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Can the opposition win the Senate?

/ 04:03 AM May 11, 2021

If the elections were held today, the answer would be a clear No. The latest available election preference numbers, the Pulse Asia survey conducted between Feb. 22 and March 3, 2021, show that only two, or perhaps three, among the 15 candidates with a statistical chance of winning could be classified as opposition—if the elections were held last February or March.

That would be former vice president Jojo Binay and Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, who rank 14th and 15th. The “perhaps” applies to Sen. Ping Lacson, ranked 9th; he is nominally with the Duterte political coalition, but has been increasingly critical of administration policies.

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But the elections are a year away. Could opposition candidates win a majority of the 12 Senate seats at stake? The answer is a definite Maybe, It Depends.

Only three senators are term-limited from running for reelection in 2022: Senate President Tito Sotto, Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon, and Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto. The 12 senators who won election or were reelected in 2019 will be holdovers, of course; a few of them may run for higher office, with the privilege of returning to their seats in the event they lose. They are: Senators Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, Bong Go, Pia Cayetano, Bato dela Rosa, Sonny Angara, Lito Lapid, Imee Marcos, Francis Tolentino, Koko Pimentel, Bong Revilla, and Nancy Binay. At least two, Poe and President Duterte’s ubiquitous aide, Go, are being courted by political parties or factions to run for president or vice president.

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That leaves nine reelectionists. In the order in which they won in 2016: Senators Joel Villanueva, Lacson, Richard Gordon, Migz Zubiri, Manny Pacquiao, Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, Sherwin Gatchalian, and Leila de Lima.

In the order of their latest Pulse Asia ranking, however, only five of the nine are in the Top 15: Pacquiao (1), Lacson (9), Zubiri (10), Gatchalian (13), and Pangilinan (15). The other four trail behind: Gordon (16), Hontiveros (17), and then, staggeringly, Villanueva (24), and De Lima (40).

Who are the others in the Top 15? Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who lost his first run for the Senate in 2016; broadcaster Raffy Tulfo; Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte; former senators Chiz Escudero, Loren Legarda, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Bongbong Marcos; entertainer Willie Revillame; former senator Jinggoy Estrada, who lost his Senate bid just two years ago; and former vice president Binay, who I understand was not even considering a run for national office at all.

Bleak numbers for the opposition, then — if the elections were held last February or March.

But even with a year out, the prospects for the opposition are not too bright. The obstacles aren’t insurmountable, but they are formidable.

POPULARITY RULES. Most of the names in the Top 15 are familiar ones; the residual goodwill for famous family names is considerable. For instance, I did not expect to see Escudero and Legarda, who have busied themselves the last two years with local government, doing so well, but I am not surprised. Even the stain of defeat has not dimmed the appeal of Marcos and Estrada. A year from the elections, the Senate preferences list looks like proof, yet again, of the basic value of popularity. The Pulse Asia finding that 62 percent of respondents already had a full slate of 12 Senate candidates to vote for, 15 months before election day, helps explain why popularity rules; many of us vote out of habit, for names we have voted for before.

DEMONIZATION DESTROYS. The fact that opposition candidates are, as a whole, not faring well, must be a function, in part, of the aggressive, hostile anti-opposition climate created by the Duterte coalition. De Lima had 14 million voters in 2016; if we have a pool of 50 million voters, the latest Pulse Asia survey suggests less than 2.5 million will vote for her next year. To those who understand the great sacrifice De Lima has willingly undertaken, on behalf of the people, this is dismal stuff. The effects of Mr. Duterte’s demonization of De Lima are real. Another former senator who has stood fast with the people, Sonny Trillanes, ranks 30th.

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DIFFIDENCE KILLS. The opposition’s modest, let’s-wait-for-the-right-time-to-talk-politics approach to the 2022 elections is damaging its prospects. In the first place, it reinforces the mistaken belief that politics is dirty and must be dealt with only at arm’s length, instead of the reality that, in Pope Francis’ words, politics is “one of the highest forms of charity.” We need the opposition candidates (for whatever position) to be happy warriors, who embrace politics because it remains the best way to serve the public. Secondly, diffidence equals delay. The opposition should be airing advertisements today, seeding memes and narratives on social media today, working with partners to put up billboards today, forming volunteer groups today. None of this is illegal; and when the stakes are so high, all of these can be justified as a moral response.

ALLIES, AND ALLIANCES, WIN. The opposition also suffers from the lack, not of leadership, but of a unified approach to the elections. As early as today, the opposition must begin putting its complete Senate slate together. Perhaps Pangilinan, Hontiveros, and De Lima as reelectionists, joined by former senators Trillanes and Bam Aquino and former candidate Dean Chel Diokno, who did well in 2019. Then ally with Binay, Lacson, Villanueva, Escudero, Legarda, and maybe Vilma Santos Recto. Add names as necessary. Purity politics is a recipe for certain defeat.

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

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TAGS: 2022 senatorial election, John Nery, Newsstand, opposition, Senate
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