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The Philippines: Class struggle at the ballot box

 

 

By Eduardo C. Tadem

June 14, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung — Prior to the 2022 elections, the Left in the Philippines had fielded candidates only at the middle and lower levels of government, including the party list system in Congress. At the presidential level, left-wing groups would either support candidates who were of a liberal bent and less repressive towards them, or else simply adopt a boycott position. Additionally, Left candidates merely spoke to progressive liberal issues and concerns and avoided espousing radical or socialist platforms.

The 2022 elections, on the other hand, proved to be a game changer, with an openly socialist tandem running for president and vice-president on a platform calling for systemic change. How this audacious move evolves in future electoral exercises will be a test of whether the Philippine Left can become a major player in the country’s electoral sphere.

The beginnings of socialism in the Philippines

Left-wing ideas began circulating in the Philippines towards the last decade of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, articulated by activists in the anti-colonial movements, trade unions, and intellectuals.[1] The formal political structures of the Left, however, came about during the American colonial period with the establishment of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines, or PKP) in November 1930.

The PKP later merged with the peasant-based Socialist Party of the Philippines in 1938 and with a mass movement of workers and peasants numbering in the tens of thousands, which led militant mass struggles for workers’ and peasants’ rights. Threatened by these mass actions, the colonial government declared the PKP an illegal organization and incarcerated its leaders.

The outbreak of World War II and the emergence of a popular front policy to combat fascism led to the release of Party leaders. The PKP organized a guerrilla force called the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), or People’s Anti-Japanese Army. The “Huks”, as they were popularly known, launched successful anti-Japanese operations and managed to liberate many areas in Central Luzon.

After the war, however, they were persecuted by the newly independent Philippine government, and their leaders jailed or assassinated. This sparked the Huk Rebellion, lasting from 1946 to the early 1950s, which was quelled by American intervention and military support for the Manila government and the capture of its top leaders. This marked the beginning of a period of stagnation in the Philippine Left.

An effort to revive the Left and reorganize the PKP began in the mid-1960s, yet it saw major internal disagreements arise with respect to strategy and tactics and international policies and affiliation. These precipitated a split resulting in two opposing parties — a pro-Soviet and a pro-China faction. The latter named itself the Communist Party of the Philippines – Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought (CPP-MLMTT), while the former retained its original name.[2] This split was reflected in the legal mass movements of worker, peasant, youth and student, urban poor, middle-class, and other sectoral or cause-oriented organizations.

Over the years, the CPP-MLMTT, which held a voluntarist and militant standpoint typical among Maoist organizations, together with its more aggressive armed component, the rural-based New People’s Army (NPA), became the more dominant faction of the Left, outstripping the PKP and its legal fronts in all sectors and across the country. The influence and activities of the CPP-NPA, its political arm, the National Democratic Front (NDF), and the mass movements and allies aligned with it reached their peak influence during the years of the martial law regime led by Ferdinand Marcos (1972–1986).[3]

Also known as the National Democrats (or “NatDems”, for short), they became the single most important and effective force against the Marcos dictatorship. As for the PKP, its influence continued to decline, capped by what it called a “political settlement” with Marcos in 1974 wherein the PKP renounced armed struggle, surrendered its weapons, praised Marcos’s reform programme, was granted amnesty for all its members, and gained legal status.

The 1983 assassination of the returning opposition leader, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, galvanized popular discontent which, coupled with a debilitating economic crisis, brought about the downfall of the Marcos regime via the February 1986 People Power Uprising, also known as EDSA I. Despite being at the forefront of the anti-Marcos struggle, however, the Left opted out in the final crucial months due to its inherent distrust of the liberal alternative represented by Aquino.

This led to serious internal disputes within the CPP-NPA-NDF, during which the relevance of Maoist principles was questioned. The debates went nowhere and finally culminated in another major split in the early 1990s between the “reaffirmists”, who upheld traditional Maoist strategies, and the “rejectionists” who opted for more flexible and adaptive strategies of revolutionary struggle.[4] The “rejectionists”, however, were far from united and subsequently split into several sub-groups. This fragmentation within the Philippine Left continues to this day.

In the late 1980s, a group of radical intellectuals and mass leaders from various classes set up an independent left-wing formation that initially called itself the Independent Caucus. Its participants were former CPP and PKP supporters, left-wing social democrats, and previously nonaligned Left personalities. After the 1986 EDSA uprising, the group formally constituted themselves into the Bukluran sa Ika-uunlad ng Sosyalistang Isip at Gawa (BISIG), or Union for Socialist Thought and Practice.

