Nene Pimentel and Ninoy Aquino

President Rodrigo Duterte is supposedly considering five possible PDP-Laban candidates for President in 2022: Manila Mayor “Isko” Moreno, his confidant “Bong” Go, the boxer Emmanuel Pacquiao, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and his daughter Sara.

The last is from all indications Mr. Duterte’s choice, his “considering” others being a mere sop to Pacquiao and company’s bruised egos. But Marcos Jr.’s inclusion in the list of the party’s possible 2022 candidates is one of the most bizarre ironies ever spawned by this country’s political culture of exclusion and patronage. PDP merged with Laban in 1983 to strengthen the resistance to the Marcos autocracy and to hasten the restoration of democratic institutions. But things have come to such a pass that should Mr. Duterte’s plans miscarry, the late dictator’s own son could be the PDP-Laban’s standard beater in next year’s elections.

Even without that calamity’s transpiring, however, PDP-Laban is nevertheless still the regressive anomaly it has become since 2016. Chaired by Mr. Duterte, PDP-Laban has been the ruling party since that year. The party became the enabler of the current despotism when the late Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. supported the Duterte candidacy five years ago apparently because of the latter’s declared support for federalism. Pimentel had always favored federalism as the solution to the dominance of “imperial Manila” over the rest of the country. But his and other federalism advocates’ hopes that Mr. Duterte would be true to his promise to effect the country’s shift to that system of government have died with him.

PDP-Laban is a merger of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino (Filipino Democratic Party) and Lakas ng Bayan (Power of the People). Pimentel was among the founders of PDP in 1982 as part of the opposition to the Marcos dictatorship and the regime’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL-New Society Movement). He was a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, a four-time political prisoner during the Marcos martial law period, and a prominent member of the political opposition and the “parliament of the streets.” He was head of local governments during the Corazon Aquino Presidency, and then a senator of the restored Republic, and later Senate President.

In early 1972 Pimentel opposed the inclusion of a provision in the proposed Constitution that would have enabled Marcos to run for a third term in 1973. He was arrested and detained together with like-minded Convention delegates when Marcos placed the Philippines under martial rule on September 23, 1972. Despite his arrest, he refused to be intimidated into signing the 1973 Marcos Constitution.

While imprisoned in Camp Crame, Pimentel lent his considerable skills as a lawyer to his fellow detainees. In one of a number of instances, he helped release a poor non-political detainee falsely accused of illegal possession of firearms. The detainee’s family left him for the provinces when a neighbor who was a Philippine Constabulary (PC) trooper he had had a spat with caused his arrest by planting a rust-eaten pistol in his home.

Pimentel’s virtual law office in the Camp Crame stockade helped many others by acquainting them with their rights. He often represented them pro bono during their interrogation sessions with the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO). His own rights were being suppressed, but it did not stop him from defending those of others.

His PDP merged with Lakas ng Bayan in 1983. Laban was founded in 1978 by the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. to contest the Batasang Pambansa elections that year. The merger was meant to unite opposition to the dictatorship and to prepare for possible Presidential elections, which did take place in 1986, and in which PDP-Laban fielded Aquino Jr.‘s widow Corazon for President. Pimentel was part of the Corazon Aquino administration from 1986 to 1992.

It should be evident from its name alone that PDP-Laban was committed to the recovery and defense of the democratic institutions martial law had destroyed, and to the people’s sovereign right to decide for themselves what government can best represent them.

During martial law and the years after, PDP-Laban was exceptional in that it espoused an ideology of democratization and resistance to tyranny. But in the hands of Mr. Duterte and his ilk, it has not only lost the progressive politics that used to distinguish it from the traditional political parties that have afflicted this country since Commonwealth days. It has also morphed into the exact opposite of what it used to be. It was responsible for the demise of the system of checks and balances that ideally should assure the independence of the three branches of government from each other so as to prevent the abuse of power particularly by the Presidency. It thereby enabled the return of strongman rule.

Corruption has reached unprecedented levels during its five years as the party in power. The economy is in shambles and unemployment at an all- time high. Nothing is left of its once progressive and liberal-democratic membership. It is instead populated by crypto-and unashamed fascists, and individuals in positions of power who know next to nothing about governance. Almost daily do some of its members propose further restrictions on democratic rights. Its legislative majority was in fact responsible for the passage of the atrocity mislabeled the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Equally revealing of the depths into which it has fallen is the current jockeying among its members over whom it will field for President in 2022 — and in the brazenly anti-Constitution proposal for a Sara Duterte for President-Rodrigo Duterte for Vice President team-up.

Nene Pimentel was Corazon Aquino’s choice for running mate in the 1986 “snap” elections Marcos had called. But Pimentel gave way to Salvador Laurel to preserve and strengthen the pro-democracy, anti-Marcos forces. Neither self-interest nor expediency guided that decision; principle and love of country and people did.

No such scruple is evident in the current contention among the pretenders to Mr. Duterte’s throne. There is no difference in what they stand for; no issues over governance nor platforms distinguish them from each other. Indeed, only the questions of who can win next year and whom Mr. Duterte will support are at issue, as well as whether a father-daughter tandem will prosper despite the Constitutional ban on a president’s seeking re-election through any means.

It is of course possible for whoever PDP-Laban fields to win in 2022 given the usual advantages of the incumbent in government resources, facilities and organization, and the Duterte camp’s army of trolls and media hirelings and its reportedly unlimited war chest.

PDP-Laban’s members and partisans would no doubt look at that development as an indication of their power and relevance. But that national catastrophe would only accelerate the decline and fall of the party as a force for democracy, freedom and human rights that began in 2016. In the process it will unfortunately take the rest of the country and the Filipino millions with it.

No trace of either Nene Pimentel’s or Ninoy Aquino’s progressive, anti-authoritarian legacy, which once distinguished it from other political formations, remains in PDP-Laban today. Its only claim to notoriety is that it has become no better than the so-called “political parties” only whose names rather than what they stand for distinguish them from each other, and which over the decades have consigned this country to where it is now: at the tail-end of progress in Southeast Asia, and in the dustbin of world history.

First published in BusinessWorld. Images from Senate and PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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