The May 9 national elections in the Philippines are taking place as the country reels under the blows of multiple system crises — climate, economic and social — compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than a fifth of the labour force (22.1%) or almost a tenth of the population (9.78%) are underemployed or unemployed.
Minimum wages are basically slave wages, with 18.0% of families falling below the official regional poverty line in the first half of 2021. Meanwhile, the collective wealth of the 50 richest Filipinos grew by 30% from 2020‒21, despite the pandemic.
The Philippines is also one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate-related impacts, such as typhoons and sea-level rise. By 2030, about 50% of the population is expected to be affected by rising sea levels, with sections of major urban centres submerged, including the capital Metro Manila.
In the political arena, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ clan relentlessly pursues their ambition to retake power. They have formed an alliance with President Rodrigo Duterte and his clan, who are equally determined to protect their dynasty's hold on power.
The former dictator’s son, Bongbong Marcos jnr is running for president, with the president’s daughter Sara Duterte, running as his vice president. These two clans have united with some of the most right-wing political clans in the country — such as the Arroyos and the Estradas — and are backed by sections of the “billionaire” capitalist class (many of whom are listed in the Forbes list of Asia’s richest families).
“Business as usual”, even with limited reforms, offers no solutions at all. A radical and socialist alternative is needed.
Filipino socialists under the Partido Lakas ng Masa (Party of the Laboring Masses — PLM), a nationally registered political party of the marginalised, supported by several left and green coalitions, decided to take on the challenge and run an opposition ticket based on a radical anti-capitalist platform against what they have popularly termed the “Marcos-Duterte axis of evil”.
This is a truly historic campaign. It’s the first time that the left has contested the presidency and the first time a worker and a labour leader has run for president on an anti-capitalist and transitional socialist platform. The PLM election campaign has broken the mould of traditional politics, broken new ground, and laid the basis for a genuinely new type of radical and pro-peoples politics in the electoral arena.
As PLM presidential candidate, Leody De Guzman declared in a national television debate: “We need a new politics, a new economy.”
Duterte — A rise in authoritarian rule
The Duterte regime, elected to office in May 2016, represents a rise in far-right, authoritarian and even neo-fascist governments internationally — from Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro to “Trumpism” in the United States, to Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Narendra Modi’s “Hindu fascism” in India.
This international trend is the political manifestation of multiple and intersecting capitalist crises — economic, social, political and environmental — and the utter failure of “liberal” neoliberal governments to address them. It is also a consequence of the inability of the left to build and mobilise around a genuine anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist alternative.
Duterte’s election is a result of the failure of the post-Marcos “elite” democratic regimes — from President Cory Aquino onwards. Aquino came to power through a “peoples’ power” revolution in February 1986 that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972 and closed down the congress.
Duterte’s infamous “war on drugs” — basically a war on the poor, on democratic rights and human rights — has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of about 27,000 people.
Duterte has weaponised the law in order to silence the opposition. His Anti-Terror Act of July 2020 allows for warrantless arrest and detention for 24 days. The definition of terrorism is vague, broad and covers legitimate dissent and protest — with mere intent being criminalised.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ElCAC) was formed, with a large budget, to carry out combined military and psywar attacks in communities with suspected Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People’s Army (CPP-NDF-NPA) activities. The “cyber crime” law introduced by former president Noynoy Aquino’s government effectively renders opposition on social media platforms a crime. Duterte used this law to arrest and charge world-renowned journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa — CEO of the online news service Rappler — with “cyber libel”.
People have become disillusioned and weakened by decades of neoliberal rule that has destroyed the socio-economic foundations of society and their very lives. Unemployment, irregular work, lack of basic services, failed land reform, extreme poverty and hunger, the impacts of climate change and the environmental crisis are all exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic.
It was in this context that Duterte was elected, drawing mass support for his populist program and rhetoric. This included the promise to end contractualisation (precarious labour or the subcontracting of labour), which won him support from sections of the labour movement. He also promised to end the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States (which allows for US military presence in the country) and to back China against the US in the disputed South China Sea and Spratley Islands disputes.
Duterte was a former ally of the CPP-NPA and appointed several leaders of the mass organisations aligned with them to cabinet and to senior departmental positions.