Since the mid-1970s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have proliferated as support groups to peoples’ organizations and community groups. Later dubbed “civil society organizations” (CSOs), these middle-class groups also saw the active participation of leftists as founders, organizers, researchers, project implementers, and financial conduits. “Reaffirmists”, “rejectionists”, and independent Left groups saw the opportunity to advance their agendas within the NGO-CSO framework and structures and were able to access funds from international agencies.

The left and elections

Both the PKP and later the CPP-MLMTT have been historically averse to participating in elections as a strategic option. They did, however, lend support to traditional politicians at the local and national levels in exchange for some concessions, selecting those who would be more open to dealing with the Left or espouse certain nationalist policy positions.

Thus, in the national elections after the war, the PKP supported Sergio Osmeña, Sr. who eventually lost to the US-supported Manuel Roxas. The PKP set up a political vehicle, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which fielded candidates at the senatorial, congressional, and local government levels. The DA managed to win five congressional seats, but its representatives were later disqualified on trumped-up electoral violation charges in order to assure the passage of the Parity Rights amendment to the Constitution.[5]

The period of Left rejuvenation in the early and mid-1960s saw the Left adopt a low-key stance in elections. At the 1969 presidential elections, which pitted an incumbent Ferdinand Marcos against Sergio Osmeña, Jr., the newly established CPP-MLMTT was thought to support the latter while the PKP officially opted for a boycott position.

The martial law years (1972–1986) put a stop to any active and serious participation by the Left in electoral politics. The few elections held during this period were seen as farcical and manipulated to favour only Marcos-anointed candidates. It would take the calling of snap elections by Marcos in the wake of three years of unrest and large-scale protests triggered the by assassination of Benigno Aquino for the Left to once more take an interest in elections.

The February 1986 presidential polls saw an ailing and physically incapacitated Marcos challenged by Aquino’s widow, Corazon “Cory” Cojuangco Aquino, scion of one of the country’s largest landowning families. The CPP rejected the polls and called for an electoral boycott, while independent Left formations supported Cory Aquino.

Public sentiment, however was strongly on Cory’s side. It was reported that CPP elements in parts of the country, especially Mindanao, defied the party line and campaigned for Cory. When Marcos blatantly manipulated the results and proclaimed himself the winner, his own Defence Minister and Deputy Armed Forces Chief of Staff rebelled along with a handful of troops. Hundreds of thousands of mainly middle-class Cory supporters gathered in Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), in support of the military rebels and turned the tide against Marcos, who was then forced to flee to the US.

The ouster of Marcos and the assumption of the Presidency by Cory Aquino caught the NatDems and its allied groups by surprise.[6] From being the main protagonists in the martial law years, they suddenly lost ground as the post-Marcos configuration of the anti-Marcos middle class and traditional liberal politicians took power and side-lined the Left. This prompted major soul-searching within the Left’s ranks, and questions were raised about the relevance of Maoist principles asserting the primacy of armed rural struggle, the strategy of “surrounding the cities from the countryside”, parliamentary politics and legal struggle in general, the role of the middle class, “democratic centralism,” and the traditional Maoist characterization of Philippine society as “semi-feudal”.

In the post-Marcos mid-term elections of 1987, a slate of seven left-wing candidates ran for senate seats under the banner of a newly formed Partido ng Bayan (People’s Party, or PnB).[7] It is not clear whether this was an officially CPP-sanctioned project, although it reportedly earned the blessing of CPP founder Jose Maria Sison. In any case, PnB candidates were all known to have been connected with the CPP-NDF or allied mass organizations at one time or another, even if its electoral platform was more nationalist than leftist. The PnB fared badly in the elections and none of its senatorial candidates came close to winning. Although it won two congressional seats in Samar and South Cotabato, the PnB would soon fade from the political limelight.

The advent of the party list system

As the CPP focused on the armed struggle and “reaffirmists” consolidated their ranks among the mass movement, a new political development arose that brought the Left back into the electoral space. In February 1995, the Republic Act 7941, or Party-List System Law, was enacted.[8] A system of proportional representation in the lower house of Congress, it was meant to provide a voice for marginalized and underrepresented sectors, communities, and groups who would otherwise be boxed out by moneyed and elite politicians in regular elections.

