In Context: The long standing united front against Robredo

ON EASTER Sunday, April 17 this year, a strange and perplexing event took place that had little to do with the  central tenet of Christian faith celebrated precisely on the day.  Like much of what goes on during the Holy Week holidays, it had to do with more earthly concerns: in temporal power rather than prayer. 

There was little redemption in the politics displayed by  presidential candidates Norberto Gonzales, Ping Lacson and Isko Moreno, whose press conference merely confirmed that they were not going to withdraw from the race for presidential power. 

None of the three have the numbers that would make the Presidency within reach. Vice President Leni Robredo had already emerged as the strongest contender to Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.

After Moreno delivered the group’s unity statement, the spirit and mood turned mean as the three complained about Robredo’s supposedly approaching them to unite against  Duterte’s candidates. Moreno and Lacson accused the Vice President and her camp of misleading them in talks about unification when she herself had plans to run all along.

Moreno recalled that Robredo assured his camp that she would not be seeking the presidency for herself. Lacson bared a similar account, hitting Robredo for acting with a “hidden agenda” in the talks.

Call for Robredo’s withdrawal 

Moreno then called on the Vice President to withdraw from the elections. The mayor’s camp would disclose the day after that Moreno had spoken only for himself, and that the call for  Robredo to withdraw was “not a team call.”

After the presser, Lacson also distanced himself from Moreno’s comments, telling reporters the mayor had been “carried away” by his recollection of the unification talks. Issuing an apology to the Vice President a few days after the event, Gonzales also denied that he was supporting the call for Robredo to quit. 

Manny Pacquiao, who was in General Santos City, could not get a flight to Manila. His camp expressed relief that their candidate was absent from the event. 

Reports on press con lacked context 

Except for Moreno’s sudden call for Robredo to withdraw her presidential bid, the press conference really had nothing new to present. But the news accounts did not point this out.  

 Reports on  the press conference and those that tracked the later statements of Lacson and Gonzalez   recorded what the three candidates said, but did not give any background about Robredo’s unification talks that Lacson and had Moreno roundly criticized. 

Both Lacson and Moreno described Robredo as having approached them about forming a united front, calling on politicians who were opposed to the Duterte candidates to support one slate, only to run herself.

Reports did not point out that Lacson and Moreno had already expressed their resentment of Robredo in 2021. They then met with Robredo and neither  agreed to form a united front.  When the talks failed, both  questioned why Robredo decided to run at all, and questioned her motives. 

Background: Media accounts from August to September 2021 

CMFR’s review of news accounts prior to the October deadline for the filing of COC’s in 2021 established the following:. 

The Vice President began in August 2021 to meet separately with Lacson, Moreno and Pacquiao to talk about unification. In interviews with media, she expressed her belief that those opposed  to President Rodrigo Duterte must set aside their differences, and rally behind one standard-bearer to usher in the restoration of democratic values.

As far back as November 2020, Robredo had claimed that she would not be seeking the presidency. She would stress the same months later, in a March 2021 interview with GMA News’ Malou Mangahas. But despite her doubts about running, the Vice President emphasized the importance of the 2022 polls, stressing the need for strengthened institutions and the return of democratic principles in government.

1Sambayan: A citizens’ draft 

Meanwhile, on March 18, 2021, the media reported the formation of 1Sambayan, a group of 23 civic leaders who agreed to choose one candidate against whoever would be chosen by  Duterte and his allies. During their formal launch, the group’s Convenor, retired Justice Antonio Carpio, noted the need to have a new government, pointing out the weaknesses in the Duterte government’s pandemic response, the shutting down of media, and the terrorizing of legitimate dissenters with surveillance and arrest. 

1Sambayan announced its list of six nominees for president on Independence Day, June 12, 2021, which included Robredo and Isko Moreno. According to reports, the mayor of Manila asked that he be removed so he could focus on the city’s pandemic response. By this time, Moreno had confirmed without specifying for what position that he would be running in 2022.

Robredo herself continued her efforts to forge a united opposition through unification talks with non-administration players, which Rappler described as a “parallel initiative” to 1Sambayan’s. Other reports noted that the 1Sambayan and Robredo unity efforts were separate from one another. 

