1Sambayan Can Succeed. But It Can Also Fail Horribly.

A coalition built on being anti-Duterte has to go beyond being just anti-Duterte.

From the early 1900s to the 1930s, the Philippines was essentially a one-party state ruled by the Nacionalista Party, which gave us Presidents Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, and Ramon Magsaysay. At the time, this seemed ideal — a way to unify a young nation-state under a common ideology.

But the Nacionalista Party was itself a tense arena, where delegates from different provinces competed for their own interests and rallied behind figures who had “winnability.” At the end of the day, such conventions had one goal: nominate a single standard-bearer and win the elections.

The Nacionalista Party’s winning streak was challenged only by the Liberal Party, which emerged in the 1940s under the leadership of then Senate President Manuel Roxas and Senate President Pro Tempore Elpidio Quirino. It was a breakaway coalition with the same top-line make-up, but it signaled the arrival of another strong contender that could help shape democracy — progress compared to centuries spent under colonial rule.

Post–martial law, however, the Philippine political arena has become fractured and multipartisan. In place of the original two major political parties, there are now nine major political parties recognized by COMELEC and about 160 smaller parties that continue to field their own candidates during election season. These parties do not only have overlapping principles; having a multipartisan political arena has also resulted in fractured voting patterns. In the 2016 elections, for example, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte won not by garnering the majority of votes but by simply outnumbering the other candidates’ votes. (The 1987 Philippine Constitution applies a plurality vote versus a majority vote, or one more than 50 percent of the population, in electing the president of the country.) The same happened in the Senate, where division is currently so pronounced and heavily tilted in Duterte’s favor.

This is what 1Sambayan, a multipartisan prodemocracy coalition composed of anti-Duterte political parties, will try to dispel in the coming 2022 elections. But it will not be easy. Already grappling for grassroots support, the coalition also has much to work on within its ranks.

“A preelectoral coalition of diverse opposition forces is the opposition’s best chance of winning against Duterte’s successor candidate in 2022,” says Cleve Arguelles, a Filipino political scientist from the Australian National University. “This we know from two things: first, how a divided opposition failed spectacularly in the 2019 midterm elections, and second, how unified opposition coalitions have successfully won against popular autocratic and populist incumbents and their candidates in the recent past.”

In Venezuela, the National Unity Roundtable won against Hugo Chavez in 2015. Viktor Orban, a mayoral candidate in Budapest, Hungary, in 2015, was also challenged by the Coalition of Momentum. In Istanbul, Turkey, the Nation Alliance toppled Recep Tayip Erdogan in the 2019 mayoral election.

At present, 1Sambayan is preoccupied with selecting a single pairing for president and vice president for the 2022 elections. Among their choices are Vice President Leni Robredo (Liberal Party), Senator Nancy Binay (United Nationalist Alliance or UNA), Senator Grace Poe (independent, and the third-placer in the 2016 presidential elections), Manila mayor Isko Moreno (National Unity Party), and former senator Antonio Trillanes (Magdalo). Announcing such a move early on, prior to any declaration from the aforementioned political figures, is a good move, according to Arguelles.

“Fewer opposition candidates mean that anti-incumbent votes can be consolidated in a single candidate. If they can choose common candidates for other national and local positions too, the chances of winning would even be higher,” he says.

For Katrina Stuart Santiago, a political analyst and founder of PAGASAph, this show of unity also works toward the opposition’s advantage. “Having a set of personalities going out there, putting their faces on it, and talking elections and politics is important, as we haven’t had that the past four years given the climate of fear. . . . These personalities also allow for media mileage, and certainly, we need more media coverage for this side.”

But there are also some factors that 1Sambayan must consider. Infighting, as well as the composition of personalities at its core, for example, could be deterrents.

“There are concerns about the initial shape of 1Sambayan as a coalition,” Arguelles says. “It’s full of old guards and lacking in youth representation. But a big chunk of voters are the young!”

True enough, its forward-facing figures include retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio (who is also the lead convenor), former ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, and former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario. Other convenors are Bro. Armin Luistro, retired rear admiral Rommel Ong, lawyer Howie Calleja, former Audit commissioner Heidi Mendoza, and Renato Magtubo, national chairman of Partido Manggagawa. Many of these names, especially the triad of Carpio, Carpio-Morales, and del Rosario, are associated with the Aquino administration. Santiago argues that this makes it easy for state propagandists to turn the situation around and discredit 1Sambayan off the bat for being dilawan.

