A President’s Death, an ICC Call, and Realignments ahead of the 2022 Elections: A Gathering Storm?

CenPEG, 18 July 2021

In June 2021, at least four major events gripped the nation amidst the continuing realignment of political forces ahead of the 2022 national election: the unexpected death of former president Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III (President Noynoy/P-Noy); the formal request in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for a formal investigation of the “crimes against humanity involving murder” allegedly committed by President Duterte and other administration officials; the announcement by 1Sambayan of its initial list of nominees for the two highest executive positions; and a heightening of the internal conflict within the PDP-Laban featuring party president Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao and President Duterte and his close allies. In the contentious electoral politics of the country, these events are bound to introduce some new dynamics albeit in directions still unclear.

A President’s Death and Philippine Politics

The unexpected death of former President Benigno Aquino III on 24 June sparked talks on how this would impact on political processes leading up to the 2022 election. In two past occasions that also featured the passing away of iconic Aquino political figures, the events provoked a cycle of actions that helped shape unforeseen political outcomes.

As the Marcos dictatorship started to unravel in the 1980s, the assassination of former senator and exiled opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, Jr., in August 1983 on his return to the country animated a broad opposition movement that toppled the regime through a combined peoples’ uprising and military mutiny in February 1986. Following these tumultuous events, Mrs. Corazon C. Aquino (Cory Aquino), the martyred senator’s wife assumed power after being declared the legitimate winner of an earlier disputed presidential electoral contest against Marcos. Serving for six years (1986-1992) as the country’s first woman president, Cory Aquino passed away in August 2009.

President Cory Aquino’s death about nine months before the scheduled presidential election in 2010 provoked an unexpected change in the presidential options of the opposition Liberal Party (LP). Pushed to assume the presidential candidacy of the Liberal Party by the overwhelming show of support for a direct Aquino heir, then Senator Noynoy Aquino III replaced the earlier party bet, former Senator Mar Roxas.  Winning the presidency over formidable candidates that included former president Joseph Estrada and former House Speaker and Senate president Manuel Villar, Jr., Aquino III benefited from the public goodwill that flowed from his departed mother’s persona. An unassuming widow and reluctant politician pushed to the presidency during the difficult transition years of the post-dictatorship era, Cory Aquino had become a champion for good governance and democratic rule in her post-presidential years.

About 11 months into the 2022 national election, former President Noynoy Aquino’s death has also ignited similar questions about its political impact. Taking place at a time when the opposition is hard pressed to agree on its leading bets and a common slate of candidates, will Noynoy Aquino’s demise also trigger the same public reaction as the death of Cory Aquino? In the immediate run of events, Noynoy Aquino’s passing has energized the LP leadership and partisans after being marginalized for the last five years with the party announcing an active campaign to organize and recruit new members. Judging from the heightened volume of netizen postings in social media, his death may also have helped pierce the curtain of fear that has restrained critical commentaries on the current administration.

Noynoy Aquino’s death has sparked a rethinking of his legacy that is oftentimes in stark contrast with the track record of the incumbent Duterte administration. Dramatically different in personality, leadership style, policy priorities, and performance record from President Duterte, former President Noynoy’s and his family’s narrative will somehow come into play in the coming election, in the choice of the leading opposition bets and the crafting of campaign messages.

The State of the Political Opposition

Reflecting the dominance of political families and the lack of well-institutionalized program-driven political parties (except for the legal Left parties), the political opposition in its varying formations is usually organized as opportunistic, temporary electoral alliances to replace incumbent officials whose terms of office have come to an end. Since elections serve as institutionalized processes for distributing and sharing power and wealth, those out of power contend fiercely to position themselves as credible opposition candidates.

A new grouping of opposition personalities and organizations launched in March 2021, 1Sambayan (“one nation”), announced on Independence Day, 12 June, its initial list of vetted nominees for the presidency and vice-presidency. Seeking to put together a unified opposition slate to challenge the administration in 2022, 1Sambayan is made up of a broad array of persons and organizations representing a wide spectrum of political persuasions from the Left to the Right of the country’s political pole.  For 1Sambayan, the nominees must be committed to good governance and democratic order with the following as among the key bases of unity: “a clear stand against the atrocities linked with the current administration, especially the extra-judicial killings, not kowtowing to any foreign power, adherence to constitutional principles, and a platform of government incorporating democratic governance practices”. Nominees are also evaluated on their winnability for chosen positions.

