The end of another coalition

To all intents and purposes, UniTeam, the North-South partnership that delivered the presidency to Bongbong Marcos (BBM) in 2022 is dead. Like all coalitions of convenience – i.e., alliances without ideology, organization, or long-term program – it was created for one sole purpose: to ensure the election of its principal candidate.

The union of the Marcos and Duterte political households seemed, in the beginning, the perfect match. Indeed, its enactment completely eclipsed the actual wedding occasion in Cavite where it was sealed.  No one remembers the names of the young couple who got married because all the attention was on Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte, who led the principal sponsors.

We can be certain that promises were profusely made in the course of that whirlwind courtship. The presumption was that this was a relationship of reciprocity anchored on personal commitment and word of honor. After all, what was being forged was an agreement between the scions of two strongmen.

Defying her father’s wish for her to aim for the presidency in that election, Sara, as we may recall, chose to be practical, and agreed to run as Bongbong’s vice president.  Being young and lacking the self-assuredness of the Duterte patriarch, she probably thought the VP position was just right for her. It would enable her to project a national presence and prove her capabilities as a future president.

Sara’s chief political mentor, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, most likely also thought that her chances of winning the presidency in 2022 were practically nil if Bongbong was determined to run anyway.  If she ran, she would be able to rely only on the Mindanao vote. In such a contest, Bongbong might still prevail by a slim margin. But, given the momentum of the Leni Robredo campaign, the more likely outcome would be that they would both lose to Leni.  On the other hand, as VP candidate, Sara seemed a sure winner, whether BBM became president or not.

It is useful to revisit the events that attended the formation of the Marcos-Duterte UniTeam in order to understand its crumbly state and to anticipate what might happen next.

BBM has no compelling reason to honor whatever tacit understandings were given at the Cavite wedding.  Now that he’s president, he’s free to carve his own record. He is not a Duterte man; he is not under any obligation to preserve the maverick former president’s legacy, or, much less, to follow his path.  But being a nice guy, he has shown that he can be trusted to not initiate an open break-up with the Dutertes. He will continue to be outwardly supportive of Sara, and to avoid antagonizing her father. But he will not prevent the Marcos-Romualdez forces from exploring alternatives to a Sara presidency in 2028.

The commanding general of those forces is effectively BBM’s first cousin, House Speaker Martin Romualdez.  From day one, Martin has shown a quiet capacity for strategic maneuvering. GMA saw this right away when she found herself edged out of the race for the speakership, which many assumed was hers for the taking under a BBM presidency.  As it turned out, she stood no chance.  After Martin became speaker, his allies at the House moved quickly to clip GMA’s remaining powers by unceremoniously booting her out as senior deputy speaker, following attempts to create a separate bloc around her.

What we are seeing today is the methodical creation of a new coalition of forces that would ensure the continuity of the Marcos-Romualdez grip on the presidency beyond BBM’s term. To me, the move to amend the Constitution, either by people’s initiative or by constituent assembly, is a sideshow.  The real campaign is to consolidate the Marcos-Romualdez forces in preparation for the crucial 2025 midterm election and the presidential election of 2028.

I believe that Martin and his people are aware that charter change aimed at amending the Constitution’s restrictive economic provisions is a long shot, though it’s doable.  But tinkering with the political provisions in order to effect, say, a shift to the parliamentary system is, a distant pie in the sky.  There’s just too much opposition to it and it’s coming from all sectors.

Be that as it may, the process itself offers a good opportunity to determine who can be relied upon at all levels of the political hierarchy to deliver the crucial votes in the next two elections.  What is thus unfolding before us is the invention of a new revitalized version of the New Society Movement. As in FM’s time, it has all the resources of the State at its disposal.

As for the Duterte camp, nothing significant remains of the amorphous diehard Duterte supporters (DDS).  That mass base, which had drawn its energy from its namesake’s anti-establishment charisma, failed to crystallize into a stable political force during Duterte’s presidency. By 2028, unless it is suddenly awakened by an unexpected emotional event, the DDS mass base will have totally fizzled out – not unlike the populist surge that brought Cory, and later PNoy, to Malacañang.