Yesterday’s day of mass protest in the Philippines – an initiative of anti-government factions called to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the martial-law declaration by former president Ferdinand E. Marcos – turned out to be a massive PR victory for the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, and yet another dismal day of reckoning for the limping Liberal Party.
Duterte outmanoeuvred his opponents earlier in the week by announcing that Thursday would be a ‘National Day of Protest’. That took the wind clean out of his opponents’ sails. Effectively making it a public holiday – government offices and schools were closed – he invited all groups, whether they were for him, against him or indifferent to him, to take to the streets and protest against whatever they liked. It would be, he said, a way for the administration to hear the people’s voice.
And, along with the rest of us, it did. Much of it was a familiar voice; a voice of support for the president. Certainly, the Movement Against Tyranny – the anti-Duterte coalition of civil-rights advocates and activists, student and indigenous groups and Catholic clerics – that had organised the protest, had a solid presence, but nothing like the one they’d anticipated. They’d wanted this to be their day. They were disappointed.
But the biggest loser was the Liberal Party (LP) which has failed to get a respectable turn out for any of its anti-Duterte events over the past year. Once more, yesterday, it failed. Barring the high-profile appearances of the party leadership in Quezon City, first at an afternoon Mass at the University of the Philippines Diliman, and later at the unveiling of a statue of human-rights pioneer, Jose Diokno, at the Commission on Human Rights, they seemed to have been absent without trace.
Clearly, the rebranding of the LP isn’t working and it’s certainly going to take far more than members trading in their yellow shirts for white ones. The electors aren’t concerned about the shirt; they’re concerned about who’s wearing it. And what they see is that it’s the same people with the same agenda as before.
The LP’s big problem is that it’s incapable of getting out of its own way – and of keeping its foot out of its mouth while attempting to. To put it mildly, it’s extremely blunder-prone.
Take yesterday for example. National Protest Day for the Liberal Party started with a Mass at the Church of the Holy Sacrifice on the campus of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman – a nursery school of Left/Liberal activism.
There’s the first bad optic. Allying itself with and encouraging the backing of one of the most elite institutions in the entire country hardly warms itself to the people; it only reinforces its remoteness. So right there, the LP alienated the majority of Filipinos who – rightly or wrongly – view the UP student population as pampered and spoiled and wholly irrelevant to their lives.
UP students – many of whom have allowances that would put a poor family’s income to shame – don’t exactly play well back in the real world. Thus, the students’ claims of empathy with the plight of the poor – however sincere – are as believable to those living in poverty as the offer of a winning Nigerian lottery ticket.
The UP crowd can never properly endear itself to society’s marginalised. Moreover, the privileged students of the UP are attacking the man they’ve chosen to help lead them out of poverty; the man they’ve chosen to do something about the crime that enslaves their communities. And it’s with more than just a nagging suspicion – again, rightly or wrongly – that their perception of the UP product is that it’ll end up perpetuating the next generation-round of economic polarisation.
Furthermore, UP student-politics are utterly out of touch with the masses. The broader Philippine population is not inclined to socialism/communism/progressivism. Actually, if anything, it tends to lean to the right of centre – if it bothers at all. It’s old-school, down-to-earth, pragmatic, practical; and the flights of political fancy extolled by the Left simply don’t resonate – particularly those whose biggest problem isn’t “will we be able to feed the kids today?” but whether tickets are still available to see South Korean boy band, Seventeen, at the Mall of Asia Arena next month.
Then there’s the Mass itself. First of all, attempting to seduce the public on holy ground in the Philippines has become an overworked cliché. In fact, as an image it repels rather than attracts. Filipino Catholics are extremely devout and are not easily conned by displays of piety by politicians. Nether does the Catholic Church, itself, possess the moral ascendency it once did; in fact for many it’s perceived as part of the problem.
That closeness of politics and religion troubles much of the faithful. The incestuous symbiotic relationship of priest and politician is viewed with heavy suspicion – in many ways, that old marriage of convenience is seen as the cause of much of the country’s present dysfunction. For the record, we believe that too.
