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Can the opposition be united?

Fel Maragay
Manila Standard Today

As early as the last quarter of 2008, former President Joseph Estrada announced that he had taken upon himself the task of unifying the fragmented opposition forces to boost their fighting chances in the 2010 elections. With so many shining stars in the opposition camp dreaming of ascending to the presidential throne, it was a daunting mission to persuade them to join forces and rally behind a common standard-bearer.

The call for unity was being sounded out by various opposition quarters. But it was only Estrada who has pledged to take concrete steps to translate this into action. If he felt obliged to undertake this task, it’s because he is the acknowledged titular head, the patriarch of the opposition.

The failure of the opposition to field a single presidential bet in the 2004 elections proved fatal to it. They became vulnerable to the administration’s attempt to manipulate the poll outcome. Incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was pitted against four contenders from the opposition—movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., Senators Raul Roco and Panfilo Lacson and evangelist Eddie Villanueva. Arroyo was proclaimed winner but her victory was hounded by allegations of fraud. Even if only one of them, Lacson, had withdrawn from the race, as expressed in frantic appeals of his opposition allies, Poe would have won and the opposition would have recaptured power.

This fatal opposition mistake, Estrada stressed, should be avoided at all costs if they don’t want the debacle of 2004 repeated. He warned that even if only two candidates from the mainstream opposition would be left in the race, that would still be unacceptable because that would split the opposition votes.

The urgency and importance of this task can be gleaned from the pronouncement of Adel Tamano, United Opposition spokesman, that the recapture of the presidency is more important than sweeping the senatorial race. At a media forum at the Sulo Hotel, Quezon City last week, Tamano said that even if the opposition wins the senatorial contest by a landslide, that victory will not carry much weight if they fail to bag the presidency.

Various indications point to Vice President Noli de Castro as the most likely presidential candidate of the administration in the coming polls. If we go by survey results, no other personality from the administration has emerged a winnable contender for the highest elective post. But the opposition has plenty of bankable aspirants to choose from—Senator Manuel Villar of the Nacionalista Party, Senators Loren Legarda and Chiz Escudero of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, Estrada of Puwersa ng Masang Pilipino and Senator Mar Roxas of the Liberal Party.

Estrada says that should the opposition presidential hopefuls fail to agree on a common candidate, he will be left with no choice but to run for president. However, this would only compound, rather than solve, the problem that he had vowed to solve. At this point, it is relevant to ask how Estrada can effectively discharge his self-appointed task in the unity talks considering that he himself is gunning for the presidential nomination. Is this the reason why some presidential aspirants are lukewarm to his call for unity?

Estrada’s task is to act as referee, a one-man unification panel trying to convince the contenders to give way to the best qualified and the most winnable among them. But Estrada’s being a presidential aspirant himself may constrain him from performing such role with fairness and objectivity. What will prevent him from feathering his own nest, from telling his rivals he is the most acceptable, most winnable candidate? In other words, his task is compromised due to conflict of interest.

Probably, this is the reason why there is no visible progress in his role as unifier. He may have talked with some of the presidential aspirants on an individual and informal basis. But so far, he has not convened a meeting of all the aspirants. Just a few days ago, he said he was hoping to conduct the unity talks before June. By that time, the results of the second quarter of 2009 presidential preference surveys of the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia would have been released already. That means the contenders from both sides of the political fence would have already known their standings in the race. And by that time too, they would have made up their mind on whether to run or not.

Because of his political stature as former president and the tremendous influence he wields, it is inevitable for Mr. Estrada to play a crucial role in mapping out the opposition’s campaign strategy for the coming elections. But insofar as the unification effort is concerned, it is a job that he cannot and should not do alone. It is expected of him to convene a meeting of all the presidential aspirants, together with the presidents and chairmen of the political parties within the opposition camp.

If the aspirants are sincere and serious in the unification effort, they should set up the mechanism on how it can be achieved. Part of this mechanism is to set up a selection committee that will draw up the criteria for choosing the common standard-bearer of the United Opposition, along with other guidelines and procedures.

Coupled with the unification effort is identifying the politicians, parties and groups belonging to the opposition and figuring out how to maintain their loyalty. This may be a complicated and sensitive process because the NPC, LP, NP, and even the ruling Lakas are split into forces allied with the administration or opposition.

Significantly, stalwarts of the ruling Lakas say that while Vice President De Castro and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro are their leading contenders for their presidential nomination, they are also hoping to recruit Villar, Legarda and Escudero. However, the three opposition aspirants have already declared that they have no intention of turning their back on the opposition. Nonetheless, there will be persistent attempts by the administration, with all the resource at its command, to break and raid the opposition ranks. This makes it more urgent for Estrada and his allies to act fast in pursuing their unification effort.

Another factor that must be considered by the presidential hopefuls and their respective parties is the difficulty of forming a complete senatorial, congressional and local government slate if they will go for it alone. No party among the NP, NPC, LP or Puwersa ng Masa is in a position to field a complete 12-man senatorial ticket. The only problem is when they combine forces, they will have to junk some of their senatorial aspirants. But that will also mean that only the finest and the most winnable candidates will be chosen, and they will have a powerhouse senatorial lineup.

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