NatDems and independent Left formations thereafter organized their respective party list groups. The former organized Bayan Muna (People First) while the latter formed Akbayan Citizens Action Party.[9] Other existing left-wing groups like Sanlakas and Partidong Manggagawa (PM) were also registered as party list organizations. These Left party list groups fared well in the first-ever party list elections, held in 1998 in conjunction with national elections. Bayan Muna and Akbayan secured the maximum number of three seats each, while the others got one seat each.[10]

Left-wing successes continued in succeeding elections. Inspired by the initial results, the NatDems registered other party list groups representing women, teachers, peasantry, migrants, public vehicle drivers, and youth — all of whom won seats as part of a Makabayan (Nationalist) bloc in Congress. At one point, the Makabayan bloc held as many as nine seats. The other left-wing party list groups, however, saw their representation dwindle over time, with Akbayan and others failing to win even one seat by the 2019 elections.[11] In the last elections in 2019, however, the Makabayan bloc could not avoid the trend and also suffered reversals.

In addition to the party list system, left-wing groups would also field a limited number of candidates in the Senate, congressional districts, and local governments. Results, however, proved disappointing. In the 2009 and succeeding elections, Akbayan entered into an alliance with the traditional elite Liberal Party, managing to win one Senate seat in 2016.[12]

It must be said at this point that whenever left-wing candidates conducted their electoral campaigns, they would simply espouse liberal viewpoints and nationalist policies. They shied away from raising more radical concerns, nor did they propose systemic change from capitalism to socialism.

Contesting the presidency

As previously mentioned, left-wing formations declared conditional support for one traditional presidential candidate or else boycott the polls altogether. Reflecting the nature of a fractured movement, Left groups supported different presidential candidates depending on their alliances at any given time. In 2010, the Makabayan bloc supported the real estate tycoon Manny Villar, while Akbayan went with Liberal Party candidate Benigno Aquino III, who eventually won.

In 2016, the NatDems initially supported Senator Grace Poe but later shifted to Rodrigo Duterte. In the meantime, direct electoral participation by left-wing groups would consist of competing for a few Senate seats and in a select number of congressional districts and local government positions. The posts of president and vice-president were regarded as off-limits for Left candidates.

The reasons for this reticence can be traced to, first, the absolute and monopolistic dominance of elite and traditional politicians and their parties and organizations. Second is the prevalence of big-money politics, vote buying, violence, and other fraudulent electoral practices. Third is the perceived low political consciousness of the voting public, who would not appreciate a left-wing radical (let alone socialist) electoral platform. Next is the red-baiting that Left candidates would be subjected to, thus prejudicing their chances and, in some cases, placing their safety and lives in jeopardy. The final factor is the reality of the Left’s limited organizational capacity when it comes to mobilizing a mass base and mounting a national campaign.

Such reluctance, however, was gradually overridden by more compelling events and factors.[13] First, the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship and the series of liberal democratic governments that came after failed to promote the well-being and emancipation of the working masses and all other marginalized groups. Post-Marcos policies followed a market-driven trickle-down approach to development that relied merely on expanding the economic base without directly addressing inequality and wealth redistribution, poverty, popular empowerment, and maximum access to social and public services. At the same time, this model of development served only to enrich and empower the few billionaires and millionaires engaged in unproductive rentier businesses.

Second, the aforementioned developments called for radical change, not piecemeal reforms. Repeatedly disillusioned by unfulfilled expectations, the Philippine masses have begun to question the efficacy and relevance of liberal democratic policies and are hungry for an alternative that promises system change, not just regime change — a new way of doing things and a different mode of governance. The danger, however, lies in the ability of right-wing forces to play into public sentiment and offer themselves as the alternative to liberal regimes instead.

Third, throughout history, the Philippine Left has played an essential and leading role in the struggle to meaningfully transform society and institute systemic change. It is the only political group with a sharp and solid analysis of the country’s ills and a thoroughgoing vision for a new society. In doing so, the Left is able to knit together different strands of popular advocacy into one grand narrative to challenge the dominant capitalist paradigm. Its readiness to side with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed is unshakable. Finally, Left activists are known for their high standards of personal sacrifice and self-denial.

Fourth, the Left has to correct the impression that it lacks the political will and fortitude to stand on its own and challenge traditional politicians at their own game and at the highest levels. By continually riding on the coattails of the latter in presidential contests, its reputation has taken a beating and its radicalism been muted and seriously downgraded.

Fifth, the constant use of this tactic could be construed as a form of opportunism — one that is tied to a short-term goal of regime change that sets aside the long-term strategies associated with system change. In the same vein, it is also self-centred, as it serves the immediate needs of the organization but sacrifices the greater needs of the masses.