Among the official leading conveners of 1Sambayan, none had served in any elective government position although four had occupied key appointive positions in national agencies. All known critics of the major policies of the Duterte administration, these major conveners include: Atty. Howard Calleja, an election law practitioner; former Supreme Court senior associate justice and now 1Sambayan chair, Antonio Carpio; former Foreign Affairs secretary, Alberto del Rosario; former Supreme Court associate justice and Ombudsdman chair, Conchita Carpio-Morales; La Salle Brother and former Education Secretary Armin Luistro; and activist Jesuit priest, Fr. Albert Alejo. Among the member organizations listed as part of 1Sambayan are: Makabayan, Akbayan, Magdalo, Aksyon, Nagkaisa Labor Coalition, Bagong Siklab Pilipinas, SDC-Social Democratic Caucus, The People’s Choice and Frontliners- Tunay na Bayani.

As a broad coalition, 1Sambayan faces the daunting task of balancing the competing demands of principled politics and pragmatic politics. In announcing its list of six screened nominees on 12 June 2021, this dilemma immediately surfaced. The six nominees for the two highest elective positions included: Vice-President Leni Robredo, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, incumbent senator Grace Poe, Rep. Vilma Santos Recto, human rights lawyer and former La Salle Law dean Jose Manuel Diokno, and evangelist and Rep. Eduardo Villanueva of the party list, Citizens Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC).

Of the six nominees, only former senator Trillanes clearly signified his readiness to run for either the presidency or vice-presidency. Vice-President Robredo who is also chair of the Liberal Party has been non-committal so far while stressing the need for a unified slate for the opposition. Both Sen. Grace Poe and Rep. Santos-Recto did not express any interest to run or had no plans for either position in 2022.  Atty. Diokno said that he was considering running in 2022 to help “fix the justice system” but did not specify for which position. Rep. Eddie Villanueva, a losing presidential candidate in 2004 and 2010 and founder of the evangelical organization, Jesus is Lord Movement, has not also clarified his plans in 2022.

Vice-President Robredo appears to be the most acceptable nominee for president of 1Sambayan. She projects a calm and inclusive public image that is the opposite of Duterte’s bullying iconoclasm. A widow of another political icon, the late Mayor Jesse Robredo, she evokes the appeal associated with former president Cory Aquino and could gain from a campaign narrative linked to the legacy of the late president Noynoy Aquino. At first a reluctant candidate in her initial electoral foray, she scored a stunning victory in the 2016 vice-presidential race winning over far more seasoned opponents that included Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., and incumbent senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Francis Escudero, Antonio Trillanes and Gregorio Honasan. If indeed Robredo runs for the presidency, she will build on two given resources: a narrative of a different leadership and governance alternative aligned with 1Sambayan principles and the Aquino legacy and a significant electoral base gained from her 2016 vice-presidential run. However, her latest single digit ratings for presidentiables in poll surveys and uncertain source of funding required for a credible campaign pose serious concerns.

The 1Sambayan coalition faces two uncertainties at the moment. Who will be the presidential candidate if VP Robredo decides not to run and who will be the vice-presidential teammate for whoever is endorsed as the presidential nominee? Among the 1Sambayan nominees, former senator Trillanes has made it clear that he is prepared to run for either the presidency (if Robredo does not run) or the vice-presidency. However, Trillanes is also seen as a polarizing figure who may appeal only to diehard supporters. In the 2016 elections when he ran for the vice-presidency, he received less than a million votes (868,501 or only 2.11% of the total) and trailed far behind Robredo, Marcos, Jr., Cayetano, and Escudero. No doubt, Trillanes’ boldness in exposing atrocities and anomalies associated with the current administration has earned him the admiration of many but this same daringness is also seen by his detractors as a political vulnerability that the opposition could not risk especially for the two highest elective positions.

Assuming that VP Robredo decides finally to run for the presidency, it is not yet clear who will be endorsed by 1Sambayan or the LP as her running mate. If 1Sambayan sticks to its initial list of nominees, only former senator Trillanes is ready to run with her. But some reservations about his winnability complicates this option including the fact that he also comes from the same region as Robredo, normally a strategically unsound pairing in presidential elections. 1Sambayan also expressed its preparedness to explore other match-ups but this is hobbled by the bases of unity required of other possible nominees outside of the initial list. For instance, in giving more room for the winnability factor while loosening the unity on the bases of principles, is 1Sambayan prepared to explore other options such as that of Senator Manny Pacquiao or Manila Mayor Isko Moreno? However, these possibilities are constrained by the fact that both Pacquiao and Isko Moreno also have presidential ambitions and may not be willing to slide down to a VP position.