This alliance was — as anticipated by many on the left — short-lived. Duterte broke with the CPP-NPA, kicked them out of his government and began to hound their underground leadership. This included brutal killings and military operations targeting their areas of support, especially in Indigenous communities in Mindanao.
The opposition aligned with the Liberal Party was significantly weakened to the point of being unable and unwilling to mount a clear and consistent opposition to Duterte. A majority of them in Congress simply switched sides to support Duterte. Duterte’s vice president, current Liberal Party chair Leni Robredo simply preferred to play the role of a “responsible” elected official, rather than oppose Duterte. She is contesting the presidency in the May 9 elections as an independent — an anomaly resulting from the direct election of the president and vice president.
The mass movement, led by the left, has been at the forefront of resistance to Duterte.
Blame the system, not the masses
A recurring refrain of the liberal bourgeois opposition is that the people are to blame for voting in Duterte. PLM rejects this argument, as it ignores the systemic problems that nurture and replicate elite rule by the dynasties and political clans.
System change in the Philippines is a struggle to dismantle the political dynasties. This is the context in which the May 9 elections are taking place.
In the Senate, 17 out of 24 senators belong to dynasties and political clans. In the Congress, 71% of the district representatives are from political clans and dynasties. In the Party List seats set aside for the marginalised sectors, 62 out of 134 have links to political dynasties and clans. Governors in 81 provinces — more than 80% — are from dynasties, and more than 51% are aligned with Duterte.
This system of “dynasty politics” is built on electoral fraud, backed by coercion and violence. The liberal opposition plays its own dynasty games. The left needs to breach this system, to make any meaningful gains in the electoral arena.
In this context, with a gaping political vacuum in the electoral arena, with the Liberal Party unable to present an opposition candidate, and Robredo announcing her candidacy for presidency as an independent, PLM took on the challenge and decided to run a full slate of candidates and present a radical alternative to the electorate.
PLM’s presidential candidate De Guzman is a long-term labour leader, a founding member of PLM and chairperson of the socialist labour centre, Solidarity of Filipino Workers (BMP). PLM’s vice presidential candidate Walden Bello is a renowned international scholar and political activist, and chairperson of the socialist coalition Laban ng Masa.
PLM’s senate team is led by Luke Espiritu, a labour lawyer, former PLM national council member and BMP president. PLM led the formation of a socialist-green alliance with the Nature Party and Green Party, whose leaders Roy Cabonegro and David D’Angelo are running for the senate as PLM candidates.
PLM is also running for Congress under the Party List system as the PLM Party List. Several mayors and local councilors are running against local political clans and traditional politicians.
PLM’s radical platform of demands aims at starting the urgent process of transforming Philippine society in a socialist direction. It includes:
- Introduction of a wealth tax on the richest families (with a net worth of more than P100 million), to address inequality;
- Cancellation of national debt repayments for five years; repealing the Automatic Debt Appropriation Law; and reviewing and auditing all existing debts;
- Recovery and return of the remaining wealth stolen by the Marcos family (P126 billion) and prosecution of family members who have kept and utilised this wealth;
- Use of the recovered stolen wealth, proceeds of the wealth tax and debt cancellation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic;
- Immediate increase in the daily minimum wage to P750 a day, nationwide;
- Ensure workers are consulted in all industries and economic sectors through the establishment of unions and workers’ committees in parallel to corporate boards for policy and daily operations;
- Ban contractualisation in all its forms; impose price controls on oil, electricity, internet, water, farm inputs, and other basic commodities;
- Institute small farmers’ control of agriculture and ensure food sovereignty; distribute for free all remaining lands under the agrarian reform; prevent land conversions, especially by large property firms; freeze compliance with all World Trade Organization directives; and repeal the 2019 Rice Tariffication Law that relaxes rice imports;
- Start the immediate dismantling of political dynasties by approving an enabling law to implement the anti-dynasty provisions of the Constitution;
- Uphold climate justice; demand reparations from rich countries for their historical responsibilities; pursue a just transition to a low carbon economy with democratic ownership of renewable and clean energy systems; repeal the pro-mining Philippine Mining Act;
- Institute measures to fully achieve gender equality and strengthen gender rights; end violence against women; pass a divorce law; decriminalise abortion; pass new legislation to address the gender wage gap; recognise and compensate reproductive and care work; legalise the LGBTQIA+ gender category; uphold marriage equality and support alternative forms of family arrangements;
- Unconditionally resume peace talks with the CPP-NDF-NPA; Repeal the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act; significantly reduce the budget of all security-related and defence agencies, relative to the social services budget;
- Uphold the right to self-determination; support the Bangsamoro people's struggle for full and meaningful autonomy; strengthen and enforce Indigenous principles of common ownership and stewardship of natural resources; and
- A non-aligned foreign policy based national sovereignty and internationalism; end military agreements with the US and immediately close down all US de facto military bases. Reject the expansionist and sphere-of-influence claims of China and the US in the South China Sea; promote a commons-based development and utilisation of natural resources in disputed areas.
