His spokesperson had announced that he was going to be present. But because he was campaigning in the provinces and could not catch a flight to the National Capital Region on time, boxer-cum Senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao failed to get into the act.
It was just as well. His supporters thanked their lucky stars for his non-attendance. The backlash in much of social and other media against that Easter Sunday (April 17) joint press conference at the Peninsula Manila hotel was enough to further shrink the already slim to zero chances of Pacquiao’s fellow candidates — Mayor “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, Senator Panfilo Lacson, and former Arroyo regime Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales — of winning the Presidency.
To start things off during that sorry event, Domagoso read a statement declaring the quartet’s (Pacquiao was meant to be a signatory to it) supposed commitment to putting the citizenry first in the government agenda. The statement also included a pledge of unity and a condemnation of “political bickering.” It echoed Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s declarations about the need for a “unifying leader” and for “moving on” from condemning his father’s 14-year dictatorship. It also pointedly excluded Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, suggesting thereby that all four would unite against her, to the benefit of — who else? — Marcos Junior.
What later transpired created more dissension rather than less even among Domagoso, Lacson, Pacquiao, and Gonzales. Lacson distanced himself from Domagoso’s call for Vice-President Robredo to withdraw her candidacy, as did Pacquiao, while Gonzales apologized to the Vice-President for his seeming agreement with that demand.
But neither Lacson nor Gonzales had protested Domagoso’s call during the event itself. Only when outrage over it had escalated did Lacson and Gonzales claim non-agreement with it. If that event did achieve something, it was those three gentlemen’s encouraging the suspicion that they are among the cast of characters, the dramatis personae, in the Confusing the Electorate, Part 2 political drama.
At the core of that play is the intent to divide opposition votes by fielding candidates pretending to be “oppositionists.” It would replicate, though with some revision, what happened in 2016. Out of five candidates for President then, of which four were perceived to be opposed to the outgoing administration, Rodrigo Duterte prevailed by winning a mere 32% of the votes.
That ploy has worked so well that even some supposedly more discerning groups have bought into it. The non-government organization Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), for example, identified in one of its policy papers Domagoso, Lacson, and Pacquiao together with VP Robredo and labor leader Leodegario “Ka Leody” de Guzman as opposition candidates.
CenPEG apparently assumed that any candidate other than Mr. Duterte’s own, and who promises what they think various sectors want to hear, such as resuming peace talks between the Philippine Government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and adopting authentic land reform and a national industrialization program, merits that title. That assumption forgets that promising the moon and the stars is nearly every candidate’s stock in trade — Mr. Duterte himself promised much in 2016, but failed to deliver — and ignores their track records during the six years of the Duterte regime, which, in Domagoso’s, Lacson’s, Gonzales’, and Pacquiao’s case, consisted of unquestioning support for it.
The assumptions behind the CenPEG paper of what being in the opposition means glossed over the four’s role as Duterte regime enablers. It also limited the definition of it to merely running against regime candidates, and ignoring the imperative of any true oppositionist’s being pro-democracy and anti-dictatorship, which neither Domagoso, Lacson, and Gonzales, nor Pacquiao ever were.
Pacquiao, for example, is on record as justifying the thousands of “drug war”-related killings by saying that governments have the right to kill. He cited as proof the killing of Jesus Christ (!)— which, by the way, was not carried out by a legitimate government, but by the occupation army of imperial Rome. Lacson has been accused of human rights violations since his days as an active police officer, and was the principal author of the Duterte regime-instigated Anti-Terror Law, while Domagoso, whose his six-year silence implicitly supported the regime, has been asking Mr. Duterte to endorse his candidacy.
During their press conference, the trio present also claimed that VP Robredo’s supporters would protest a Marcos-Duterte win to the extent of “destabilizing” government. Right on cue did President Duterte threaten to arrest “trouble makers,” while the police announced that they would consult the three to get more information and prevent any such disturbance, which Marcos Junior later echoed. That script only added to the trio’s being widely perceived as front men of the very regime they have been pretending to oppose.
On the basis of their track records and pro-democracy stance, only VP Robredo and labor leader De Guzman merit the title of oppositionists. But only Robredo seems to be the more viable opposition candidate. The phenomenal surge in the number of people in her campaign sorties suggests that her chances of winning the Presidency are improving by the day. By demanding her withdrawal from the Presidential elections, despite — or more likely because of — that fact, all three present in the Easter Sunday press conference revealed the purpose behind the strategy that led them, despite their slim chances of winning the Presidency (evident in the low poll numbers of Moreno and Lacson, and Gonzales’ own zero) to run for the country’s highest elective post, and that is, to prevent a Robredo victory.
They persist in running, but both Moreno’s and Lacson’s support has been crumbling. One of the groups that asked Domagoso to run for the Presidency, Ikaw Muna, Pilipinas (You First, Philippines), has shifted its support to VP Robredo. Lacson’s own Partido para Demokratikong Reporma (Party for Democratic Reform) has done the same. But both persist in their futile candidacies despite the self-evident fact that any true oppositionist would, at this point, see the need to unite behind the candidate with the most chances of defeating the Marcos-Duterte partnership. Indicative of where their true sympathies lie is not only their persistence, but also Lacson’s and Moreno’s concentrating their attacks on VP Robredo while abandoning their demand that the Marcoses pay the government the P200 billion-plus in estate (inheritance) taxes they owe.
As defections to VP Robredo continue and she grows in strength, it has become more and more urgent for the regime and its surrogates and clones to focus on their real target in the May 9 elections. The Easter Sunday and other attacks by so-called oppositionists on VP Robredo were only the latest in a series assailing her for supposedly asking Moreno et. al. to withdraw, which the VP’s team has denied. The demand for unity against the Marcos-Duterte team has mostly come from some Robredo supporters, while Pacquiao’s Vice-Presidential running mate Lito Atienza has urged those 2022 Presidential candidates who are truly against authoritarian rule to form a “united front.”
The Easter Sunday Moreno-Lacson-Gonzales debacle is making it clear to anyone with at least a double-digit IQ who the true candidates of the opposition are, and, incidentally, who is succeeding in convincing the electorate that the right leaders are those who can competently address the many problems of the terrible present and lead this country to a hopeful future. It could be a major turning point in one of the most crucial Philippine elections in decades.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).