Anticipating the difficulties of the 1Sambayan vetting process, the Liberal Party (LP) which formally is not part of 1Sambayan, has in fact started to reach out to other possible electoral allies in 2022. Senator Francis Pangilinan who is also the LP president and LP Senator Franklin Drilon have been reported as exploring possible electoral alliances with Senators Panfilo Lacson, Nancy Binay, Joel Villanueva, and Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso.
Senator Lacson declined an invitation by 1Sambayan to join its list of possible presidential nominees after being informed that there are “stumbling blocks” to the process due to his main sponsorship in the Senate of the Anti-Terror Law whose constitutionality is being questioned by many groups in the coalition. Moreover, Lacson also felt aggrieved that 1Sambayan was prepared to endorse him as a senatorial bet but not as president, pointing out the inconsistency of this stance. Pondering his political future, Lacson said that if he decides to run for the presidency, Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto would definitely be his running mate.

Lacson ran for the presidency in 2004 but placed a distant third after Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Fernando Poe, Jr., receiving only 10.88% of the total votes. If it pushes through, a Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC)-backed Lacson-Sotto team with its narrative as a more rational and effective version of a strong leadership and its Luzon-Visayas regional linkages could be a major player. Moreover, the NPC also counts among its members former senators Francis Escudero and Loren Legarda who are seeking new seats in the senate as well as incumbent senator Win Gatchalian.

The Duterte Camp

In choosing his successor, President Duterte is grappling with an unstated urgent concern: who can best be trusted to protect and insulate him from almost certain criminal suits once he is out of power. This is no empty threat as dramatized by the incarceration of former presidents Estrada and Macapagal-Arroyo and the filing of cases against the late President Aquino III once they had lost their presidential immunity from suits. Thus, the administration’s presidential candidate must not only be winnable but also to be fully trusted in this regard.

As the president’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte-Carpio is arguably the best, natural choice for addressing Duterte’s post-presidential concerns. As shown by the latest survey ratings, she is winnable and would be expected to protect the bloodline once Duterte faces the legal suits. But there have been confusing signals so far from both Mayor Sara and President Duterte. At first, the president tried discouraging his daughter from running and later egged her on to join the race but Mayor Sara has yet to announce her final decision. The actions on the ground, however, speak louder than words. In highly publicized visits, Mayor Sara met with Bongbong Marcos and Senator Imee Marcos as well as with former Defense Secretary and Tarlac representative Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro, Jr.

Seeking to align themselves with Mayor Sara, five other political parties have sought to renew their alliance with the Hugpong ng Pagbabago political party led by the mayor. These parties include: Lakas-CMD of former president Macapagal-Arroyo and former House Speaker Jose de Venecia; National Unity Party led by Ronaldo Puno; Nacionalista Party led by former House Speaker and Senate president Manuel Villar, Jr.; Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino founded by former president Joseph Estrada; and the People’s Reform Party founded by the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

If Mayor Sara decides to run, her running mate will have to come from Luzon or the Visayas, following conventional election strategy and the geographical distribution of votes. In this situation, her possible vice-presidential bets include Bongbong Marcos or Imee Marcos, Gibo Teodoro, House Majority leader Rep. Martin Romualdez of Leyte, and Mayor Isko Moreno. Interestingly, President Duterte himself has singled out Romualdez as the candidate he would support for the vice-presidency. A decision by Mayor Sara not to run would open the floodgates for other Duterte allies to position themselves for the presidency, most likely dividing the support base of the Duterte camp.

The PDP-Laban seems on the verge of imploding with one faction led by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi pushing for a Bong Go-Duterte or a Mayor Sara-President Duterte team. With his own presidential ambition imperiled, party president Manny Pacquiao has not taken this lightly and has signaled his displeasure by criticizing not only secretary Cusi but also some of the key policies of President Duterte himself including his position on the West Philippine Sea and the administration’s poor record on corruption cases. In turn, the president has lambasted Pacquiao for his lack of knowledge about the issues he has brought up, further widening the rift between the senator and the president.

In a bold preemptive move, Pacquiao and his supporters in the party recently announced the expulsion of Cusi and officials closely identified with him. Cusi’s faction has been actively campaigning for a Senator Bong Go-President Duterte team or a Mayor Sara-Pres. Duterte team in 2022 which effectively takes out Pacquiao from the running. With the expulsion of Cusi and his group, Pacquiao has also signaled his distancing from the Dutertes and his determination to run for the presidency.  With Pacquiao out of the inner Duterte circle of presidentiables, the following could very well get the official endorsement of President Duterte: Mayor Sara Duterte, Senator Bong Go, former senator Bongbong Marcos, and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. In earlier announcements, Duterte had named all of them as possible presidential candidates deserving of his support.

