Why Mar should run
As I write this, on Monday afternoon, I hear the first reports that Mar Roxas is ending his semiretirement to run for the Senate. This is good news not only for the opposition and the Liberal Party, the party whose standard he carried when he contested the presidency in 2016, but also and even for the diehard supporters of the man who won that contest, President Duterte. Assuming, that is, that the DDS factions want a true test of their principal’s mandate midway through his tumultuous term.
It is good for the Liberals — the party that Roxas’ grandfather Manuel helped found in 1946, the same party his father Gerardo represented when he topped the Senate elections in 1963 — because the former senator and former congressman who served in the Cabinet of three presidents brings many advantages to the race.
It isn’t only his family’s great wealth; there is the national infrastructure he had built in 2004, when he ran for the Senate for the first time and became the first candidate to legitimately win over 18 million votes. (His final tally was 19.3 million votes, the first time a politician surpassed Ferdinand Marcos’ suspect record of 18.3 million votes in the sham 1981 presidential election.) That infrastructure was there to help him for the 2010 elections; he expanded it when he ran in 2016.
Very few people may remember that he put this infrastructure at the immediate disposal of his Senate colleague Noynoy Aquino, in 2009 and early in 2010, when his friend decided to accept the presidential draft that overwhelmed the political class in the wake of Cory Aquino’s death. This was a signal act of generosity on his part; it was written off at the time as the calculated gesture of a politician whose ratings were in inevitable decline.
But that reading was not only uncharitable; it was inaccurate. Philippine political history is littered with examples of rival politicians refusing to give way to the inevitable. Roxas did not need to do what he did.
He also did not need to stay in the Aquino Cabinet in 2013; he should have oiled the gears of his election machinery in the midterm elections and created some distance, not between friends (by all accounts, Aquino and Roxas had continued the famous friendship between their fathers), but between incumbent president and prospective presidential candidate. But again he stayed, and that act of loyalty, of commitment to the Aquino program, may have ended up costing him down the road.
To his national infrastructure of support, then, add another advantage: The loyalty and commitment of Aquino’s supporters, who should honor their principal’s many political debts.
There is yet another advantage: Roxas is a policy expert. We may not always agree with his policy positions (I had my own misgivings over the position he staked out when the controversy over the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain erupted), but he is the polar opposite of President Duterte when it comes to policy questions. He knows his stuff. This reputation for earnest wonkiness was ridiculed by the Duterte campaign’s
relentless social media operation; in contrast, Mayor Duterte offered slogans (“change”), timetables (“3-6 months”), vivid images
(“jet ski”). The contrast then was startling. Three years since, and the contrast is damning — to Mr. Duterte.
With hardly a word since the 2016 elections, Roxas has all but disappeared from the political scene — and yet he continues to poll well. One more advantage which can benefit the entire opposition, then: Despite his absence, he remains very much a presence, an option, for Filipino voters.
But Roxas’ candidacy is good for the Duterte regime, too. I do not mean to suggest that without him, the 2019 midterms would lack legitimacy. Far from it. And yet I share the sense of many who see in Roxas’ return a reckoning with Mr. Duterte’s brand of politics. This is not to disrespect or demean the courage of opposition politicians who have taken the fight to Mr. Duterte; Roxas himself has been a constant source of support for Sen. Leila de Lima, for instance.
Roxas, however, was painted by the Duterte campaign in 2016 as the anti-Duterte: too decent, too rich, too technocratic, too soft; not enough knowledge about the real world, not enough guts to confront crime and corruption, not enough grit. Wouldn’t the DDS factions welcome a second and final opportunity to validate this caricature—and their own self-image, too?
I am reminded of yet another advantage that Roxas now enjoys. He has been out of power; he has spent years in the wilderness. If this experience has changed him, if it has brought him closer to the everyday ordinariness of the common citizen, he would bring something to the Senate that President Duterte’s many entitled candidates lack: out of humiliation, a more grounded sense of service.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: [email protected]
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