“They presume that those of us on this side [opposition] would know better and that we wouldn’t mind being told who to vote for by the convenors of this coalition,” Santiago adds. “But this kind of hierarchy is a con given a younger generation that bristles at being looked down on and insists instead that we not only be given a seat at the table but that our voices are heard.”

The shape and composition of the coalition, however, is still in the works, and could be molded in the lead-up toward the election season. Criticisms within the coalition itself are expected, especially given the fact that it aims to consolidate a spectrum of opposition forces from left to right.

But these criticisms could also oil the coalition’s gears and modify some of its parts in order for the public to feel a sense of identity and belonging in 1Sambayan’s agenda.

After all, politics is a game of addition. What will make a candidate win is still the number of votes — not their resume, degrees earned, or even a highly sophisticated platform. In order for 1Sambayan to collect more votes, it must construct an inclusive approach for the public. This makes grassroots deployment the most important ingredient that should be included in 1Sambayan’s recipe for success.

“Aside from coordinating candidate selection, its energies should be focused on coming up with a viable plan to mobilize the most number of votes,” says Arguelles. “We know that groundwork is key in vote mobilization. The focus should be on maximizing electoral turnout among different opposition communities and aggregating these votes.”

Messaging is also a key factor. Public perception heavily hinges on how much people see themselves in a politician’s goal. Intellectualism and platforms based on abstract ideas and buzzwords like upholding democracy, freedom of the press, and economic equality might not cut it. 1Sambayan has to translate these ideas into messages that can easily be grasped and aim for a guttural reaction. With lower socioeconomic classes composing a large part of the voting demographic, tackling issues such as poverty, unemployment, and hunger could result in a stronger public feeling of being seen.

This also means that the coalition must clearly articulate why their picks are a better alternative, rather than spotlighting competency and moral ascendancy over Duterte and his allies. Its platforms should be concrete, relatable, and close to people’s lived experiences.

What 1Sambayan is gunning for was the same tactic used by Cory Aquino’s coalition during the decline of martial law. The hope is to maximize the force of the opposition and effectively weaken the grip of Duterte and his allies. This poses a real threat to the status quo, and could actually work in favor of the opposition.

“It signals to the voter that the coalition’s candidates are winnable especially against the incumbent’s successor,” Arguelles says. “If there’s a joint opposition campaign, and by this I mean one slate from the president to at least the Senate, one campaign agenda and slogan, and coordinated groundwork, it should not matter who are selected as the coalition’s candidates. What should only matter is that the opposition is trying to get the vote out to defeat Duterte’s anointed successor.”

Unless 1Sambayan resolves these gaps within its ranks, things are bound to get worse before they get better. Other coalitions formed by opposition groups could also emerge.

“I think there’s a high chance that it will push those of us in the younger generations to do something different and form ourselves into a civil society network that responds to the gaps that we see in the coalition’s conceptualization and formulation,” Santiago says, hinting at the possibility of forming another coalition tilted toward capturing a different demographic. “In that sense, the coalition would be doing its work in showing us how the elders do it, and how we might augment what they are doing. . . . Having one or two more coalitions or networks working on it will not hurt us.”

Santiago makes a good point. What if 1Sambayan cannot cover all ground? What if it suffers the same fate as the opposition in the 2019 elections, where credible candidates with ambitious platforms failed to secure seats because their messaging did not resonate?

If 1Sambayan’s aim is to challenge a united front, they must be prepared to study voting behaviors and craft a unique proposition that translates into votes in the 2022 elections. To do this, its member organizations must be prepared to reach a compromise, especially considering the varied ideological positions currently present within the coalition.

Will everyone be able to leave their differences at the door? Will they be willing to exclude certain talking points in favor of generalist but tactical messaging? Can this new coalition go beyond simply being an antidote to Duterte and his politics to create a platform that resonates with the public? These are questions we’re waiting for them to answer. Until then, 1Sambayan will remain a concept waiting to prove itself worthy of the public’s support.

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