Lacson  confirmed his bid for the presidency in July 2021. On August 5, after meeting with Robredo, Lacson told the media that he had  proposed a unification “formula” to the Vice President. The plan would be for the opposition bets to assess their survey numbers toward the end of the campaign period; those doing poorly in the polls should withdraw in favor of the strongest contender to Marcos Jr. Robredo thumbed down the recommendation, believing those already in the race should stick to the finish. 

Robredo met separately with Pacquiao and Moreno on September 13, 2021.

At the time, the two appeared to be distancing themselves from the administration. Reports traced the rift between Pacquiao and the administration to infighting within the PDP-Laban about who to endorse.  In May, Pacquiao began openly criticizing government’s  “lack” of response to Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea, as well as ongoing corruption. Before meeting with Robredo, Moreno had criticized the administration’s COVID-19 response, sparring with Duterte spokesman Harry Roque. 

Rappler reported that an anonymous source said the meetings with the two did not result in a final decision.  Evidently the talks were not productive.  Soon enough, Pacquiao formally announced his presidential run on September 19, with Moreno following suit on September 22.

With the filing of COC’s due to start, Robredo reiterated on September 29 her willingness to step aside, and even to consider re-election to the vice presidency, should the groups achieve a united front to oppose Duterte’s candidate. 

1Sambayan nominates Robredo

On September 30, 1Sambayan culminated its selection process by announcing Robredo as the opposition coalition’s nominee. Carpio said Robredo had been chosen by an overwhelming majority for her integrity, track record, and competence. 

Robredo filed her COC on October 7, 2021. On October 9, media reported that Robredo had concluded her unity efforts , regretting the impasse in the talks, saying there cannot be unity for unity’s sake. She added, however, that there should be a shared agreement on basic issues, as well as a vision for the country’s future.

Media accounts then picked up the doubts openly expressed by Moreno and Lacson about Robredo’s real intentions 

During an Aksyon Demokratiko event on October 7, 2021, Moreno criticized the Vice President’s capacity to unify. Media quoted the mayor when he hit Robredo for supposedly failing to unify her own party. Backing Moreno, officials in the Manila mayor’s camp cried betrayal after Robredo assured them during the unification talks that she would stay out of the race.

Lacson, meanwhile, told media on October 14, 2021 that a second meeting with Robredo had failed as well. Lacson claimed during a presser that he caught Senator Franklin Drilon, who organized the meeting, gesturing signals to Robredo, which Lacson interpreted as Drilon recommending to the Vice President that she should pair up with Tito Sotto, Lacson’s running-mate. Drilon and Robredo both denied the allegations.

Like Moreno, Lacson felt the Robredo camp did not genuinely seek unification. Media picked up the Senator’s October 13 comments on Twitter, which deemed the unification talks  a “scheme” set on forging unity behind the Vice President over other candidates.

Lacson, Moreno rant to media

Journalists continued to pick up the resentment over Robredo’s decision to run through the rest of 2021.  News accounts in October 2021 quoted Moreno as reportedly “hurt” by the perceived deception, calling the Vice President a “fake leader with a fake color.” Lacson reiterated in December 2021 his claim that Robredo’s camp only sought unity under her candidacy. 

While she may have assured Lacson and Moreno that she would not run, this move was based on the possible unification of everyone behind one candidate, a scenario which was no longer possible as early as September 22, when Lacson, Moreno, and Pacquiao had already announced their candidacies.

Her decision then was to take on the challenge of strengthening her base of support. Robredo declared, “Lalaban ako, lalaban tayo,” a call of unity for the various groups, volunteers and voters who had already approached her. 

Without the background and context, the Easter press conference seemed a new development, a strike against the second strongest contender for the presidency. Reports which did not go back to review Robredo’s unification efforts were misleading. Media picked up the animosity expressed by Lacson and Moreno against Robredo back in 2021 even before she filed her COC. They had taken a stand against Robredo early enough. They doubted her intentions from the beginning. Perhaps, she was the candidate they had set out to defeat, even before she had set out to run.