Sixth, a major purpose of a presidential campaign is to challenge oligarchic, dynastic politics beholden to corporate power. Only the Left is capable of this. To challenge politics-as-usual would be to offer hope to the underprivileged and excluded that there are leaders and political groups who understand and are sensitive to their plight.

Seventh, a presidential campaign has the potential to reach large sections of the population who would otherwise not be exposed to a left-wing electoral platform. Through an increase in media attention and public debates with wide audiences, the Left’s message can be set out clearly and prominently, and contrasted with the tired, clichéd pronouncements of traditional and elite political actors.

Eighth (a corollary to number seven), fielding candidates only at the middle and lower levels of government has consigned the Left to a marginal and peripheral role in electoral politics. The left-wing agenda is easily lost because of the sheer number of aspirants at the middle and localized government levels. Public attention, on the other hand, is understandably focused on the highest echelons of the government structure.

The 2016 presidential elections

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, the stirrings on the ground, i.e., the dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the liberal regimes that had been in place for the 30 years since the end of Marcos’s dictatorial rule, were palpable. Traditional politicians and corporate interests felt the groundswell and searched for a candidate who would outwardly epitomize a new brand of leader in contrast to existing models.

Many in independent Left circles began to call seriously for a presidential candidate from among their ranks. Those who were for a presidential run argued that the time was ripe for a radical socialist campaign. All factors, both the pros and cons, were elaborated in several discussions that took place in late 2015 and early 2016 among independent and “rejectionist” Left groups.

Most groups and individuals — including CSOs, students and youth, the urban poor, intellectuals, and peasant groups — favoured a presidential run. An important trade union bloc, however, opposed the plan and effectively blocked the move. In the end, the decision was to abandon a presidential run and just go for a Senate seat instead. That latter attempt failed dismally, however, as the debates and discourse that characterized the electoral campaign were dominated by the usual elitist and conservative language.

Meanwhile, the new face that emerged to capture the presidency was a city mayor known for his toughness and rough method of governance, Rodrigo Duterte. The latter promised heaven on earth, including an end to crime and the drug scourge within six months.[14] The old traditional politicians were beaten badly, including the presidential candidate put forward by the outgoing Benigno “Noynoy”Aquino III administration.

The 2019 midterm elections

Three years later, the 2019 midterm elections saw both the NatDems and the Rejectionist blocs (together with independent Left players) participate in the Senate, party list, and selected local government contests.[15] As in previous election campaigns, all Left candidates confined themselves to “liberal bourgeois democratic” issues, e.g., affordable public services, the regularization of employment, national industrial projects, agricultural modernization, the need to end land monopolies via agrarian reform, the need to assert sovereignty (particularly vis-á-vis China), universal human rights, an impartial judiciary, and liberal policies on women’s rights, education, health, and housing.

While valid as electoral issues and desirable as reforms, these issues were no different from those espoused by liberal democrats and moderate social democrats. Having been the subject of promises made in previous elections (which then went largely unfulfilled), these talking points no longer resonated with the public. The Left’s primary ideological handle, “socialism”, was once more absent from its electoral rhetoric.

The 2019 elections resulted in a huge let-down for the Left. The Makabayan-NatDem bloc of seven party list groups saw its total vote reduced by 41 percent compared to 2016 (from 3.9 million to 2.3 million) and its seats reduced to six from seven and nine in previous elections. The “rejectionist” and independent Left groups fared even worse, with their total vote reduced by 73 percent (from 856,349 votes to 228,537) and no seats won compared to one in 2016. It is relevant to note here that the liberal democratic slate identified with the previous administration was wiped out, while Duterte’s allies dominated the Senate.

In the assessments of the election results that ensued among non-NatDem groups, it was clear that a different strategy had to be employed and a radical change in electoral rhetoric made in order to bring the socialist alternative home to the electorate. The sentiment was that a socialist program should now be at the top of the agenda and made more prominent in campaigns — without, however, abandoning the more progressive aspects of the liberal agenda.

The 2022 presidential elections

In the 2022 national elections, four major developments stood out. The first, as discussed above, was the continued decline and possible demise of liberal democratic politics. The one candidate most identified with liberalism, incumbent Vice-President Leonora “Leni” Robredo, had to eschew her Liberal Party identity and filed her candidacy as an independent. She continued, however, to promote neoliberal values and policies. She ranked second in polls but was 35 to 45 percentage points behind the front-runner.

