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Reflections on a Path-Breaking Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the Philippines


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Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

The views expressed in this piece are strictly the author’s. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other individuals and organizations involved in the Leody de Guzman for President and Walden Bello for Vice President Campaign.

When Leody de Guzman, a distinguished labor leader, and I decided to run for president and vice president of the Philippines under the Lakas ng Masa Party and Laban ng Masa Coalition, we received a lot of brickbats.

Some came from the right, where the usual response was to dismiss us as “nuisance candidates.” But most of it came from people on the left and liberals who accused us of “splitting” the liberal and progressive vote, thus enabling the eventual triumph of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, against the liberal candidate, Vice President Leni Robredo.

Brickbats from the Left

Indeed, a number of former comrades in arms in the struggle against the late dictator now residing in the U.S. branded our campaign as similar to that of Ralph Nader in 2000, repeating the silly accusation that the consumer advocate’s votes in the U.S. election that year caused Democrat Al Gore’s loss to Republican George W. Bush. Some dusted off and invoked tired old ideas about the need for a popular front or united front derived from the mid-20th century.

Many progressives were genuinely persuaded that in supporting Robredo, they were choosing the “lesser evil” to prevent the “greater one,” Marcos Jr., from coming to power. That we could understand.

But we were puzzled by those who were not even willing to engage with our argument that we were running on an agenda of democratic socialism because the left’s traditional practice of running as a mini adjunct of different factions of the elite and downplaying, if not concealing, a progressive agenda, had proven to be a losing strategy over the last three decades.

We made it clear that even as we were launching an independent campaign, we were not foreclosing discussion with Robredo about the possibility of an electoral coalition during the later phases of the campaign. We were insistent, however, that any alliance should be founded on convergences, if any, of our respective programs, not simply on considerations of “winnability.”

We sought a meeting with Robredo very early on, but we were ignored. The candidate would not even give us the time of day.

When we witnessed not a few progressives join the millenarian rush to canonize Robredo as the new savior of the country, much like Corazon Aquino was acclaimed during the events leading up to the uprising that ousted the dictator Marcos in 1986, we were reminded of Marx’s saying that history first occurs as tragedy, then as farce.

Even as they made a public display of the hysteria of true believers in their embrace of the new mater dei or mater populi, whose “good governance” rhetoric was accompanied by decidedly neoliberal views when it came to economic policy, the attitude of some towards us turned from disagreement to outright hostility.

It was, to say the least, strange, to see friends and comrades that I’d respected for their independent, critical thinking transmogrify into political conformists under peer pressure or, worse, into religious enthusiasts.

Popularizing Democratic Socialism

We were not, however, going to let the Marcos-Robredo dynamics determine how we would wage our campaign.

Instead, we unfurled a program that had been over a year in gestation. This was probably the most detailed program in Philippine electoral history, one that responded to all the key dimensions of our people’s existence, from poverty and inequality to cultural issues to climate change.

Among other demands, the program included a 750-peso minimum wage, a 3 percent tax on the wealth of the richest 250 Filipinos, repeal of the neoliberal Rice Tariffication Act that was destroying Philippine rice agriculture, a new land redistribution program, turning over the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte to the International Criminal Court for his responsibility for thousands of extra-judicial executions in his bloody war on drugs, phasing out all coal-fired power plants in two years’ time, and legalization of divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

These were bold demands seldom heard in Philippine elections owing to the timidity of the left, and they resonated with people tired of bland statements from politicians attributing all ills not to structural and systemic inequalities and violence but to — you guessed it — corruption, corruption, corruption.

Many young people attracted to these concrete demands were curious about the larger strategy that informed them. Brought up in an atmosphere of reflexive anti-communism that equated socialism and Stalinism, many were pleasantly surprised that what we meant by socialism was not what they expected.

Democratic socialism, we said, would promote participatory democracy in place of elite democracy.

In the realm of the economy, we said democratic socialism would be marked by worker management of enterprises, worker representation in the highest levels of government and corporate boards, a mixed economy where cooperatives would coexist and cooperate with state, private, and worker-run enterprises, as well as with economic activities run along communal lines in indigenous communities. Planning by government and civil society, we said, would be essential to minimize social disruptions caused by the market.

In these exciting exchanges, we saw our task not as imposing a program but as helping awaken our people’s capacity to imagine an alternative order, a task that much of the Philippine left had abandoned.

“Fuck You, Marcos”

With scarcely any resources, we were up against the hundreds of millions of pesos in television and internet ads deployed by Marcos, Robredo, and the other presidential candidates backed by big money.

So we maximized our efforts to reach people through coverage in the established media, which, more than in previous elections, were giving us, if not equal treatment as the other candidates, at least significant space. We also maximized our use of social media, with a savvy Generation Z staff producing videos that “trended” or went viral on Tik Tok, Facebook, and Twitter by combining comedy with political commentary.

On the ground, unlike the other candidates whose backers subsidized huge rallies, we focused on having dialogues with marginalized communities, such as fishers, urban poor, factory workers, and tribal peoples, making sure we were accompanied by the press so the whole country could witness our exchanges.

