They may be “confusing” to Representative Imee Marcos, and painful to former senator Heherson Alvarez. But the politicians’ party-switching and other cross-overs from the administration to the opposition and vice versa are easily explained.

Senator Rodolfo Biazon, who was among the candidates for senator of former senator Raul Roco’s Alyansa ng Pagasa, has joined the Liberal Party and is now among President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s candidates for senator, as are Senator John Osmena, former Estrada Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, and former senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

The senatorial slate of Fernando Poe Jr.’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) now includes former administration allies Alfredo Lim and Ernesto Herrera. Representative Marcos, on the other hand, has withdrawn from the KNP senatorial list, and will now run for reelection instead. And all these happened only during the last weekend.

Like others in the past, the individuals concerned do cloak their decisions in the language of noble intentions, and some have even come close to the expression of some core principle.

Biazon, who was with the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino but went on leave to go over to Roco’s Alyansa, now says he joined the LP—and presumably accepted the administration draft—because the LP has been around for 60 years, and like the administration, supports his call for reforms in the Armed Forces.

Osmena, previously listed in the KNP ticket, claims that he went over to the administration side because Fernando Poe Jr. has shunned the company of politicians. Santiago says she cannot abide campaigning with Loren Legarda, Poe’s running mate, for her role in the impeachment process which led to the ouster of Joseph Estrada in 2000-2001.

As for Marcos, the speculation is that her family decided to make her withdraw as part of a deal with the Arroyo government that could lead to the withdrawal of the charges now pending against Imelda Marcos in exchange for Marcos support in the Ilocos.

It’s not as if Biazon’s advocacy of reforms in the Armed Forces, by now a buzz phrase in danger of turning into a commitment similar to God, country and motherhood, is being resisted by any of the parties. Poe’s shunning the company of politicians sounds more like a virtue rather than a vice. And while Santiago’s inability to abide Legarda may suggest that she regards the ouster of Estrada as unacceptable, apparently she can abide Arroyo herself, who replaced Estrada. The Marcos decision speaks for itself.

So much for principle. The truth is that politicians can easily make the change from one party to another because, despite the promise of “new politics” in 2001, these parties and coalitions and whatever else they call themselves have turned out to be no different from their predecessors.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating. They differ only in name, not in visions or programs. They do not exist for the achievement of an alternative future, or for putting in place the means of getting there, which is basically what responsible governance is all about. While they are indeed run by, and count as members, different sets of people, these people themselves are in outlook, temperament and ideology as homogenous as bottled milk.

The pity of it is that it could have been different. That it hasn’t been can be firmly laid at the administration’s door, which in January 2001 came to power on a mandate to address government corruption and inefficiency by, among other means, abandoning the politics of cronyism and patronage.

That mandate would have made EDSA II worth it, and could have been the framework and eventually the basis for, a platform of transparency and governance based on the demands of national interest that could have distinguished the administration’s People Power Coalition from the then totally discredited opposition.

Alvarez expressed his disappointment over the weekend at the inclusion of Santiago, Mercado and Osmena in the administration’s list of candidates for senator. Alvarez, who filed the impeachment complaint against Estrada in the House of Representatives in 2000, said he had been hoping that the administration “would carry the spirit of EDSA II” during the campaign.

Alvarez has a right to be disappointed. But he should have noted the signs that despite President Arroyo’s pledge in 2001, old politics rather than new would continue. These signs had come early rather than late.

Old politics was evident in the new administration’s lukewarm support for the filing of plunder charges against Estrada. It was evident in its campaign to win over his urban poor constituencies, equally evident in its effort, at least partly successful, to recruit Estrada partisans into the government.

It was also evident in the loud noises about “reconciliation” and “unity” it has been making in the last two years—and even more evident in its encouraging the Sandiganbayan last December to reverse itself and allow Estrada to leave for the United States.

The result has been the slow death of the People Power Coalition, and in its place the rise of a de facto coalition no different in opportunism, lack of principle and drive for power from the mainstream opposition. Today as in the past, the contending groups are hardly distinguishable from each other except in the personalities that dominate them.

That in terms of what they stand for there’s hardly anything to distinguish one party or coalition from another compels politicians to decide affiliations only on the basis of what group can best assure their victory. Nothing new in these, except Alvarez’ disappointment. What could be new, however, is that the politicians themselves seem uncertain as to which political grouping is likely to win this May.

The bad news for Roco and his admittedly heroic effort is that his Alyansa is not regarded as among the probables. Despite his justification for leaving Roco in the lurch, Biazon’s action speaks louder than words: it’s saying that Biazon doesn’t think the Alyansa has a ghost of chance this May.

By moving from one to the other, the rest of the cross-overs are saying the same thing plus something else: that the May election will be between the KNP and the coalition the administration is cobbling together on the ruins of the People Power Coalition. They’re also saying that the tidal wave of support his immense popularity could bring Fernando Poe Jr. could be countered by the incumbent’s advantages in terms of resources and power, as well as by her tested political skills.

Are the cross-overs’ instincts sound in their implicit assessment that the chances of the Poe coalition on the one hand and of the soon-to-be-announced Arroyo grouping are about equal? If they are, it means that the May election will be exceedingly close, and as a consequence, could be one more occasion for the usual vote-buying, terrorism, fraud and bloodletting that have characterized past Philippine elections.

The closer the likely results of an election are perceived to be, the more vigorous the effort to influence them. As a result the country could be on the threshold of the one of its worst elections ever.

(Today/, January 6, 2004)

Luis V. Teodoro

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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