The second development is the impending return to national power of the Marcoses. The family’s standard-bearer, former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., only son of the dead dictator, enjoyed a seemingly insurmountable lead in all surveys — garnering between 50 to 60 percent of voters’ preferences.[16] The rehabilitation of the Marcos clique has been going on for the last two decades, with family members getting elected to local, regional, and national positions. Incredibly, Marcos, Jr. ran for president on a platform promising a return to the “golden years” of his father’s 20-year despotic reign.

The third was the total disruption and dissolution of the political party system. The system had long been judged a total charade, with major parties indistinguishable from each other in terms of policies and programs. Party affiliations were never constant and switching from one party to another was the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, it is on their personalities rather than clearly articulated electoral platforms that candidates are evaluated and elected. Money politics was the crucial and decisive element.

The year 2022, however, takes the cake. Both the parties that were major contenders in the 2016 and 2019 elections, the ruling PDP-Laban and the Liberal Party, failed to field major candidates. On the other hand, traditional elite “parties” were hastily organized or resuscitated after years of dormancy. As before, their platforms were either non-existent (as in the case of Marcos, Jr.) or are a hodgepodge of ill-conceived and inconsistent proposals.

Finally, a socialist presidential candidate

The fourth development was the rise of a pair of running mates for the offices of president and vice president who espouse democratic socialism and a radical platform built on system change.

From the viewpoint of the Philippine Left, the most significant development was the ground-breaking launch of a presidential and vice-presidential campaign — the first ever in the history of the country’s politics. Presidential nominee Ka Leody de Guzman is a worker leader and chairman of Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Union of Filipino Workers, or BMP). The BMP was one of the “rejectionist” outgrowths of the early 1990s that split from the main national democratic movement and the CPP-NDF mainstream.[17]

Vice-presidential aspirant Walden Bello is a prominent left-wing intellectual and a long time social activist with a sterling international reputation. He has a PhD in Sociology from Princeton University and has taught at UC Berkeley, the University of the Philippines, and SUNY Binghamton. The pair registered under the banner of Partido Lakas ng Masa (People’s Strength Party) and campaigned under the broad socialist coalition Laban ng Masa (LnM, People’s Fight),

The process of putting together a left-wing presidential and vice-presidential team, however, was not an easy one. It took months of intense discussions before a decision could be arrived at to contest the elections at the highest levels. The NatDem blocs and some “rejectionist” groups, however, dismissed the notion of a Left presidential run.

Once again, the Left could not come to a unified position on the elections. Exchanges between the PLM-LnM camp on one hand and the NatDem and some rejectionist/independent Left blocs became highly animated and high-spirited. [18]

The NatDems saw “an existential threat by progressives”, especially their own forces, thus the need “to explore working coalitions with the least repressive, least harmful of anti-Duterte forces”. They feared that another six years of a Duterte-like regime would result in “the legal Left forces decimated”. Thus, they argued that “broad unity is essential in 2022” and that “principled politics must always be balanced by principled flexibility”.

The PLM/LnM counter-argument, however, was that “for the Left and the masses it leads, the choice should not be between fascist capitalism and liberal capitalism, i.e., quick death under the Duterte followers or slow death under a liberal regime. It’s socialism versus capitalism. Without raising the banner of socialism, all that is left is capitalism, thus leading the masses back to the old normal of neoliberal misery and ecological destruction. The Left should be both anti-fascist and anti-capitalist.”

For the NatDems, using “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” as a guide, “the main and concrete problem for Left forces in 2022 is not socialism vs. capitalism; it is to make sure that the Duterte camp is defeated so that we can continue to organize and strengthen our forces.” They added that “many of the issues raised by Makabayan and other Left forces are already socialist in content or will make the transition to socialism easier and more acceptable: peasant demands on land, various worker issues, greater government role in key public issues on health, education, housing, fighting for our sovereign rights, etc.”

The PLM/LnM bloc countered that it was an unfounded assumption “that allying with neoliberals will be enough to defeat Duterte” since “the surveys show otherwise and in a big way.” Besides, “given their track record, traditional politicians and elite liberals are unreliable allies and will likely become fascists themselves when they assume power. Their first agenda would be to get rid of their Left electoral allies and continue with the repressive policies of their predecessors.”

The independent Left/rejectionist blocs (IL/R) who ended up supporting Robredo lamented the tendency “to undervalue the bourgeois democratic space in building the mass movement, especially when authoritarians are undermining it”. They noted that while “Marxists have a good strategic analysis of the pitfalls of bourgeois democracy,” they “tend to neglect its tactical importance in given historical moments.”

