Our political party system is flabby, almost irrelevant.
Political parties are a mere supplement to the fluid alliances of dynastic families serving as the main political machine for churning out votes in national elections.
At the local level, the clan of the moment can secure for the family the posts of governor, mayor and congressperson, not to mention slots in the provincial board and city and municipal councils. Significant numbers of the votes pulled by the clan add to the numbers of its allied presidential candidate. In turn, votes in favor of the latter buttress the clan’s support base.
The mutually beneficial alliance produces the multiplier effect because our first-past-the-post system relies entirely on “the politics of addition.” We are nowhere near building solid political parties with programmatic differences and organizational integrity. In the trail of the May 2022 elections, the Philippine political party system is not only in shambles, it’s also a sham.
Splintered ruling party
Consider the PDP-Laban, the supposed ruling party. Splintered by President Duterte’s loyalists pushing for a Duterte-allied presidential contender, it ended up with no candidates for the top two posts of the land. It was the first time since independence that a ruling party, with all the advantages of the incumbent, defaulted on the presidential race.
Not that the PDP-Laban didn’t try. First, the faction led by Mr. Duterte’s Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi power-grabbed the party leadership from its erstwhile president, Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who was interested in the presidency. Then it proclaimed Sen. Bong Go its standard-bearer, with President Duterte as his running mate. With Davao Mayor Sara Duterte dodging the run for the top post, the clique at the last minute pathetically teamed Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa with Go.
Rather like wet chicks, the two men expectedly quit the race when Sara Duterte agreed to become Ferdinand “BBM” Marcos Jr.’s running mate. Deciding to run under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Lakas-CMD, Mayor Duterte dropped her own party, the Hugpong ng Pagbabago, which she founded and now again leads. Pacquiao, in turn, ran as standard-bearer of Promdi, the pro-devolution party founded by former Cebu governor Lito Osmena in 1997.
Thus, the ruling party became an unruly party, hardly expected to have a significant clout in the 19th Congress.
One would think that Marcos Jr. would use the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) as his political vehicle. After all, he used the “Bagong Lipunan” song as his campaign jingle, and much of his campaign referenced the KBL era. Instead, he ran under the three-year-old Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP) -– even if he never articulated his agenda for federalism before or during the campaign, or even now after the elections.
Prior to the PFP, Marcos Jr. was a flag bearer of his father’s pre-martial law Nacionalista Party (NP), which is now in the hands of the Villar family. But in 2016, the NP failed to agree on its vice-presidential candidate. Thus, erstwhile party mates — Antonio Trillanes IV, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Marcos Jr. — ran as independents. The PFP set up by Duterte supporters pushing for federalism was the handy vehicle that just happened to be there.
Leni as independent
Vice President Leni Robredo, the president of the Liberal Party (LP), chose to seek the presidency as an independent candidate although she was clearly the LP’s choice and her running mate, Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, has been a leading light of the party since he joined it in 2001.
The strategy was intended to broaden the tandem’s reach beyond the LP’s clout. As it happened, despite being the ruling party before 2016, the LP has considerably shrunk in the course of the usual post-election stampede of most elected officials to the new ruling party.
Bolstered by the 1Sambayan network and many other civil society organizations that gravitated around the Leni-Kiko team, the strategy produced the biggest election-related mobilizations ever. Attendance at the Leni-Kiko “miting de avance” in Makati City peaked to a million people on the ground and online. Even the popular runs for the presidency of Noynoy Aquino in 2010 and Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 did not witness such a scale of public gatherings.
However, we see now that the Marcos Jr.-Duterte alliance produced a broader base and eventually stacked the votes in their favor.
Such a North-South teamup of the top two candidates was the standard “magic formula” in the immediate postwar-election era. Intended to draw the provincial loyalty bases of the dynastic clans, it lost its currency during martial law when a single party, the KBL, held court. And while some geographic spread was still achieved in subsequent teamups, the 1992 and 1998 elections saw presidential and vice-presidential contenders paired along party lines.
Party-based slates began to gradually unravel in the 2004 elections, although the LP, which rejoined the presidential race in 1998, still tried to stick to party-based tandems until 2016. In the May 2022 elections, slates and parties were jumbled up following no rhyme or reason except for the politics of addition.
The travails of political parties didn’t end when the standard-bearers were fielded. Rather, we saw in striking numbers party members abandoning their candidates.
A faction of Aksyon Demokratiko withdrew its support for its standard-bearer, Mayor Isko Moreno, for supposedly failing to embody the ideals of the party’s founder, the late Sen. Raul Roco, and shifted to Robredo. Similarly, some members of Marcos Jr.’s party went for Moreno, and later to Robredo.
Worse, the Partido Demokratikong Reporma dropped Sen. Ping Lacson as its standard-bearer and shifted its allegiance to Robredo. Despite Sen. Tito Sotto’s teamup with Lacson, his Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) did not endorse Lacson. Sotto himself lost ground when many of his party mates went to Marcos Jr.-Duterte’s UniTeam. Lacson ended up running as an independent, and Sotto became a poor third-placer in the vice-presidential race.
Do these party betrayals cause bitterness among politicians? But who among them is not without sin? In a typical post-1986 scenario, a politician would have shifted parties at least twice.
Winner takes all
What now for these parties under a Marcos Jr. and PFP presidency?
It’s certain that both the decimated LP and PDP-Laban will be in a hard place. The PDP-Laban, NPC and NP will still have their senators and representatives, although a mass swearing-in into the ruling party among members of both chambers can be anticipated. Together with whatever will be left of Arroyo’s Lakas-CMD, the Dutertes’ Hugpong ng Pagbabago, Danding Cojuangco’s NPC and the Villars’ NP, it will practically be a monolithic Congress.
In the Philippines’ highly contested elections and bastardized party system, the president-elect is the winner who takes all — at least until the cracks within these temporary alliances begin to show, and the nation gears for another election.
That any of the politicians will undertake serious efforts to build sustainable parties with clear programs, memberships and selection procedures is not expected. Turncoatism, dime-a-dozen and short-lived parties, and fluid unholy alliances shall remain the name of the game until serious checks are put on opportunistic behavior and clans are whipped in line through an antidynasty law that would force them to build strength along party lines.
Can the planned nongovernment organization, Angat Buhay, which is aimed at harnessing the energy and solidarity of the 14 million people who voted for Robredo, become an actual mass-based political party? It will be a task wholly different from running civil society NGOs and networks. But it is what is needed to avert the downward slide of Philippine democratic institutions and to translate civic power into a firm electoral base.