The PLM’s platform has had a significant national impact and response. Candidates’ statements have gone viral on social media, and there is daily coverage in all the major media outlets. Legal and verbal threats have even been made against PLM candidates by those aligned with the Marcos-Duterte opposition.
The rest of the left have failed to respond to the challenges posed in this political conjuncture.
They are following their “business as usual” strategy in the electoral arena, running left candidates hitched to the presidential campaign of a faction of the capitalist class (and not necessarily even a “lesser evil” option, such as in the case of support for Duterte by the CPP).
This time around, the CPP, Akbayan and Partido Manggagawa (Labor Party) are supporting Robredo. The labour movement is divided, with unions aligned to these parties supporting the liberal bourgeois opposition. The right-wing Trade Union Congress of the Philippines is supporting Marcos jnr.
Currently the Marcos-Duterte tandem is leading in the polls, with Robredo trailing in second place, but with growing support. These polls are commissioned and paid for by the candidates and are biased in favour of them.
Apparently, the polls pointing to a Marcos jnr victory have been angled towards areas where his support is strong. Marcos’ lead is based on almost solid support from the dynasties, with 71 out of 81 governors also supporting Marcos-Duterte. This could lead to massive electoral fraud. For example, the Commission on Elections has signed a contract for the distribution of vote-counting machines with F2 Logistics — a company owned by Duterte crony Dennis Uy. There are rumours of pre-shaded ballots being discovered in Singapore. All these would favour Marcos jnr.
Robredo also has support from a few dynasties and indications are that the current US administration would support her victory. She is extremely cautious in attacking US foreign policy interests, and most of her pronouncements are about honouring military agreements with the US, etc.
Both sides are also wooing the military, with Robredo supporting the continuation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, thus supporting a military approach to ending the insurgency.
While Robredo herself is a clean and honest politician, the Liberal Party is a different matter; playing all the cards associated with traditional politics, including accusations of electoral fraud.
PLM has been asked if it will withdraw and support Robredo’s candidacy. However, on its key platform issues, there is no basis for this. Even on gender equality, Robredo — the only female candidate — does not support the legalisation of divorce or the decriminalisation of abortion. On a low-carbon energy transition, she is open to considering the option of nuclear power. Greenpeace Philippines has questioned her stand on ensuring that “the government institutes climate action as a central policy of the state”, while approving of PLM’s platform on facing this existential challenge.
PLM campaign manager Sonny Melencio summed it up in a recent interview: “No to withdrawal, yes to unity on the ground [against the axis of evil – Marcos-Duterte].”
There is a real possibility of a Marcos-Duterte victory. The same strategy and machinery that was operationalised in the 2019 elections is still in place to ensure their win.
In 2019, a massive vote-buying spree catapulted the price of a vote to P3000 or more, because of the pool of funds from national candidates, party-list groups, district representatives, gubernatorial candidates and local mayors. The same well-oiled machine is in place today, coupled with the bandwagon effect of expensive survey polls.
PLM needs to be prepared to mobilise against electoral fraud and the election of this regime of jackals. “Unity on the streets” will be key in this scenario. Because of the political impact of its campaign, PLM is well positioned to intervene and politically influence the inevitable struggles ahead.
[Reihana Mohideen is a National Council member of the Party of the Laboring Masses (PLM) and heads up the party’s international work.]