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The opposition’s narrow, viable path

/ 04:00 AM May 25, 2021

I argued last week that Vice President Leni Robredo “has a narrow but viable path to the presidential palace—if she wants it.” I believe that way forward also applies to the possible presidential candidacy of Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon. Allow me to trace the outline of that path.

As the Danish saying goes, it is, of course, difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But in August and September 2015 I tried to discern the “path to victory” of four potential presidential candidates: Mar Roxas, Jojo Binay, Grace Poe, and Rody Duterte. The columns were attempts not so much at reading omens as analyzing factors that could spell victory in the May 2016 vote.

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The following factors help define that narrow but viable path in 2022:

1. It looks likely that it will be a four- or five-person race for the presidency next year. Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte seems to me to be genuinely reluctant to run, but her father’s need for post-presidency protection will force her to declare her candidacy. Both Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Sen. Manny Pacquiao are riding high in the surveys, with no guarantee that their ratings will persist until the next presidential election in 2028. Former senator Bongbong Marcos is also doing well in the surveys, despite his loss in the vice presidential contest in 2016 and the defeat of his electoral protest. Whether the scenario is a replay of 1992 (crowded field and a very close contest) or 2016 (crowded but a clear landslide win), a race with at least four viable candidates is favorable to Robredo or Drilon or indeed to anyone running as opposition standard-bearer.

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(Favorable, but of course not a guarantee.)

2. The choice of running mate will be crucial; as I have argued more than once, “the vice presidency is subtraction.” As Gloria Arroyo best demonstrated in 2004 when she allied with Noli de Castro, choosing a vice presidential candidate is a tactical decision to remove—that is, subtract—a formidable rival for the presidency from the presidential contest.

Robredo’s path would include the necessary step of aligning with either Sen. Grace Poe, who is also doing well in the polls, or Moreno.

(I will write a companion piece, analyzing self-defeating characteristics of today’s opposition; it will include the belief, held strongly by some, that an opposition candidate can somehow win without the support of Poe’s 2016 voters. This is utter nonsense. As for Moreno, 1Sambayan has included him in their circle of potential presidential candidates, and whether anti-Duterte groups see him as genuinely oppositionist or not, his name will be up for consideration.)

3. Equally crucial is the decision to declare early. The narrow path to victory starts much earlier than July, which is when 1Sambayan expects to come to a consensus on a common candidate, or October, which is when the certificates of candidacy must be filed. Declaring for the presidency is no mere ritual; it resolves doubts and reduces skepticism about Robredo’s candidacy or her commitment to the difficult task, and it permits her supporters and allies to organize in earnest; her strategists to test and hone messaging; and her prospective campaign donors to start donating. I may be wrong, but I think that part of the reason Sara, Isko, and Manny, and even Bongbong, rate well in presidential preferences surveys is public perception that they are ambitious enough to risk an actual run. To sum up the point with a paradox: Their plans are still indefinite, but not ambiguous.

4. The most important part of the path forward is forging a formidable Senate slate. Only a few personalities have the stature to convene a political assembly that will be able to select a full Senate slate of major candidates representing all of the opposition; only three in my view, namely Robredo, Drilon, and former justice Antonio Carpio. Robredo is the incumbent Vice President, who started the 2016 campaign at 1 percent and went on to gain 14 million votes, who defeated Marcos twice, at the polls and at the electoral tribunal; Drilon is the first sitting Senate president to top the Senate elections (in 2016), with 18 million votes, and whose leadership has transformed Iloilo into a true template for the rest of the country; Carpio is the legal luminary who defended Philippine rights to the West Philippine Sea. Only they would have the clout to attract another rainbow coalition.

5. Another important milestone in that path is the forging of alliances with key local government officials. Robredo’s experience in 2016 offers a vital lesson: She lost Metro Manila to Marcos, but the margins were tight. Her strong alliances with National Capital Region personalities, such as the Belmontes in Quezon City, helped keep the vote in Metro Manila close. Most of the provinces in Mindanao would be lost to Sara or to Pacquiao in 2022 (Moreno has never polled well in Mindanao), but Western and Central Visayas, the Bicol Region, Central Luzon, and NCR are within the opposition’s reach.

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6. At the Media and Politics Forum my class hosted last Friday, former senator Sonny Trillanes had occasion to speak of “true believers,” who in his view made him win in his first and improbable run for the Senate, in 2007. He was detained at that time, and he was allowed by the courts to entertain media interviews only in the second month of the 90-day campaign, but in his view, that exposure gave his true believers something to capitalize on, and brought him victory. This make-or-break quality of a political campaign is a true milestone in the path to victory, and it starts at the top. Robredo, or Drilon, must be true believers in the opposition’s presidential prospects, too.

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

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