In the May 9, 2016 elections, then mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte and his political partry, PDP-Laban, won a plurality in the presidential election.
Significantly, he and his party did not win a majority of the seats contested in the elections for the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives.
The party that won the largest share of congress seats was the Liberal Party, the administration party at the time as the party of then President Benigno Aquino III.
Duterte therefore did not have a congressional majority to govern with him in the new Congress.
That Cngress majority was for the Liberals to forge or form, if they could. But before Duterte could be sworn to office and the 17th Congress could be convened, many of the victorious Liberals quickly lined up to be counted as supporters and well-wishers of the president-elect. They hoped by this to land plum or leading positions in either house of Congress.
Becoming the House or Senate majority was beyond realization by the LP, because a Filipino president can always negotiate to ensure a supportive or cooperative leadership in Congress.
Liberals turned their coats
Before the dust could settle, however, the Liberals moved swiftly to embed themselves in the eventual pro-Duterte majorities in the House and Senate.
When the time came to identify who would become the minority parties in either house, the Liberals could have quickly laid claim to the honor because they clearly had the numbers. As early as then, they could have identified themselves as the party in opposition to the new administration.
But they did not.
I thought of this fateful choice before the Liberal Party, as I watched yesterday, the US Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren explain what would be the position of the Democratic Party vis-a- vis the incoming administration of Donald Trump come January 20.
Senator Warren forthrightly declared: “We are not a minority; we are a party in opposition.”
Gaping void in our democracy
Instead of clarity, there is a gaping void at the heart of our democracy today. There is no party, there is no leader, and there is no program of the political opposition in the Philippines today.
While President Duterte and his allies are out in front, claiming the power and privileges of the majority party and the administration, there is no one taking the role of the opposition with equal gusto.
It is correct to call the opposition “Missing in action,” because instead of eager faces and voices presenting the position of the opposition, we find a black hole as deep and empty as the hole in outer space.
No member of Congress or politician today wants to identify himself as a member, let alone a leader, of the opposition.
In a great irony, it is the burial of the late President Ferdinand Marcos that seems to galvanize the Liberals into action. But they stirred to life only after the Supreme Court had already ruled on the legality of President Duterte’s decision to allow the burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (LMNB).
The opposition will materialize only if elected officials and political leaders claim the role of the opposition and formally discharge its functions in our democracy.
The Liberals were left without a leader when Mar Roxas lost in the presidential election, and President Aquino was termed out. Vice President Leni Robredo is plainly no leader.
Former Speaker Feliciano Belmonte declined to take the post of House Minority leader, preferring to embed himself in the majority coalition. Former Senate President Franklin Drilon took the junior role of Senate President Protempore, rather then lead the opposition in the Senate
Consequently, the Liberals are now wandering around without identity papers, looking for a horse to ride.
Is President Duterte so intimidating that no one dares to stand in opposition to him and his administration? Is the negative example of Senator Leila de Lima so discouraging, that everyone fears being included in DU30’s lists?
The indispensable opposition
And yet, and yet, the opposition is considered indispensable to every democracy.
More than anyone, the political thinker Walter Lippmann was instrumental in crystallizing the system of majority rule and the role of the opposition in a liberal democracy. To Lippmann, the opposition is as vital to democracy as the majority that governs: “The principle which distinguishes democracy from all other forms of government is that in a democracy the opposition not only is tolerated as constitutional but must be maintained because it is in fact indispensable.”
Elaborating on this point, he wrote: “The democratic system cannot be operated without effective opposition.
For in making the great experiment of governing people by consent rather than by coercion, it is not sufficient that the party in power should have a majority. It is just as necessary that the party in power should never outrage the minority. That means that it must listen to the minority and be moved by the criticisms of the minority….
“The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters…. So if he is wise he ought to pray never to be left without opponents, for they keep him on the path of reason and good sense.”
The same must be said for the whole society. As things stand in our politics today, we stand in danger of seeing our democracy and majority rule taken by President Duterte to absurd lengths and limits—contrary to the spirit of limited government and separated powers in our constitutional system.
We could wake up one day to discover we have a new constitution, and our country balkanized into several states.
Political discourse has sunk to an abysmal level. No one seems to be thinking very much. All the politicians do is issue press releases.
Just as crucial as the absence of political leaders standing as the opposition, is the sheer absence of leaders who stand for something, for clear values and policy ideas. What is sorely missing from national politics today is the practice of what the British have called “conviction politics,” which was exemplified by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The essence of conviction politics is the profession by political leaders of a clear set of principles, policies and programs in public life. We don’t have such leaders in our country. Neither do we have political parties that articulate a clear agenda of governance, and provide an organized base of support.
President Duterte represents one end of the problem in embodying the authoritarian temptation. The yellow cult represents another in advocating the political heresy that if it can muster enough numbers in the streets, they can successfully overturn a High Court decision or force the president to reverse a policy decision.
The proper meeting point of the administration and the opposition is the Constitution and democratic politics.
By voicing strong opinions we push the public debate forward and promote a genuine discussion of political issues.
It’s not happening now, because a genuine political opposition is nowhere to be found.