PLM/LnM rejected the above argument as being “tired and worn out and several decades passé”. The reality was that “the Left, for too long, has overvalued the ‘bourgeois democratic space’ causing a diminution in their ranks with cadres going over to the bourgeois democratic or even the fascist side. By continuously valuing the bourgeois democratic space, watering down its radical demands, and emphasizing tactics over strategy and principle, the Left is now weaker than ever both electorally and otherwise.”

The IL/R camp argued that a period of “revolutionary ebb” demanded effectively using the bourgeois democratic space by linking up with a broad anti-authoritarian movement and influencing it from within. Going it alone would only result in isolation. They argued that “given the balance of power and restricted space”, Left participation in elections could not be anything but tactical: “The more important question today is whether it’s crucial to preserve and expand the democratic space in the face of Dutertismo and the Marcos redux. Going it alone will not make the Left any more popular. A little bourgeois democracy is better than nothing at all.”

The PLM/LnM’s “overriding critique” was that the various Left formations never contested elections at the highest levels, i.e., the presidency, and were content to run candidates at lower levels where their voices are never heard nationally or participate tactically by supporting liberal politicians and being saddled with compromises left and right. That electoral strategy of “trying to expand the democratic space” had been tried and tested for 90 years and had not brought the Left any nearer to power, much less increased its political clout. Liberal democracy, too, “has been tried and tested and been found wanting as incremental social reforms are never seriously put in place as this would alienate the liberals’ main support and ideological kin — the big rentier capitalist class and the political oligarchs”. Under a bourgeois democratic government, “the country and the Filipino masses will not see any respite from the destructive human and environmental onslaughts of the neoliberal market-dominated paradigm to which liberal democrats are wedded”.

The PLM/LnM, on the contrary, asserted that “by definition, a ‘bourgeois democracy’ is for the bourgeoisie and its allies, not for the working class and its allies. The latter have for too long tried to accommodate ‘bourgeois democracy’ to gain the ‘little democracy’ allowed them. Instead, their rights continue to be violated, their livelihoods transgressed, and their lives continually imperilled.” 

The NatDems and some “rejectionist” blocs eventually threw their support behind the Leni Robredo campaign. The Makabayan bloc rationalized its support for the Robredo candidacy, stating that at “a time when the forces of tyranny are on the attack, and the heirs of the dictator want to return to power, Leni and Kiko[19] stood up as the true opposition. They are now our best chance to defeat the Marcos-Duterte tandem.”[20]

In terms of an electoral platform, Makabayan cited ten points of commonality with the Robredo camp, namely plans to: (1) promote scientific, pro-people, and non-militaristic approaches to the pandemic; (2) push the Security of Tenure Law and support employment; (3) act on land conversion and help farmers; (4) review existing mining laws; (5) continue peace talks; (6) uphold human rights and amend the Anti-Terror Law; (7) prioritize reviewing cases of older and sick prisoners and bring back the ABS-CBN franchise; (8) hold officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses accountable; (9) implement political and electoral reform; and, (10) fight for the country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights, including by upholding the 2016 Hague ruling.

The Robredo camp, however, spurned the support of the NatDems and refused to grant them a slot on its Senate ticket, instead opting for a conservative labour leader. The Robredo slate included traditional and elite politicians long identified with money politics and the interests of big business. Robredo herself, while clearly opposing the return of the Marcos dynasty and authoritarian rule, also endorsed neoliberal programmes such as the discredited Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme.

The position of the NatDems with respect to the 2022 elections was understandable given that, among the Left groups, they had borne the brunt of assaults by the state’s repressive arm under their erstwhile ally, President Rodrigo Duterte. They needed breathing space to regroup and rehabilitate their forces. Given such a dire situation, it was logical to opt for the “lesser evil” and support a candidate who would be less repressive and be expected to adhere to liberal modes of governance and tolerate opposition groups, including the Left.

On the other hand, in its electoral platform released in March 2021, Laban ng Masa asserted that

Duterte is only a symptom of a bigger problem, a systemic one that prevents governance from serving the many to advance the interests of just a few. Duterte represents an authoritarian brand of rule which the electorate endorsed in desperation in 2016 after being repeatedly betrayed by one elected leader after another, who promised democratic rule after the people overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, only to continue the system of elite domination and exploitation.

… the only system that would promote justice and equality is one where most of the means of creating wealth are owned by the people collectively. Whether you called it social democracy, democratic socialism, or plain socialism … this is the only system that would serve the interests of our long-suffering people.

