Isko vs Leni: The ghost of 2016 elections
Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” advised the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. This must largely explain the relative silence from the Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. camp in recent days. From all indications, the scion of the former Filipino strongman is quickly consolidating his position as the candidate of continuity and restoration, deftly mobilizing countless supporters on the right side of the political spectrum across the country.
Based on the latest authoritative surveys, Marcos can count on a greater “solid north” support base, which now extends across the entire island of Luzon. He is already the leading candidate in the National Capital Region and Balanced Luzon, while statistically tied at first, along with Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, as the most preferred candidate of the Filipino middle and upper classes (i.e., the ABC demographic).
With momentum on his side, Marcos is now calling on the incumbent to rally behind his candidacy, rather than try to pull off a “substitution” candidate dud next month. “We’re the only ones left on the administration side,” declared a self-assured Marcos earlier this month, directly calling on Duterte supporters to join his bandwagon.
Openly describing himself as a “Duterte supporter,” Marcos Jr. emphasized that “alliances are supremely important” and underscored the need to “strengthen them … to the maximum effect” this coming elections. In short, Marcos is calling on any of President Duterte’s anointed successors, either Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte or Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, to be his de facto vice presidential mate.
While politically understandable, the recent spat between the camps of Moreno and Vice President Leni Robredo is an eerily familiar scenario, which clearly benefits the candidate of authoritarian nostalgia. Haven’t we learned the lessons of the not-so-distant past?
This is it: The Marcoses are all in. And surely former first lady Imelda Marcos, now at 92 years of age, is looking forward to having her moment of vindication in Malacañang. The Marcoses have been waiting for this moment for more than three decades; they’re in no mood to let go of this golden opportunity.
All Marcos Jr. needs to do is to win the largest plurality of votes in our bizarrely frugal single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system. If current trends continue, the Duterte presidency may simply end up as a dramatic prelude to a full Marcosian restoration.
And this brings us to the ghost of the 2016 elections, when a devastatingly divided opposition handed the presidency to Rodrigo Duterte, who won only 39 percent of total votes. Between themselves, Sen. Grace Poe and former senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas won more than 19 million votes, several millions more than their populist rival.
Had the former reformist administration fielded, then fully backed, a single candidate capable of reaching out to large sections of voters, Mr. Duterte would have been forced to consider real retirement back in 2016. Instead, what we got was bitter rivalry between the Roxas and Poe camps—singularly toxic divisions that echo until this day.
In the 2019 elections, once again progressive and opposition forces failed to mobilize a united front, not even a joint Senate slate, thus effectively handing the legislature to Duterte loyalists. Mind you, the whole point of the “united opposition” movement, led by 1Sambayan, was to prevent the repetition of the 2016 debacle for liberal democratic forces in the country.
And yet, what do we get ahead of next year’s elections? Salty exchanges among opposition candidates, who, just weeks earlier, were supposed to form a unity ticket.
Sure, Isko is no liberal democrat. His recent neo-populist outbursts have not been beacons of rhetorical elegance. But the youthful mayor has shown far more progressive tendencies, from his public opposition against extrajudicial killings to his socialized housing initiative in Manila, than some of those traditional politicians who were recently added to the “real opposition” Senate slate.
If Mr. Duterte’s rivals are going to allow what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” to poison prospects of a united front anew, then everyone should prepare for the full blossoming of authoritarian nostalgia in this country. In fairness, Robredo’s wise decision to remain a “gentleman” and not further escalate tensions shows how the lessons of the recent past can still be learned.
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