Published on July 6, 2021.
Some 10 days after the unexpected death of ex-president Noynoy Aquino, and about 10 months before the 2022 national elections, it might be good to ask: What is the state of the opposition?
Colleague Manolo Quezon has responded to my previous analyses of the prospects of the political opposition with a sweeping conclusion: Everyone becomes opposition anyway, the closer the next elections get. If true, this makes “opposition” as an analytical concept porous, ambiguous to the point of irrelevance.
But history shows us that this in fact isn’t true. In 2016, both the Roxas and Poe campaigns promised continuity with the reformist agenda of the second Aquino administration, and even candidate Rodrigo Duterte, who did campaign on a platform of change, used the three Comelec-sponsored presidential debates to also promote a corollary message: that he would have no problems implementing other campaign platforms, including that of administration candidate Roxas, as long as they work. The 1992 and 1998 elections featured more than one viable candidate campaigning for continuity: Ramos, Mitra, even arguably Salonga in 1992; and De Venecia, Lim, Roco in 1998. It’s possible that the two elections which served as a referendum on President Gloria Arroyo may be the rare events with only one continuity candidate each: Arroyo herself in 2004, Teodoro in 2010. (The last reading, however, depends on whether Manny Villar would be classified as a candidate for continuity—remember “Villarroyo”?—or change.)
So even on the simplified basis of continuity or change, “opposition” remains a very real thing. Are there prospective candidates in 2022 who represent change, and thus should be classified as opposition? Of course.
Is the popular boxer Manny Pacquiao opposition then? Of course not. He may be in for the political fight of his life, but it is a fight being fought squarely within the ropes President Duterte himself set. Despite all his talk about corruption in the government (which, needless to say, the opposition should encourage), Pacquiao continues to represent continuity with the Duterte agenda: hard line on crime, partiality to favored businesses, use of the national security mantle.
After Pacquiao last week, former senator Sonny Trillanes launched a new exposé against Sen. Bong Go (and by implication, President Duterte) this week. Is Trillanes opposition? Of course. He campaigned against Mr. Duterte’s candidacy, he criticized the new administration even before it took office, he has repeatedly resisted many administration attempts to put him back in detention. His new exposé is also much more detailed than Pacquiao’s, and forms part of a years-long pattern that includes filing a case at the International Criminal Court. Even more important, he represents change; he has been unreservedly loyal to Vice President Leni Robredo, and remains committed to stopping the democratic erosion of the last five years.
To say there is no difference between Pacquiao and Trillanes, that “opposition” covers them equally well, is to misunderstand the situation.
That situation has changed dramatically in the last week and a half.
Permission to be proud. Aquino’s untimely death on June 24 has given many Filipinos, not only those who happily worked for him, the opportunity to take pride in both the achievements of the Aquino administration and its strong work ethic. I would characterize this as a rediscovery, because for the first five years of his term, and then at the end of it, Aquino was more popular than previous presidents. The contrast is there to be made; while like others I appreciate the stories about Aquino’s habitual kindness, I do not think this is where the real story lies—because for many people President Duterte is also courteous and compassionate in person. The real difference is in their approach to governance, which explains the different results.
Reason for grievance, rumblings of disunity. Aquino’s death has also driven an old wedge back into the left/center coalition which, for now, represents the political opposition. Memories of how the National Democratic left demonized Aquino, contrasted with their early embrace of President Duterte, has slowed the already sluggish drive for opposition unity. The irrepressible Lourd de Veyra gave a sharp edge to the issue, when he appropriated the insult the left used to caricature Aquino, “Noynoying,” and redefined it to mean something altogether positive, honorable, extraordinary.
Search for the true legacy-bearer. The explosion of goodwill and the rediscovery of the abiding good that the Aquino political tradition has done immediately prompted a search for the right person to carry on Noynoy Aquino’s legacy. Dean Mel Sta. Maria started an online ruckus when he urged Aquino’s celebrity sister Kris to run for office (you can read my thoughts on that in “Thanks, Kris, but are you sure you want it?,” which I wrote way back in 2009). But there is a worthy Aquino to pass the baton to: ex-senator Bam Aquino. And there is a worthy candidate for president to carry the torch: Robredo.
But there have been other disturbances in the force. Let me discuss them online, at johnnery.wordpress.com.