In a social media post, vice-presidential candidate Walden Bello agreed on the need to “prevent the Marcos-Duterte axis of evil from coming to power”, but argued that:

… the best way to do that is not by simply changing the yellow wrapper that covered up the discredited practices of a failed elite democracy with one of another colour.[21] That is a dead end. The only way to prevent a desperate people from being seduced into going back to an authoritarian past is by offering them a program that would make them participants in the creation of the future they deserve. In two words, Democratic Socialism.

Looking forward after a tough defeat

A poor showing on the part of Left candidates in 2022 was expected, especially in the case of the two highest positions. Being newcomers to mainstream politics, Ka Leody and Walden scored low in popular awareness. The public was also being introduced to socialist and radical ideas and programmes at the presidential level for the first time, and it would take time for these to be absorbed by ordinary voters. In terms of resources, the Left was dwarfed by the traditional politicians with their hundreds of millions or even billions of pesos in resources. The biggest donors usually come from the business community, who naturally shun the Left.

On the supply side, the vast majority of the electorate is seen as politically immature and cynical on account of its long disempowerment, and tends to regard elections as “wealth sharing” by vote-buying politicians. Thus, the results of the 2022 elections showed an overwhelming victory for the right-wing Presidential candidacy of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. With 97 percent of votes accounted for, Marcos had 58.82 percent compared to Leni Robredo’s 28.07. The Left’s Leody de Guzman had a mere 0.17 percent and placed eighth out of ten candidates. Marcos’s running mate, Sarah Duterte, likewise won a decisive victory as Vice-President. The results were generally expected given the surveys taken on voters’ preferences all throughout the campaign, but nevertheless confirmed the “demise of liberal democratic politics” and the turn to the Right of the electorate with the complete return of the Marcos family dynasty to power.

Supporters of Ka Leody and Walden, however, saw positive aspects to their campaign. The attention from broadcast and print media exceeded all expectations, thus making up for the lack of campaign funds. The tandem also figured prominently in all public debates sponsored by mainstream broadcast networks, private businesses, and the Commission on Elections itself. The team could hardly cope with the numerous requests for interviews and appearances on radio, television, and in public forums all over the country.

Additionally, the campaign attracted a large number of young volunteers searching for an appropriate vehicle for the energy they had built up from previous campaigns on various political, economic, and social issues . On top of all that, for the first time in history, the Left was able to share with the larger public a unique and refreshing agenda of heterodox, non-traditional, and system-changing proposals.

Since the restoration of liberal democratic governance after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, the Left has endured numerous reversals and downturns. As far as electoral struggles are concerned, left-wing participation leaves much to be desired in terms of depth and breadth. The already limited and modest modes of Left participation in the middle and lower levels of government and in the party list system has reached a dead end.

More importantly, due to alliances entered into by Left groups with liberal and elite political groups and personalities, left-radical ideas and programs have not been sufficiently disseminated to the public or resonated with it. Left concepts and thoughts are sacrificed to tactical considerations and continue to be marginalized and demonized by ruling elites, corporate powers, and their media mouthpieces.

For the 2022 elections, the two taboos of a presidential candidacy and a socialist platform were finally overcome. A section of the Left at long last abandoned a long-standing policy and practice of not vying for the highest government positions in the land. This in itself is one significant marker of success. Regardless of the outcome, the fact that a barrier was finally surmounted already speaks volumes. Socialism is no longer a forbidden subject to be spoken about only in hushed tones at private gatherings.

The Leody-Walden campaign marked a landmark starting point and a dress rehearsal that will inform future electoral contests. The lessons to be learned are a valuable trove of experiences on how to run a national campaign and what pitfalls to avoid. As a pioneering effort, the 2022 socialist candidacies will take several elections to truly gain traction and popular support. Thus, the poor showing in the surveys and the expected final result is not disheartening at all to its followers and adherents. Apart from the drive to win votes, the campaign also took the form of an organizational expansion, with new recruits coming in numbers not seen before. More importantly, the new members are all young people from all sectors of society.

It is hoped that the 2022 campaign will finally convince other political blocs within the Philippine Left to follow the example set by the Ka Leody-Walden team and raise the bar for future elections. The ideal, of course, is a unified Left slate for president and vice-president.

For now, a lot of soul searching will have to take place. Strategies will have to be put in place on how to confront the coming Marcos-Duterte regime, and serious efforts will have to be undertaken for all Left groups to come together and unite for system change and to uphold democratic institutions and practices.

Eduardo C. Tadem is Convener of the Program on Alternative Development, University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS Altdev) and Professorial Lecturer of Asian Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman, as well as a long-time activist in left-wing social movements and civil society organizations in the Philippines.

