On Distant Shore – Of coalitions and chameleons

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By Val G Abelgas

Senatorial elections in the Philippines used to be so simple.Eight senators were elected every two years with the two major parties – Nacionalista Party and Liberal Party – fielding eight candidates each, and a few others run as either independents or as representatives of minor parties, such as Lorenzo Tanada’s Nationalist Citizens Party or Raul Manglapus’ Progressive Party of the Philippines. 

It was much simpler before 1951 when block voting was still in place wherein voters could just write Nacionalista or Liberal and all the members of the party’s Senate slate get one vote each.

In any given Congress, there were no more than two senators who were not members of the two major parties. And most senators stayed with their parties almost throughout their political lives. One notable exception was then Senate President Ferdinand Marcos, who bolted the Liberal Party and joined the Nacionalista Party to run for president against incumbent President Diosdado Macapagalin the 1965 elections. 

With the effective elimination of the two-party system in the 1987 Constitution, senatorial elections, especially when they coincide with the presidential elections, have become chaotic exercises that have candidates from different parties running under multiple coalitions.

While senatorial elections have always been a magnet for all sorts of people filing their certificates of candidacy, the ones held under the 1987 Constitutions attracted more candidates and more coalitions, especially when they coincided with the presidential elections.

The 2016 senatorial elections, held simultaneously with the presidential elections, attracted 50 candidates running under four coalitions and a few independent candidates. 

The administration coalition Koalisyon ng Daang Matuwidgot seven seats – five Liberals (Franklin Drilon, Joel Villanueva, Francis Pangilinan, Ralph Recto and Leila de Lima), one Independent (Ping Lacson), and one Akbayan(Risa Hontiveros). The opposition coalition PartidongGaling at Puso won two seats (Richard Gordon-Independent) and Win Gatchalian (Nacionalista); and the United Nationalist Alliance garnered three seats (Tito Sotto-NPC, Jose Miguel Zubiri-Independent, and Manny Pacquiao).

In the 2019 mid-term elections, there were four coalitions, the administration Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) and the opposition coalitions Otso Diretso, United Nationalist Alliance and Labor Win Alliance. The HNP coalition won nine out 12 seats up for grabs (Cynthia Villar-NP, Bong Go-PDP-Laban, Pia Cayetano-NP, Bato de la Rosa – PDP-Laban, Sonny Angara-LDP, Imee Marcos-NP, Francis Tolentino-PDP-Laban, Koko Pimentel-PDP-Laban, and Bong Revilla-Lakas).

Otso Diretso, composed of six Liberals, one Aksyon and one Independent, was completely shut down, with Bam Aquino placing 14th and Mar Roxas, 16th.

The three other seats were won by Grace Poe (Independent), Lito Lapid (NPC), and Nancy Binay, UNA.

In this coming May elections, at least 170 Filipinos filed their certificate of candidacy for the Senate elections, and there are now at least six coalitions – the Moreno-Ongticket (Aksyon Demokratiko), the Robredo-Pangilinanticket, the De la Rosa-Go (PDP-Laban) ticket, the De Guzman-Castillo ticket (Partido Lakas ng Masa), the Pacquiao-Atienza ticket (Promdi), the Lacson-Sotto ticket (Reforma). 

The Robredo-Pangilinan ticket (which may be identical to 1Sambayan’s line-up) alone has 11 candidates representing seven parties from across the political spectrum. The 12thslot could belong to a member of an eighth party, most probably Bayan Muna or a labor group. Liberal Party, which is headed by Vice President Leni Robredo as chairman and Sen. Francis Pangilinan as president, has only two members in the ticket.

The Lacson-Sotto ticket has representatives from four parties and three independents, with six coming from the Nationalist People’s Coalition, which is Sotto’s party. 

The Pacquiao-Atienza ticket has candidates from five parties and three independents.

Four incumbent senators – Chiz Escudero, Migs Zubiri, Joel Villanueva and Dick Gordon are members of all three slates, while former Vice President Jojo Binay, former Sen. Loren Legarda and Sen. Win Gatchalian are in both the Robredo and Lacson tickets.

The De la Rosa-Go, Moreno-Ong and De Guzman-Castillo tickets have yet to complete their slates, and are almost certain to share some candidates from the three other coalitions.

Lost in all these “unity” coalition senatorial slates are clear-cut issues and agendas that used to define the electoral battles before the declaration of martial law in 1972. The members of the three coalitions that had announced their Senate slates represent opposing stands on many issues that affect the country and the people. There are progressives, moderates, rightists mixed in almost all three coalitions.

It is apparent that the choice of senatorial candidates and running mates is no longer based on their political beliefs or on their performance, but on the “winnability” of certain candidates and on what they can contribute to the overall objective of winning the presidency.

In the pre-1972 elections, the two major political parties chose their candidates, with the administration party fielding the sitting president in what is called the “equity of the incumbent” and if the president is not running for reelection, usually the next highest-ranking party member is chosen as the official presidential candidate in a convention. The opposition party holds its own convention where its official candidates are chosen.

It was much easier for the voters to decide whom to vote. If the party in power performed well during the president’s term, they reelected the president or the ruling party’s candidate. If they were not satisfied with the incumbent’s performance, they elected the opposition candidate.

Of course, there were voters who would cast their ballots blindly because of cash or consideration they got on Election Day. But generally, elections were won on performance or promise of performance.

The lack of clear-cut definition among the coalitions has resulted in the election of popular rather than competent officials, the rise of opportunists, and the emergence of political chameleons, politicians who change party affiliations for political exigency, in the same manner chameleons change their color to match the color of the background.

The instability of these political coalitions reflects, and contributes to, the instability of the country’s political system. Because these parties were formed primarily for the vested interests of its founders and leaders, they are devoid of ideology and platform of government. The parties change stands on issues, and shift loyalties as often as political exigency demands. 

Because they are based on the self-serving agenda of the leaders, parties tend to change platforms depending on what can win them votes at the time, or what can be advantageous to their own objectives. The needs of the people that they are supposed to serve are often overlooked. And because the members join the parties not because of the party’s ideals and principles, there is no loyalty on their part and they become political butterflies, moving from one party to another in the same manner that parties move from one coalition to another. 

To paraphrase the late President Manuel L. Quezon, who said “My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins,” these political chameleons say “My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to myself begins.”

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