Administration candidate for senator Mar Roxas was there, but so were the opposition’s Jamby Madrigal and Didangen Dilangalen. So was Frank Chavez, who’s running as an independent candidate for senator, and who emphasized his UP activist roots.

Each was given two minutes to address the delegates, among them 150 Aetas from Central Luzon, several dozen Muslims from the ARMM region, and workers from metro Manila’s factories. This was after Quezon City Mayor Sonny Belmonte had told the gathered throng, to the applause of about a thousand pairs of hands, that he had supported their party in 2001.

Presidential candidate Raul Roco showed up later, at about the same time as VP aspirant Loren Legarda. Both were seen making the rounds, talking to the delegates.

The occasion was the Third National Convention of the Left’s Bayan Muna Party List group last January 13 at the University of the Philippines Diliman Campus’ Bahay ng Alumni.

The presence of mainstream politicians from the major coalitions fielding candidates this year as well as independents with national standing was in sharp contrast to 2001, when Bayan founded Bayan Muna. Bayan Muna’s entry into electoral politics was generally ignored. The prevalent belief was that the Left could not deliver the votes, among other reasons because its constituencies were not registered anyway, and it wasn’t serious about winning electoral struggles.

There is some truth to the belief about the Left’s not taking elections seriously enough. Except in two other instances, Leftist personalities had run for office determined not to win, but only to discuss public issues. In May 2001, however, Bayan Muna joined the elections for party-list representation on the strength of the Left groups’ prominent role in the campaign for the ouster of Joseph Estrada, and its overwhelming presence at EDSA in January 2001. There were also the survey findings which said that it was likely to win more than the 24 percent requirement (from among those who will vote for party-list representation) to qualify for the maximum three seats per party-list group in Congress.

Over 1.7 million voted for Bayan Muna in 2001, making it the leading party-list group in the country in terms of constituency. Its peformance also showed that the Left had more support among ordinary people than had previously been thought.

This year Bayan Muna, which claims a presence in 68 of the country’s 79 provinces, says the Left can deliver about two million votes for its candidates and anyone else it chooses to support.

The Left’s involvement in electoral politics in 2001 was not the first in its 73-year history. In 1947 the Democratic Alliance won six seats in Congress after a bruising campaign. The Roxas administration accused the DA of fraud and terrorism to prevent its representatives from voting against the Parity Amendment; the six were not allowed to take their seats.

The disqualification of the DA was a key lesson for the Left. It gave the lie to the claim that any one could compete in free elections in the Philippines. Forty years passed before it again entered the electoral arena through Partido ng Bayan. But it was in many ways 1947 all over again. While two of its candidates for Congress won, six of PnB’s other congressional candidates were killed in 1987. Its president, labor leader Rolando Olalia, was also assassinated by military elements.

Bayan Muna’s participation in electoral politics has been even more costly. As if to contradict government claims that the Left need only participate in elections for its reformist programs to be adopted, police and military elements have killed 40 of its leaders and members since 2001. The latest incident occurred in Laguna only last December 23, when four of its members were abducted at gunpoint and have not been heard of again.

Except for the unproven claim by Rightist politicians disguised as Leftists that it terrorized voters in 2001, the Left’s capacity to get the votes is unchallenged, thus the presence of mainstream politicians in Bayan Muna’s Third National Convention. In an election likely to be one of the most closely contested since the end of dictatorship, the two million votes the Left claims it can get could make the difference between losing and winning.

In one more recognition of the support the Left enjoys, even the Arroyo coalition has asked Bayan Muna to influence its leaders and affiliates into toning down criticism of the administration. This was despite Bayan Muna’s rejection of any possibility of supporting President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo because of the killing of its leaders and the Arroyo government’s policies, which it characterizes as “anti-people and pro-imperialist.”

But there’s even more significant news from the legal Left this year, in addition to its becoming a major, though publicly unacknowledged, player in Philippine electoral politics.

This year six Left groups—five more in addition to Bayan Muna—will participate in the elections for party-list representation. Like Bayan Muna, the five are distinguished not only by what they represent, but also by their nominees’ humble origins and histories of social and political activism.

Of major interest is the entry of groups that represent communities the political system has historically marginalized and ignored.

Through its Migrante Sectoral Party (MSP), the migrant workers’ group Migrante International has fielded six nominees to represent the “new heroes” of the country in Congress. Some politicians claim to be speaking for OFWs. But if MSP wins the minimum number of votes this year, it will be the first time their own fellow migrant workers will represent OFWs in Congress.

Equally interesting is the involvement of the Muslim party-list organization Suara (Voice) Bangsamoro Party, which will convene this February to choose its nominees. Unlike the traditional parties, Suara has put its platform together before it chooses who will represent it in case it wins in 2004. That platform is focused on peace in Mindanao, self-determination for the Moro people, and fighting for Muslim rights and welfare.

To represent workers, peasants and the urban poor, the Left has organized the party-list group Anakpawis, which intends to promote economic development through land reform and nationalist industrialization; just wages for workers and their right to self-organization; the right to own land and the right to adequate housing, as well as women’s participation in decision-making and the protection of children from exploitation.

Anak ng Bayan is a youth party focused on the special concerns of young people, specifically the right to education and educational reform, and the right to employment and equal economic opportunities.

The women’s group Gabriela has organized the Gabriela Women’s Party to address women’s concerns. Liza Masa, who, as one of Bayan Muna’s party-list representatives filed the landmark bill against the trafficking of women and minors in Congress in 2003, is expected to lead GWP’s nominees.

Will any or even all of these groups and Bayan Muna win? If they do, it will mean a significant increase in what Quezon City mayor Belmonte called “alternative ideas” in Congress. Even if they don’t, however, there are other party-list groups which could present legislative options other than the usual tired ones (for example, economic development through foreign investments; continuing military dependence on the United States; globalization and trade liberalization) in Congress.

This year hundreds of nominees from party-list groups will contest the 51 party- list seats in Congress. That large a number of (hopefully—some party-list pols have turned out to be no better than trapos) non-traditional politicians in the legislature can mean drastic changes in the country’s laws, among other possibilities.

Despair as Filipinos might over such things as the atrocious options available to them in choosing their president, vice president and senators, choosing their congresspersons may not be as depressing. This could be the good news this May.

(Today/, January 20, 2004)

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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