Notes

[1] For a detailed discussion of the historical development of the Philippine Left, see the three monographs by Ken Fuller: Forcing the Pace: The PKP: From Foundation to Armed Struggle, Quezon City: 2007, A Movement Divided: Philippine Communism, 1957-1986, 2011, and The Lost Vision: The Philippine Left: 1986-2010, 2015. All published by the University of the Philippines Press.

[2] To distinguish itself from the Maoist party, the PKP now uses the term “PKP 1930”, signifying the year of its founding.

[3] The National Democrat (NatDem) appellation is based on the programme of a national democratic struggle as the relevant stage of the revolution, where opposition to imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism are the main areas of struggle. This necessitated a broad coalition that included the “middle forces” and a “national bourgeoisie”. For the NatDems, therefore, socialism was not on the immediate agenda. Not all National Democrats, however, are party members.

[4] The terms “reaffirmists” and “rejectionists” are in reference to the position taken with respect to a major 1990 CPP document, “Reaffirm our basic principles and carry the revolution forward”, which articulated the official resolution to the internal debates in the immediate post-Marcos era.

[5] The Parity Amendment bestowed on American corporations the rights and privileges enjoyed by Filipino businesses. It passed Congress by only one vote.

[6] For convenience, in this essay the term “NatDem” will be used to denote all groups that follow the national democratic line whether they are Party affiliated or not.

[7] The seven were former NDF head Horacio “Boy” Morales, former NPA Commander Bernabe Buscayno, labour leader Crispin Beltran, peasant leader Jaime Tadeo, women’s rights leader Nelia Sancho, human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong, and journalist Jose Burgos.

[8] This was in accordance with a provision in the 1987 Constitution for sectoral proportional representation in the Legislature.

[9] Akbayan was formed by activists mainly coming from the BISIG socialist group and left-wing social democrats.

[10] Party list votes are tabulated nationally, but each group needs to gain at least 2 percent of total party list votes in order to gain one seat and is limited to a maximum of only three seats. Of the 300 or so seats in the House of Representatives party list seats are also limited to not more than 61, or 20 percent of the total number of seats.

[11] Among other factors, this could be attributed to the bastardization of the party list system where traditional parties and politicians started organizing their own party list groups and were duly accredited by the Commission on Elections. A Supreme Court ruling in 2013 legally allowed such abuse by ruling that a person need not belong to a marginalized group to represent a party list organization. Traditional and elite politicians can thus claim to represent the interests of underrepresented sectors and will be allowed into the party list system.

[12] Akbayan’s alliance with the Liberal Party, while gaining it a momentary share of power under the Aquino III administration (2010–2016), would come at the cost of its mass movement, the socialist coalition BISIG, which disappeared from the scene and would no longer be heard from nor seen in mass mobilizations.

[13] What follows is a summary of the arguments I presented in an opinion piece, “Why not a presidential candidate from the Left?”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 August 2015 (last accessed 23 April 2022).

[14] The NatDem’s alliance with Duterte, which saw the appointment of three NatDem cabinet members, would soon fall apart due to the failure of the peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF and the government’s bloody anti-drug war, which featured the extrajudicial killings of at least 15,000 victims.

[15] This section is partly an excerpt from Eduardo C. Tadem, “The Philippine Left and the 2019 elections”, Rappler. 2 August 2019 (last accessed 23 April 2022).

[16] The incumbent President, Rodrigo Duterte, who had served the mandatory six years by May 2022, was barred by the Constitution from seeking a second term.

[17] The appellation “Ka” is short for “Kasama”, which is Tagalog for “companion” but in activist lingo is used much like the word “comrade”.

[18] These debates took place in social media exchanges between personalities representing the various strands within the Philippine Left. They reflect deep divisions over left-wing strategies and tactics, which are given precedence over the need for Left unity at this particular historical conjuncture, despite the fact that there is agreement in characterizing the existing regime and what a government might look like under a Marcos presidency.

[19] Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan is Leni Robredo’s vice-presidential running mate. He is also president of the Liberal Party.

[20] Jairo Bolledo, “Makabayan: Robredo, Pangilinan ‘our best bet to defeat Marcos Jr.-Duterte tandem”, Rappler, 29 January 2022 (last accessed 23 Apr 2022)

[21] The allusion to “yellow” refers to the colour long identified with the liberal democratic regimes in the post-Marcos era, particular the presidential tenures of Cory Aquino and her son, Benigno Aquino III.

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