This, then, is widely viewed as an unholy alliance and so when politicians parade to Mass to have their banners blessed – as figuratively the Liberal Party did at the Church of the Holy Sacrifice yesterday – the perception is that this has little to do with God and everything to do with man.
None of that stopped the great and the good of the party from turning up, however – among those present were former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, Vice President Leni Robredo; failed Liberal Party presidential candidate in last year’s election, Mar Roxas; LP President, Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan; Senate Minority Floor Leader, Frank Drilon; Aquino’s cousin, Senator Bam Aquino; and House Deputy Speakers, Miro Quimbo and Jose Christopher Belmonte.
The party hierarchy, all dressed in white, occupied the front pews – special seats, front-row VIP seats, reserved for the top echelon (photo). But they were just part of the focus. The main event was the Mass itself.
It fell, as luck would have it on the Feast of St Matthew, though no one was actually there to celebrate the life of the apostle. They were there to attend what had been billed a “Mass for Justice” – a special Mass, then, to endorse the cause of anti-Duterteism and place the Church’s imprimatur on the Liberal Party’s righteous crusade against the sitting president. More appropriately named, it was a Mass of Denunciation.
And for it the church was properly dressed. Around the altar photographs had been placed of victims of the Marcos martial-law years. By the side of them were other photographs – those of young alleged victims of Duterte’s War on Drugs. The juxtaposition left nothing in doubt as far as the purpose of the Mass was concerned. It was about seeking justice for those who’d allegedly died at the hands of Marcos and Duterte.
It was, then, a selective gallery. There were no photographs, for example, of the 12 farmers and two children who were killed on the Aquino family estate of Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac in 2004. Surely, the National Day of Protest should have honoured them too. After all, they met their deaths as they demonstrated for fairer wages, better benefits and land reform. Protesting on the street yesterday there would have been people just like them.
Neither were there photographs of the 13 farmers who perished in a hail of gunfire on Mendiola Street in San Miguel, Manila on 22 January 1987 as they marched in protest at the lack of action on agrarian reform by the government of Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino. Surely, their images should have been by the altar too. Don’t these lives merit the same search for justice as those whose images were strewn around that altar?
But that wasn’t part of the narrative. The past deaths of protestors at the hands of government forces, three and one-plus decades ago, apparently were an irrelevance on a day dedicated to protest. This was about the Church, by means of a Special Mass, consecrating the Liberal cause and placing itself in the role of its spiritual director.
It was also about confronting what leading cleric, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop, Socrates Villegas – another vociferous critic of Duterte – described at separate Mass yesterday as the “Father of Lies and Prince of Darkness”; in other words, Satan.
The Mass itself had been offered by Tindig Pilipinas – a patchwork alliance of Left-activism that united less than a week ago. It launched itself at Club Filipino in San Juan, in Manila’s up-market gated community of Greenhills. Interestingly, it’s the same venue chosen by Corazon Aquino to be sworn into office in 1986.
That launch, actually on Monday, was attended by a Who’s Who of anti-Duterteites – Senator Pangilinan was there as were members of Benigno Aquino’s former Cabinet: presidential peace adviser, Teresita Deles; presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda and education secretary, Armin Luistro among them.
There were also bags of student representation and university alumni. But also conspicuously present were three of Duterte’s most vocal detractors – Magdalo Party members, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and House representative, Gary Alejano, and Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party member, Senator Risa Hontiveros. All Liberal-Party affiliated.
That sums up the unholy spirit of the Mass – a sniping party with its sights not on reconciliation, not on honouring those who needlessly died, not of seeking justice for all, save a chosen few, but fixed on one man who they detest with the same passion as 80-plus-percent of the country love.
And all that misreading of the public mood – that near-pathological denial – is why, after yet another ignominious protest performance, the Liberals will shuffle off further into the political wilderness. This party is self-destructing and whoever they’re paying for PR advice, they need to sack and soon. The change of shirts isn’t working; the transformation it needs is much bigger than that. And, the likelihood is before that happens we’ll see spotless leopards in Luneta Park and pigs flying above Tarlac.