Emmanuel ‘Manny’Pacquiao, as everyone knows, is a boxing icon, turned gaffe-prone and habitually truant politician, who was recently elected senator. He has called people in same-sex relationships “worse than animals” and wants to restore the death penalty. His ultra conservative values are far from unusual among the country’s politicians and lawmakers, and ventilating them does little to dent his popularity. But during a recent Senate session, Mr. Pacquiao did something unexpected. He stood up and declared the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Justice ‘vacant.’ It was a preposterous motion but a politically shrewd calculation. The Chair is, of course, fully occupied by his colleague, Senator Leila de Lima, who is in the middle of investigating President Duterte’s bloody war against drugs.
Uproar and mayhem strangely did not ensue as might reasonably be expected, although Senate President pro tempore Franklin Drilon did manage in vain to splutter out a protest of irregularity. When the motion was later put to a vote, most sided with Pacquiao. Senator de Lima was unseated and her powers effectively curbed. On reflection, he said he felt sorry for her because he too, had a mother, which is a strikingly odd reason to give, and that he didn’t want “bias” and “evil to triumph,” which is demented. He asserted that no one put him up to it, except perhaps, the Lord Almighty to whom he prayed for guidance before deciding to “manifest.”
Without casting aspersions on the neophyte Senator’s newly revealed political savvy, or his born-again-I-have-seen-the-light epiphany, his claim to have been acting on his own initiative sounds downright dubious. There really must have been some back-room skulduggery in which the Senator, who can hardly string two sentences together, drew the short straw.
It is quite possible that Pacquiao has not fully grasped the full significance of his actions. De Lima has swiftly been replaced by Senator Richard Gordon, a man who has lately been urging Duterte to suspend habeas corpus. There is a high probability De Lima may be arrested and brought to trial on charges of bribe-taking from drug lords, thus removing Duterte’s fiercest critic.
Are we glimpsing the face of tyranny?
Leila de Lima has been a thorn in Duterte’s flesh for a long time. In 2009 she headed investigations into the extrajudicial killings in Davao while Duterte was mayor. Officially nothing stuck, but the thin-skinned Duterte has been unforgiving of her ever since. He has used the government to preside over what amounts to a vendetta against the former justice secretary, hurling at her grenade after grenade of personal abuse and insult. “If I were De Lima,” he recently said, “I’d hang myself.”
The scariest aspect of the embattled Senator’s plight, however, is that there are so few in government like her who are willing to stick their neck out. Moreover, the Duterte administration clearly does not tolerate dissent much and will use its considerable power to muzzle criticism even when it is rarely voiced. Few oppose the President and, without opposition, democracy is undermined.
In the aftermath of the Presidential election, almost every member of every political party jumped ship to join the winning team, Duterte’s PDP-Laban. That’s almost all of the 290 members of Congress. “There would always be an opposition,” assured the emollient outgoing speaker, Feliciano Belmonte, before hopping aboard a flight to Davao along with other high-ranking Liberal Party members, to propose a coalition to the new President. No viable opposition exists in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Very soon, most of the judiciary will constitute Duterte appointees.
While the sociologist and political commentator Randy David has long railed against the lack of political parties with a clear constituency, a coherent platform, and an ideological backbone, others have been circumspect. The Dutch anthropologist Otto van den Muizenberg, who has been studying the Philippines since the late 1960s, calls the “supermajority” turncoat phenomenon “practical politics.” Rooted in regional, local, and dynastic affinities, political parties, he says, “are basically followings.”
It is likely that in the course of time, resistance will gradually build up. Whether it will come from traditional sources such as the Church, who thus far have not been vocal enough in condemning the killings, the military, or left-leaning civil society, the latter currently riven by internal squabblings, the press and media, technocrats and capitalists, or just a groundswell of popular dissent, it is too early to tell.
Opposition should not be left to lone crusaders. The country needs to see the emergence of a strong, credible, and unified political party whose members represent the interests of ordinary people, who will fight for an economically productive, decent and just society. A party that will, in no uncertain terms, condemn the killings and admonish a foul-mouthed President who is jeopardizing the economy, wrecking the image of the country, and making everyone feel unsafe or worse, murderous. The country needs a properly democratic opposition.