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What’s next for the Senate opposition?

/ 05:07 AM May 14, 2019

(This column was written a few hours before the polls closed.)

A week is a long time in politics. It is possible that the dynamics of the senatorial race would have changed substantially since the May 3-6 Pulse Asia survey was taken, that an opposition candidate like Chel Diokno or Neri Colmenares or a surging Romy Macalintal would have pulled off a surprise, but the odds are that the cast of the May 13, 2019 senatorial elections has already been set.

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Part of the reason that scientific election surveys have been largely accurate is that most people do not bother about them. They do not influence voter behavior in significant ways (though they do impact on donor behavior). Call it the paradox of the limited influencer. Surveys are accurate and therefore influential on the aggregate precisely because they do not influence voters in the particular.

I share the view that the first eight positions are already accounted for (and perhaps there is a connection to the survey finding that many voters had already made up their minds to vote for an average of eight candidates). We are looking at the reelection of Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe and Sonny Angara, the return to the Senate of Pia Cayetano, Bong Revilla and Lito Lapid, and the election of Duterte yes-men Bong Go and Bato dela Rosa.

The last four seats will be contested by seven candidates: Imee Marcos, Nancy Binay, Koko Pimentel, JV Ejercito, Jinggoy Estrada, Bam Aquino and Francis Tolentino.

The best-case scenario for the opposition, then, looks like Aquino’s reelection.

If that materializes, the members of the minority in the Senate will number five, with Frank Drilon, Kiko Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros and Leila de Lima—who can file legislation, but cannot take part in debates or cast a vote.

If Aquino falls short, we are looking at just the four minority senators elected in 2016—well short of the number needed to stop the possible impeachment of Vice President Leni Robredo, the possible railroading of a new constitution through a constituent assembly, or even the expulsion of De Lima from the Senate.

This suggests that the work of the opposition in the Senate is cut out for it:

Drilon must lead the minority to distinguish between those senators who will follow the President no matter what—the Fabian Vers of the Duterte Senate, who when the President tells them to jump, will respond by asking how high: Go, Dela Rosa, Pacquiao, Revilla, Lapid—from the Fidel Ramoses, professionals who though allied with the President will seek to do right by their institution.

There were enough of these senators when the administration sought to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who could not be stampeded into a conviction, that the administration changed tack and went down the (patently unconstitutional) quo warranto route.

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It would be a mistake to read the super-majority as a monolith—especially considering that the President’s approach to governance is faction-based. In the same way that, according to his former close police aide Arthur Lascañas, he used to encourage different parts of the Davao Death Squad to outdo each other, with bonuses at stake, he treats many government functions as a free-for-all, regulated only by incentives.

The minority then must continue to work with the majority; the examples of Ping Lacson endorsing Bam Aquino and Drilon endorsing Sonny Angara point to an underlying dynamic in the Senate—many of these senators respect each other, and rely on one another to advance favored legislation.

De Lima, specifically, must build her alliances in the chamber, working with like-minded senators on legislative matters of mutual concern. This will help her get a better sense of what senators like Joel Villanueva and Migz Zubiri are dealing with, and at the same time allow them to see up close the institutional injustice, the diminishing of the Senate, that her continuing detention on made-up charges have wrought.

All this will be quite difficult to pull off, especially considering the purist politics that animate many of the minority senators’ supporters. But in the face of a massive sweep at the polls, the next step for the Senate opposition seems clear: It must creatively redefine who the minority members are, and what the work of the minority is.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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