or said, even after the Villar political clan, with which the Left was tactically allied, had already made peace with the new order.

The political calculus was also stark. While Bayan Muna and allied groups continued to do well in party-list elections, the Left’s national base was not wide enough to elect anyone to national office. Gabriela’s Liza Maza, who ran for the Senate in 2010, got 3.5 million votes, about a third of the total necessary to break into the winning circle. Bayan Muna’s Satur Ocampo in 2010 and Teddy Casiño in 2013, both of whom I voted for, fared just as badly: 3.2 million votes for Satur, 4.2 million for Teddy. Again, Teddy’s total was just about a third of the votes necessary to enter the Senate.

It seemed like a political dead end. In the pork barrel scandal, however, the Left has found an issue that resonates deeply with a majority of Filipino voters. To be sure, its presence in some of the early protests has been alienating for many protesters. But the potential for winning new friends and influencing a great many people also exists, and there for the taking.

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