Moreover, we accompanied marginalized people in their struggles. In one of these forays, where Leody de Guzman joined a land occupation by the Manobo-Pulangui, an indigenous community reclaiming their land from a greedy corporation controlled by a local politician, he barely escaped being hit by bullets fired at them by the man’s private army. This “solidarity campaigning” was something never seen in past electoral campaigns.

Creating maximum controversy was a way of maximizing our reach and showing people how we differed from other candidates, who tried their best to avoid strong, explicit attacks on one another and on one another’s program. Thus, we defined the elections as a battle against the Marcos-Duterte “axis of evil,” a description that stuck.

“Fuck you Marcos,” which I uttered on prime time television, became the most famous campaign battle cry, one that was greeted with glee by thousands who said it was a perfect expression of their feelings about the dictator’s son. One commented on Twitter that I had normalized “fuck you” in civilized discourse by attaching it to Marcos. The phrase became a hit even on U.S. television, where British comedian John Oliver of HBO made it the theme of his show on the Philippine elections.

In the much-watched televised election debates, while the other candidates tried their best to downplay the deliberate non-appearance in the debates of Marcos, Jr. and his running mate Sara Duterte, I asked the Commission on Elections to disqualify them, provocatively calling them “jokers” and “assholes.” In one of the televised debates among senatorial candidates, Luke Espiritu, the lead candidate of our progressive slate, broke the unwritten rule of not attacking other candidates on stage, when he unmasked the brazen lies being spouted by two notorious pro-Marcos/Duterte candidates, a move that made him an instant celebrity and contributed to their defeat.

When Sara Duterte had the city council of Davao, where she is mayor, declare me a “persona non grata” for my attacks on her dismal record, I traveled to the city and seized the council chamber, banged the gavel, and declared the whole council out of order and “personae non gratae.” The media portrayed it as a bold act that electrified the country, even those who did not support us — but the point is it was a calculated move to fixate national attention on our campaign, one that was worth a thousand expensive TV ads.

Of course, these high visibility actions were not without risks. Aside from the Davao City Council declaring me persona non grata, Sara Duterte’s partisans labeled me a “narco-politician,” with the implied threat that I would be a candidate for extra-judicial execution for allegedly supporting the illegal drug trade, and sued me for libel to the tune of 10 million pesos.

But even as we carried out the sharpest line of attack on Marcos and Duterte among the candidates, we made sure our program of democratic socialism was the centerpiece of the campaign, and this was what distinguished us from the rest. As Leody put it, “If you come right down to it, there are only two candidates for president — my nine opponents who all represent the capitalists, and me, who stands for a socialist future.”

Attracting the Robredo Base

As the elections neared, we noticed an interesting trend: our message was being appreciated more and more by sectors favorable to Robredo, especially the youth in her so-called “pink camp” (kakampinks), who posted complimentary comments on social media or welcomed Leody, Luke, and me warmly when our campaigns intersected on the ground.

The message of many was: we like your message and would vote for you, but our priority is making sure Marcos Jr. does not come to power. Their spontaneous good will and receptiveness contradicted the doctrinaire pronouncements of the ossified old left that had written off as utopian any campaign based on articulating fundamental progressive demands.

The attractiveness of our campaign, especially to the youth, was greatly enhanced by the video endorsements our tandem got from prominent figures on the international left, among them Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Richard Falk, Jayati Ghosh, Grace Blakeley, Robin Broad, and John Cavanagh. This international dimension was something novel in electoral campaigning by progressives.

The electoral results, where Robredo gathered a very disappointing 28 percent to Marcos Jr.’s 59 percent, showed that running a campaign based mainly on preventing Marcos from coming to power and mouthing bland platitudes about ending corruption and promoting something called “good governance” was a route to disaster.

Though her personal integrity is unquestionable, Leni Robredo allowed herself to be controlled by a campaign staff that did not want to rock the boat by supporting progressive demands like the wealth tax or even the minimum wage of 750 pesos owing to fear of alienating her more conservative, wealthy supporters.

The cost was high: the masses identified her with the neoliberal political and economic establishment associated with the faltering 36-year-old “EDSA Republic” that had failed to deliver on its grand promise of a better life for Filipinos (except, of course, for the rich and upper middle class).

Towards a New Left

As for the Leody/Walden campaign, we never had any illusions about winning. But many analysts were In agreement that the number of votes cast for us — 92,000 for Leody and nearly 100,000 for me — in a highly polarized election where we were, in effect, a third force, was a very inaccurate measure of our achievement.

Perhaps the impact of the campaign was best summed up by one of the country’s young progressive personalities, Herbert Docena of Laban ng Masa, one of the key managers of our campaign:

“We placed democratic socialism firmly on the electoral agenda. We showed the left could campaign independently on a progressive agenda and connect, ending a terrible tradition of serving as the ‘progressive’ tail of the liberal elite. We introduced new ways of campaigning to make up for lack of resources. We have broken the mold. We have blazed the way for a bold New Left.”

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