A wedding in Cavite

Nothing is more illustrative of the current shape of Philippine politics than the recent celebrity wedding in Cavite of a daughter of actor-politicians Bong and Lani Revilla. The bride and groom were completely eclipsed by the cinematic casting of Sara Duterte-Carpio and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as the lead pair of 15 sets of principal sponsors.

I searched the web for a description of the wedding itself and found this fascinating line: “Styled by Gideon Hermosa, the wedding ceremony venue was filled with a combination of fresh and dried flowers that give it a feminine rustic feel.” The reference to fresh and dried flowers is an apt metaphor for the elite circulation and co-optation that took place behind the scenes of the wedding.

What received prime media attention was not the wedding ceremony itself but the oath-taking in one of the backrooms of the sprawling Revilla farm of Sara Duterte-Carpio as a new member of the Lakas-CMD party. Witnessing and applauding the swearing-in of their prize catch was the party chair himself, actor and Sen. Bong Revilla.

That particular scene offers a quick glimpse of the carefully scripted teleserye of Sara Duterte-Carpio’s debut into the national political stage. Lakas president Martin Romualdez, who administered the oath to Sara, could barely contain his glee. Bongbong Marcos is his first cousin on the Romualdez side. Imelda’s kin have always played second fiddle to the Marcoses.

Conspicuously missing in that photo is the Duterte daughter’s political mentor, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has managed to keep the Lakas party an active player in every election. None of GMA’s own children inherited her political talents. In contrast, her adoptive political daughter showed considerable skill when she quietly maneuvered the unceremonious ouster from the speakership of her own father’s long-time ally, Pantaleon Alvarez, and the back-to-back coronation of GMA as new Speaker of the House. All this in full view, literally, of President Duterte and Alvarez.

GMA is clearly the unseen scriptwriter in this still unfolding drama. It’s hard to believe that she has gone this far just to find a vice-presidential partner for Bongbong Marcos. It is more likely that she is considering many options, whereas Marcos is locked in only one—how to prevent Sara from running for president and dividing the Duterte votes. Of course, out of hubris and no doubt encouraged by his early lead in the polls, Marcos will proceed with his own presidential run. Deals will surely be offered and made, but we won’t know the outcome until Monday evening, when the time for these odious substitutions finally comes to an end.

What is certain is that the PDP-Laban party, which received an unexpected booster shot when it drafted Rodrigo Duterte as its last-minute presidential bet in the 2016 elections, will go back to being an insignificant player in the game of elite politics. It is a fate it will share with the Liberal Party, which enjoyed a brief revival when it successfully fielded Noynoy Aquino in 2010 but failed to elect its anointed candidate Mar Roxas in 2016. Power without a matching visionary leadership can destroy a party.

Leni Robredo did the right thing in declaring that she’s running as an independent in the 2022 elections, after relinquishing her nominal role as president of a Liberal Party that has been steadily disintegrating since the end of the PNoy presidency. Sara Duterte-Carpio is equally wise to avoid any association with her father’s pathetically fragmented party. Still, by simply being the daughter of Mr. Duterte, she hopes to inherit his still sizable crowd of supporters.

Bongbong Marcos has chosen to run not under his father’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) party but under the little-known Partido Federal ng Pilipinas. The reasons are not too difficult to divine. As the political badge of the dictatorship, the KBL offers no added value to him. His choice of a party that carries, at least in name, an early Duterte advocacy is no doubt aimed at securing the Mindanao vote. In the main, however, he is still relying on the drawing power of a highly disputed Marcos myth of a golden age.

In trying to make sense of political developments in the run-up to the 2022 election, I am reminded of the thoughts of the Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto on the elites in society—“people with exceptional qualities.” They are found in various fields: politics, the economy, sports, entertainment, the military, religion, the knowledge sector, etc. Pareto was particularly interested in the political elite and how, despite their small number, they manage to have a disproportionate power or influence over the vast majority.

According to him, the key to equilibrium in the midst of unceasing change is, first, the constant circulation between the governing and the nongoverning elites, and second, the continuous recruitment of fresh talent into the ranks of the elite. The elite’s failure to control the tempo of political life becomes an invitation for the masses to take over the governance of society. What follows then would be not just regime change, but a revolutionary upheaval, which, to Pareto, does not necessarily offer a better alternative.

Keeping this in mind, one may ask who among the current crop of presidential contenders represents a fresh injection of new talent into the ranks of the political elite. Perhaps all of them, except Bongbong Marcos. Is the young Sara Duterte-Carpio new blood or a chip off the old block? Gloria Macapagal Arroyo believes she could be packaged as entirely new.