Koko’s dilemma

One can sympathize with Sen. Koko Pimentel’s dilemma as he ponders the wisdom of joining the senatorial slate of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) for 2013.  How can he run in the same party, campaign on the same stage, and endorse the candidacy of a person he has accused of electoral fraud?  Koko was the principal victim of the “dagdag-bawas” fraud perpetrated in Central Mindanao in the 2007 elections. He had to file an expensive, time-consuming, and heart-breaking protest to recover the Senate seat that rightfully belonged to him. He had to wait for four years before Juan Miguel Zubiri, who took his seat, would resign in recognition of the validity of his protest. Today, it is sweet irony that Koko occupies the chair of the Senate committee on electoral reforms, which aims to eliminate cheating in the nation’s elections.

UNA is the coalition formed by former President Joseph Estrada of the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) and incumbent Vice President Jejomar Binay of the PDP-Laban. It first saw action in the 2010 presidential election, where Estrada lost to Noynoy Aquino while Binay prevailed over the favored Mar Roxas, P-Noy’s running mate. The PDP-Laban is itself a coalition of the ideologically oriented Pilipino Democratic Party (PDP) established by Koko’s father, former Sen. Nene Pimentel, and the Laban party which brought together the anti-Marcos politicians who gravitated around Cory Aquino.

From the start, Koko had objected to the inclusion of Migs Zubiri in the UNA slate. Nothing personal, he said. Just that he will be seeking reelection in 2013 on a platform of electoral integrity, and, in his view, Zubiri is a living reminder of the ills of the electoral system. So clear is this contradiction that one would think there is no way of making it disappear. But, as the philosopher Richard Rorty would put it, there is nothing in the world that cannot be made to look good by simple redescription.

It is fascinating to analyze the shape of this discourse as it develops for it reveals so much of the nature of our politics. UNA says there is ample room for both Koko and Migs in the coalition. Koko is a nominee of the PDP-Laban, while Migs comes in as a nominee of the PMP. These are two parties that are joining forces in order to win; one party cannot dictate on the other. The personalities that constitute them may have differences, but they must put these aside and focus instead on the advocacies they share.

But if personal differences pose a problem, UNA spokesperson JV Bautista says, the campaign itself could be organized so that Koko and Migs would not find themselves speaking in the same event or having to acknowledge each other’s presence. That assumes, of course, that the individuals concerned would refrain from making any comment about the other when directly asked by the media. Migs’ self-effacing charm suits him well for the role. He has shown he can sound contrite about what happened without admitting he had a hand in the cheating.  In contrast, Koko’s image as a principled straight talker who is not given to pretense will make it difficult for him to explain why he is running with people who represent the very antithesis of what he stands for. In this regard, his problem will not just be with Migs Zubiri.

If he wishes to stay with UNA, Koko will have to listen to what Erap is telling him, and that is, to view Migs not as an enemy but, in a sense, as a fellow victim of a dysfunctional system. This is Rortyan redescription at its best. What Erap wants Koko to see is a Migs Zubiri who resigned before the recount of the votes could be completed. His complicity in the cheating was never proven, says Erap. But in resigning, he achieved something unprecedented.

Most politicians in this situation would use everything in their power to stall the process until the expiration of their term. But Migs did not. While denying that he cheated, he implicitly recognized that he became its beneficiary, and therefore could not stay at his post a day longer. Such decency is rare in our politics. Surely, it must count for something. That’s Erap’s script. So well does it echo the pervasive themes of repentance and forgiveness in our culture that one would not be surprised if, on this basis, Zubiri returns to the Senate next year, this time on his own steam.

Though he enjoys the privilege of being offered a slot in both the UNA and the administration slate led by the Liberal Party, Koko actually has the more difficult job of ensuring his reelection. Possessing neither charisma nor celebrity appeal, he must continue to bank on the unsullied family name and political legacy of his father. He knows these are not enough to win an election. He needs resources. More importantly, he knows he cannot be indifferent to a coalition that has the best chance of winning the presidency in 2016.

Temperamentally and ideologically, Koko may find the Liberal Party to be a more congenial vehicle for his electoral run next year. He will have no problem teaming up with its candidates, none of whom is expected to be an immigrant from the discredited past regime. There will be no Mitos Magsaysays or Gwen Garcias there; only the likes of Risa Hontiveros and Erin Tañada, whose commitments are closer to his own.

But in deciding where to go, Koko might consider this: In the very brief period he has been in the Senate, he has made a mark as a clear-minded successor-generation leader who can stand on his own abilities. I wish he would use those gifts to revive the early efforts of his father to nurture a new kind of electoral party, one ruled by a clear vision of a desirable society rather than by the cynicism of short-term alliances.