MANILA, Philippines — What was supposed to be a show of solidarity Thursday only served to highlight the rift among opposition senators.
Sen. Francis Escudero used the occasion to vent his spleen at fellow opposition senators.
Escudero said he had been unfairly criticized for turning his back on the opposition bloc to support fellow Genuine Opposition candidate (GO) Sen. Manuel Villar, who has allied himself with administration senators to keep the Senate presidency.
As a result, the administration bloc would likely remain the Senate majority while the opposition would still be relegated to being the minority. The majority usually gets the chairmanships of the major committees.
Opposition Senators Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Alan Peter Cayetano, who have also sided with Villar, aired their sentiments, albeit in a more subdued manner, before the gathering.
Opposition stalwarts gathered at Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan City, for their first meeting since the May 14 elections.
Spearheaded by Binay
The event was spearheaded by Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, chair of the United Opposition party and convenor of the Genuine Opposition coalition.
Opposition leaders led by deposed President Joseph Estrada, party representatives and all the senators who attended gave “solidarity messages.”
In a speech videotaped from his detention in Tanay, Rizal, Estrada emphasized the need to keep the opposition united.
The elder Estrada was publicly acknowledged for his role in the campaign of the GO senatorial ticket which included personalities that played key roles in his impeachment and ouster six years ago.
“What we achieved during the last elections, we owe to the Filipino people who voted for us for a common purpose to be the watchdog of this oppressive administration,” he said.
“So for our nation’s sake, we must remain united so we can continue to work to uplift the Filipino masses,” he added.
Binay, for his part, projected a sense of celebration, claiming the election was a “victory for us in the Genuine Opposition.” But he also acknowledged that the opposition’s numbers in the House of Representatives and in local government positions had declined.
“The message here is to show that the opposition is here despite all the rumors. We have a good attendance. The leaders are here. They’re all here,” Binay told reporters later.
Escudero for Villar
When it was his turn to speak, Escudero portrayed himself as the offended party even as he justified joining Villar. He said he had not changed his position on issues hounding the Arroyo administration.
“For two weeks, we chose to remain silent despite the accusation that we joined the other side. We chose to be silent upon the request of President Estrada to maintain unity in the opposition,” he said.
“Who is the real opposition? Those who speak a lot and foster divisiveness or those who control their emotions though they are hurt?” he went on.
Escudero even chided other opposition senators for thinking this early about the 2010 presidential election. “Can we set aside our personal interests?” he said.
He did not say who he alluded to. “We have been with the opposition for a long time. We will remain with GO,” he said.
The parties in the GO coalition are the PDP-Laban, Liberal Party, Aksyon Demokratiko, Nacionalista Party and the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino. It also included militant party-list groups and other anti-Arroyo civic groups.
Cayetano and Estrada kept their speeches short.
Quoting Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrad de Quiros, Cayetano said it was a tragedy that the opposition was divided over the Senate presidency issue.
“I’m reaching out to all members of the GO. Let’s honor the sacrifice of (former President Estrada). Let’s just say we’re all wrong and mend fences. Let’s keep the coalition going,” he said.
Cayetano, Estrada also for Villar
In interviews on the sidelines, Senators Cayetano and Estrada explained they found nothing wrong in choosing Villar over Sen. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. because both were with the opposition anyway.
“You can’t blame Villar. It was his position. You have to grant it to him,” said Senator Estrada.
He denied he has asked for a position but said he would accept the post of Senate President pro tempore, the second highest position in the Senate, if his colleagues would vote for him.
“If ever I vote for Villar that does not mean I align myself with the administration. I will remain in the opposition,” he said.
He also had sharp words for fellow opposition senators.
“Many pretend they are members of the opposition. There’s a mestizo administration, mestizo opposition,” he said, without naming anyone.
The young Estrada noted that some were focused on the 2010 (presidential) election.
Cayetano also said the issue over the Senate presidency was clouded by presidential ambitions. “It’s definitely affecting how people are moving,” he said.
He confirmed he would vote for Villar. “I had a one-on-one with him. He said there will be no hampering of investigations but let’s make sure the Senate is not used for partisan politics,” he said.
Cayetano said it was his fellow opposition senators who suddenly turned against Villar. “Is it our fault if administration senators voted for Villar?” he said.
Blue ribbon committee
Escudero, Cayetano and Estrada said they wanted the major committees to be chaired by opposition senators, particularly the blue ribbon committee.
But only Estrada unequivocally said he would withdraw his support for Villar if the committee went to administration Sen. Joker Arroyo, who has been criticized for not pursuing the investigation of the Jose Pidal issue.
Villar was reportedly still out of the country. Pimentel was also a no-show, along with Senators Panfilo Lacson, Manuel Roxas II and Loren Legarda, who reportedly support Pimentel.
Noynoy hasn’t made choice
Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III kept his speech short mostly to thank the opposition leaders for their support in the last elections.
Interviewed on the sidelines, Aquino said he spoke with Escudero and Cayetano on Wednesday night. He said he was “fully confident that in addressing the people’s issues they will not be found wanting.”
But Aquino said he was still disappointed by the decision of the others to bolt the main opposition bloc because he preferred that the opposition bloc be the Senate majority.
“Unfortunately the administration will have equal or even greater say in that coalition,” Aquino said. “I can’t be in a coalition with administration senators.”
He said he had not made a choice between Villar and Pimentel.
“He (Villar) never talked to us. We keep hearing he talks to the administration. We find that hard to understand,” Aquino said.
Francisco Nemenzo, a former University of the Philippines president, was among the last to give a message of solidarity.
“I realized the need for making tactical maneuvers … I don’t care about the Senate presidency but I hope the opposition will come up with a common stand instead of making private deals with the administration,” Nemenzo said.
“It’s not just that you ask us to trust you. You also have to show you deserve our trust,” he added.
Unfortunately by the time he took the floor, his intended audience Escudero, Cayetano and Jinggoy Estrada had already left.
Binay took the middle ground, saying the coalition has no official stand. But he said opposition senators could not be faulted for choosing Villar because he was also an opposition senator.
Former Vice President Teofisto Guingona also gave a solidarity message. Former presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva sent a representative, Luis Sison, to read his message. Sison denied that Villanueva had turned “pro-Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.”
Most of the principal leaders of the parties in the GO coalition were not present.