By Leandro Milan
Before the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in September 1972, there were only two dominant political parties that took turns at the helm of the state from the time the country gained independence, namely, the Nacionalista Party and the Liberal Party. Occasionally, a third force or independent candidate would challenge the stranglehold of the two giants but not one had succeeded in disturbing the two-party system in place.
Founded in 1907, Partido Nacionalista or Nacionalista Party (NP) is the oldest political party in the country. The Partido Liberal or Liberal Party (LP) was formed in 1946 by a breakaway group from the NP led by then Senate President Manuel Roxas. Nacionalista stalwarts who became presidents of the country were Manuel Quezon, Jose Laurel, Sergio Osmeña, Ramon Magsaysay, Carlos Garcia and Ferdinand Marcos. Philippine presidents from the LP camp included Roxas, Elpidio Quirino and Diosdado Macapagal. Marcos was LP president from 1961 to 1964; he joined NP and became its standard bearer in the 1965 presidential election when then President Macapagal, father of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, decided to run for a second term. Other notable LP leaders were former senators Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and Gerardo Roxas, whose respective sons – incumbent senators Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and Manuel “Mar” Araneta II – are now the party’s top bets in the May 10 election.
In the post-Marcos era, the multi-party system was introduced ostensibly to open up the electoral process to more groups and give the electorate a wider menu of choices. New political parties sprouted, and the LP and NP became inconsequential. In 1992, Fidel Ramos of the then newly-formed Lakas-NUCD party won over Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who ran under the fledgling People’s Reform Party. Another newcomer, Nationalist People’s Coalition, fielded businessman Eduardo Cojuangco, who came in third. In 1998, Joseph Estrada was swept into power through the combined effort of two small parties — his own Partido ng Masang Pilipino and his running mate Edgardo Angara’s Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP). In 2004, President Arroyo ran under the Lakas-NUCD banner, defeating Fernando Poe Jr., the standard bearer of the umbrella group Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino.
The comeback kids
During the past few years, however, there has been a gradual tectonic shift in the political landscape. Through the rebuilding efforts of a new generation of leaders, the dominant parties of pre-martial law era have posted significant strides in regaining their old glory. Senator Mar Roxas has taken over from the party’s sole remaining Old Guard, the venerable Jovito Salonga. On the Nacionalista side, former Vice President Salvador Laurel passed the baton to Senator Manuel Villar, who used his vast personal wealth and political savvy to turn the NP into what is now acknowledged as the most organized political machinery in the country. The LP and NP are back in their old form and if the results of the most recent nationwide surveys of the country’s leading pollsters (Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia) are an indication, the 2010 presidential race has become a three-man race among Aquino, Villar and Estrada.
True, the political landscape is still littered with post-Marcos parties and alliances – Lakas-Kampi, NPC, PMP, LDP, PDP-Laban, KBL, Aksyon Demokratiko, Ang Kapatiran, PRP, UNO. The two pro-administration parties – Lakas and Kampi – got even bigger and stronger (at least on paper) when they coalesced a few months ago. But the impending end of President Arroyo’s term and her negative popularity ratings have struck fear and anxiety among party members. The ruling party is fast disintegrating and could fill up only five slots for the 12-man senatorial slate.
Massive defections have rocked the ruling party in recent weeks and the biggest beneficiaries have been the LP and NP. The most notable Lakas defectors to the Liberal party are Quezon City Mayor Feliciano Belmonte, who used to senior vice president of Lakas; Misamis Occidental Governor Loreto Ocampos, president of the League of Provinces of the Philippines and a member of the ruling party’s national executive committee; ex-senator Ralph Recto, who only a year ago was in the Arroyo Cabinet; and Akbay Gov. Joey Salceda, an economic adviser of President Arroyo. Recto was joined by his wife, Batangas Governor Vilma Santos, who was heavily wooed by the administration to be the running mate of Teodoro. The more prominent NP recruits from Lakas-NUCD include former Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson, Camarines Gov. L-Ray Villafuerte, Bukidnon Gov. Jose Zubiri, Surigao del Norte Gov. Robert Ace Barbers and Cebu Congressmen Pablo Garcia and Eduardo Gullas. Many more congressmen, governors, mayors and councilors have formed a bee line to the camps of Aquino and Villar, the two leading presidential hopefuls.
The Nationalist People’s Coalition, the vehicle of Danding Cojuangco for his losing presidential bid in 1992, is also showing signs of collapse. Its brightest hope in 2010, Senator Francis Escudero, abruptly quit NPC last October, leaving the party in disarray and without a presidential candidate. Escudero has since abandoned his presidential ambitions in 2010. The presumed NPC bet for vice president, Senator Loren Legarda, was forced to eat her words and swallow her pride and partnered with erstwhile nemesis Villar. Earlier, of course, there was the defection of no less than Danding’s favorite nephew, Gibo Teodoro, to Lakas-Kampi. With Danding’s advancing age and reported failing health, the NPC faces a bleak future.
Estrada’s PMP has never been a strong political party. Even during Estrada’s abbreviated presidency, PMP did not gain a strong nationwide following. The party suffers from lack of credibility, for while it espouses a pro-poor agenda, its leader is living it up in the company of unsavory characters – from drinking buddies and women to gamblers and vested interests.
Like NPC and PMP, the other parties are nominal groups whose existence is co-terminus with the political future of their patrons because they are very much identified with personalities rather than an ideology. The names and faces of their patrons are indelibly etched on the parties: Danding on NPC, Estrada on PMP, Angara on LDP, Marcos on KBL, Santiago on PRP, Villanueva on Bangon Pilipinas. Only the Nacionalista and Liberal parties have endured the test of time. But just the same, all the different parties remain mainly personality-oriented; their platforms are all loaded with similar motherhood statements. This explains why party loyalty is a cheap commodity in the country. Politicians seamlessly and shamelessly switch parties largely on the basis of self interest.
In a recent column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, UP Professor Randy David offers an insightful and informed view of our political parties: “As it is, none of the leading presidential candidates can claim to stake their candidacies on the drawing power and record of their respective political parties. Their parties are nothing more than brand names that carry little weight, with no distinct political philosophy or ideology. This accounts for the ease with which politicians of varying, and often conflicting, persuasions and backgrounds are sworn into the same party. Nothing coherent binds them together. In truth, these so-called parties are nothing but coalitions of convenience, provisional alliances forged by practical considerations rather than by enduring principles.”
IN PHOTO: LP standard bearer Sen. Benigno Aquino III and running mate Sen. Manuel Roxas II flash the Laban sign after filing their certificates of candidacy.