A united anti-Marcos-Duterte opposition alliance is still possible in the Philippines today, if opposition leaders accept difficult compromises with each other, just like they did 36 years ago.
Campaigning for the 2022 Philippine presidential election only began two weeks ago, but the candidates’ relative positions in the race already seem clear. Latest polls confirm what most already know – that Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is the leading candidate amongst an official pool of 10 presidential candidates. The January 2022 Pulse Asia poll put his support at an astounding 60 per cent of the electorate, with Leni Robredo trailing at 16 per cent, Manny Pacquiao at 8 per cent, and Isko Moreno also at 8 per cent. Another poll conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) further confirmed Marcos Jr. held the lead – his support level was at 50 per cent, with the rest trailing at 19 per cent, 11 per cent, and 11 per cent, respectively. With just over two months of campaigning left, it remains unclear how the other presidential candidates can erode the considerable support for Marcos Jr, who enlisted Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio as vice presidential running mate.
Fearing that a Marcos-Duterte victory might portend the further backsliding of Philippine democracy, many in the opposition – including rational aspirants who want to break the current administration’s authoritarian streak – have called for a united opposition as the best bet of defeating the two powerful families. Indeed, during the run-up to the confirmation of presidential candidates last year, an anti-Duterte coalition called 1Sambayan tried to coordinate and select prospective presidential and vice-presidential candidates among the opposition. But many political analysts expressed doubts at that time about the viability of such an alliance. They pointed to ideological divisions within the opposition elites as well as its uninspiring, narrow policy agenda. Ultimately, no consensus candidate was achieved and the opposition remains as fractured as before, even as former president Gloria Arroyo brokered the Marcos-Duterte alliance.
The Historic Opposition Alliance Against Marcos Sr.
Under what circumstances can an opposition alliance emerge, and can one ever arise in the Philippines today? In my forthcoming book, Opposing Power: Building Opposition Alliances in Electoral Autocracies, I detail how an opposition alliance actually emerged in the Philippines some 36 years ago, just prior to the EDSA People Power Revolution in February 1986.
From 1965 up till his downfall in 1986, the dominant autocratic incumbent president was Ferdinand Marcos, father of current leading presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos Jr. The opposition in the mid-1980s was split between Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel. Cory Aquino was the widow of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., who was assassinated in August 1983, whereas Salvador Laurel was son of Jose P. Laurel, who was Philippine president under the Japanese occupation during World War Two. Aquino was widely seen as an inspiring but politically inexperienced housewife, while Laurel was generally perceived as an untrustworthy but politically formidable traditional politician.
Consequently, the second reason why a compromise alliance was created was because both opposition leaders realised that neither would win on their own, and that they depended on each other to maximise their chances of victory.
Prior to the snap elections called by Ferdinand Marcos for February 1986, there was intense conflict between Aquino and Laurel to be the leading opposition presidential candidate. Laurel was backed by his party machine UNIDO (United Nationalist Democratic Organization), while Aquino was backed by a number of anti-Marcos elites and had the sympathy of the majority of anti-Marcos voters. Their conflict persisted right up until one hour before the midnight deadline for filing candidate nomination papers when Laurel finally compromised to be the opposition’s vice-presidential running mate to Aquino. During the ensuing election campaign, both would endorse each other and urge their supporters to vote for their joint ticket.
Two crucial ingredients motivated the Aquino-Laurel opposition alliance. First, both opposition leaders realised that the Marcos regime was precarious and ready to fall. The recurring mass protests on the streets, Marcos’ ill health, the public withdrawal of American support, and the surprising gains by the opposition in the May 1984 legislation elections all indicated that the Marcos dictatorship was on extremely shaky ground. Despite all these developments, however, the coercion and intimidation wrought by the Marcos dictatorship meant that it was still possible for him to win if the opposition remained fractured and disunited.
Consequently, the second reason why a compromise alliance was created was because both opposition leaders realised that neither would win on their own, and that they depended on each other to maximise their chances of victory. A joint alliance between a wildly popular but politically inexperienced widow and a politically formidable but untrusted traditional politician meant that their desirable qualities would compensate for the shortcomings of each other.
A Unified Opposition Redux?
Can a united opposition alliance in 2022 stop the Marcos-Duterte dynastic juggernaut 36 years later? There might be a slim fighting chance. The current 2022 Philippine presidential race is not unlike the situation approaching the 1986 presidential elections. While there is a clear frontrunner (i.e. Marcos Jr.), that frontrunner’s lead is not unassailable. The polls are also clear that no one opposition candidate can win against that frontrunner on their own. At the same time, one single opposition candidate who can aggregate the support from all the other candidates can stand a narrow chance of defeating that frontrunner. Besides, with nine weeks to go before the elections on 9 May 2022, voters can still be persuaded to turn away from the frontrunner.
Who should that one single opposition candidate be today? Leading opposition candidate Leni Robredo seems to be the most likely candidate at this point. Both Pulse Asia and SWS reveal that she has about double the support level of her nearest rival. Of course, her close rivals like Pacquiao and Moreno might disagree, given the varying geographical distribution and second preferences of their supporters.
But no matter whether it is Robredo or some other candidate that leads the opposition alliance, this candidate (also known as the “coalition formateur”) must be ready to make some deals. The coalition formateur must make some promises and compromises to obtain the endorsement of his or her fellow opposition elites. These can include promises to appoint certain leaders as part of her cabinet, or some compromises to endorse a fellow young opposition leader to take over her when she ends her term in 2028. Moreno and Pacquiao are potentially young enough to wait a few more years for their turn.
To be sure, Robredo and some opposition leaders may feel that such deals contain painful compromises which may be too difficult for them to accept. But if all insist on their superior candidacies and continue their belligerence right up till election day, then a Marcos-Duterte victory seems assured.
Elvin Ong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.