With Senator Go as elected president, Duterte has somebody he can fully trust, aside from daughter Mayor Sara, to shield him from the expected legal suits to be filed when his immunity from suits shall have ended. In making this calculation, the Go-Duterte faction assumes further that the vaunted continuing high trust ratings for the president will translate into automatic votes for Go. However, there is no strong historical record to support this claim in Philippine elections. Not only are elections here highly personalistic but the presidential and vice-presidential candidates are not voted as a team but appraised as separate persons. In the past five presidential elections after the administration of Cory Aquino, only the combination of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Noli de Castro had won as a team. But this election was marred by what is arguably the worst case of electoral fraud in the post-dictatorship era, involving an incumbent president, Arroyo, who was later convicted and arrested for graft cases.  Finally, the presidential contest will also be decided by the persona and campaign narrative of each candidate, their mass appeal, and organizational resources, not to mention the possible feared manipulation of the automated election system.

A presidential run by Senator Pacquiao creates big problems for the Duterte camp because he is the candidate that will most likely draw away votes from the Duterte supporters in both the Visayas and Mindanao. He has a compelling campaign narrative built on the authentic case of a poor man becoming rich and successful by sheer grit through his boxing prowess. As shown by his electoral record, he has a proven national base winning a senate seat in 2016 and is tied for second place among presidentiables in the latest surveys. However, if Pacquiao is eventually ousted from the PDP-Laban, he needs to create his own party machinery, relying on his remaining party loyalists, or explore alliances with other parties including the Liberal Party or the Nationalist Peoples’ Coalition (NPC). For instance, a Robredo-Pacquiao team or a Lacson-Pacquiao combination are exciting prospects although fraught with impediments given pre-existing declared commitments and alliances by the concerned players.

Outside of the legal-constitutional problems, a Bong Go-President Duterte or Mayor Sara-President Duterte team also ignites new problems for the Duterte camp. A Bong-Go-President Duterte team means pushing out Mayor Sara which could create serious problems of disunity among Duterte supporters. Why not just a Duterte-Duterte team, a father and daughter tandem in 2022? This is a tantalizing prospect for Duterte diehards but such brazenness in offering the virtues of concentrated dynastic power in the two highest positions of the land could backfire. Many ambitious political families including those allied with the Dutertes will likely find this power monopoly too much, pushing them to mount their own challenges in 2022. In stark terms, in a Go-Duterte tandem or worse, a Duterte-Duterte team, how will the Marcoses and Romualdezes, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo through surrogate Gibo Teodoro, Mayor Isko Moreno, not to mention Manny Pacquiao, react? This could provoke new alliances and realignments not to the liking of the Duterte camp.

A Call from the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor

In mid-June, the extrajudicial killings in the country hogged the limelight once again after chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court (ICC) formally requested “judicial authorization to proceed with an investigation” of the alleged “crime against humanity of murder committed” in the Philippines. In the summary report submitted by Bensouda on her retirement day (June 14), the requested investigation if approved by the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber will cover alleged crimes committed “between 1 July 2016 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the war on drugs” and even “. . . as early as 1 November 2011”.

It will be recalled that in 2019 President Duterte ordered the country’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the ICC. However, Article 127 of the statute says that the court retains jurisdiction over all crimes committed in a state’s territory while it was still a member of the Rome Statute.  If the formal investigation proceeds, the drug-war related killings to be investigated by the ICC covers some 7,000 cases based on police records to as high as 27,000 as reported by human rights and civil society organizations.

A contentious ICC principle that will have to be worked out to the satisfaction of both the ICC and the Philippine government concerns that of “complementarity”. This principle means that the ICC will act only if the member-state in question is “unwilling or unable to prosecute” the cases concerned. Not surprisingly, the Philippine government has continuously affirmed its willingness and ability to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged extra-judicial killings (EJKs). To date, the government has completed the prosecution and conviction of only three officers involved in the drug-war related killing of a 17-year-old, Mr. Kian de los Santos, in 2017.

Responding to the pressure from international human rights monitoring groups including that of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government’s Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have also reported that some cases are now being reviewed for possible lapses in police operations leading to fatal outcomes. However, human rights lawyers and groups see these moves as contrived responses since the culture of impunity embedded in police and military operations has also been enabled by the behavior and policies of state authorities, making accountability difficult. In the absence of more independent bodies involved in the investigation and prosecution of these killings, the public and particularly the relatives of the EJK victims are unlikely to find acceptable closures to their sufferings.

At the moment, the report about the filing of a formal request for investigation by the ICC of the drug-related EJKs, has put on the defensive, to some extent, the key agencies and authorities of government implicated in these questioned actions. While not a formal indictment document, Bensouda’s summary report actually included the names of then PNP chief and now Senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa, and former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, as being part of an “apparent” policy in pursuit of the violent drug war.

The outcome of the 2022 presidential election will have consequential effects on the relevance of the ICC investigation in the country assuming that it formally proceeds. A president-elect closely allied with President Duterte will have many means of frustrating the progress of any investigation, local or international. A president-elect opposed to Duterte could very well facilitate the investigative process. #


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