Leni’s path to the presidency
The expected is happening. Last week, presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte finally revealed that she is “open” to running for her father’s post next year, setting the stage for the first prospective dynastic succession in Malacañang via the ballot box.
“What is important now is that we know the sentiments of the people and what they really want,” said Sara in Bisaya, during a recent visit to Cebu, where “Run, Sara, Run” tarpaulins graced her vista.
Surely, the Davao mayor has all the reasons to entertain this tantalizing prospect, given her lead in preelection surveys, the expected support and machinery of the popular incumbent, as well as her “Solid South” base across Mindanao.
But is there any path to the presidency for the de facto leader of liberal opposition, Vice President Leni Robredo?
One can easily understand the VP’s hesitancy. Neither her survey numbers nor her organizational heft are anywhere close to that of the incumbent’s favorites. The politics of guilt-by-association also means that Leni carries the impossible burden of having to defend decades of the liberal-reformist politics that has lost its luster among large numbers of voters.
As I have discussed in earlier essays, charismatic centrists from Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso to Sen. Grace Poe, and, now, Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao are also formidable contenders for the top office.
Thus, the path to the presidency may look increasingly narrow, if not impossible, for any opposition candidate.
In his latest book “Democracy Rules,” the world’s leading expert on populism, Jan-Werner Müller, stresses the importance of uncertainty in democratic politics. What tyrants try to eliminate, Müller argues, is not only our freedoms and liberty, but also the element of “uncertainty.”
What truly democratic elections offer us is what political scientist Adam Przeworski aptly termed as “organized uncertainty”—the reasonable chance that the incumbent’s favorites will lose to the opposition. Otherwise, elections are nothing but orchestrated rituals for legitimizing an authoritarian regime.
The truth is, ours has never been a truly “mature” democracy, given the fragility of our state institutions. But Philippine elections are by nature singularly indeterminate for three reasons.
First, you only need to win the greatest plurality to become the next president. Former president Fidel Ramos accomplished this with less than 24 percent of the votes.
Second, given the lamentable lack of genuine mainstream political parties, our fiesta-like elections can easily get overcrowded, thus injecting all sorts of curveballs into the race.
Third, the past decade has shown us that a strong narrative and unexpected drama can easily trump organizational heft and resources in the crucial phases of an electoral campaign. Neither the late Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III nor Rodrigo Duterte were early favorites ahead of their fateful ascent to power.
Against this backdrop of structural uncertainty, it would be foolish to dismiss Leni’s prospects in next year’s elections. Lest we forget, she was an even bigger underdog during her run for the vice presidency.
For Leni, any path to the presidency would require three crucial elements to come together.
First, multiple pro-incumbent candidates would have to run if the opposition has any chance of mustering a decisive plurality of votes under current circumstances.
Second, it’s absolutely crucial, as the late Noynoy put it, for the opposition to remember what it’s fighting for, not only what it is against. This means, Leni should put forward a constructive and fresh narrative that emphasizes both freedoms and competent leadership, especially amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic mismanagement.
Lastly, she will have to pick a charismatic running mate who will not only serve as a force multiplier, but also deepen nationwide grassroots movements for genuine democracy, which will extend well beyond the 2022 elections. After all, this is an intergenerational struggle, no matter who will occupy Malacañang next year.
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