The launch of a new socialist party in the Philippines has been hailed by some on the international left as a confident step in creating a united mass electoral organisation in the country. Peter Boyle of the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective has described how 920 delegates, representing a number of groups such as trade unions and students organisations with an estimated membership of around 300,000 between them, gathered for the inaugural congress of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), or Power of the Masses Party. Others, however, including members of political groups active in the Philippines, have been more cautious in their assessment of the PLM.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with the Scottish Socialist Voice, two members of the Revolutionary Workers' Party of Mindanao (RPM-M), who preferred not to be named, accompanied by Alex de Jong, the editor of Dutch socialist monthly Grenzeloos and an expert on the Filipino left, told of the complex political situation in the Philippines and of their impressions of the new party.
Following the uprising against the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and the subsequent split in the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the Filipino left has been fragmented and several groups in different areas and representing different approaches to socialism have competed both at the electoral level and in the day-to-day struggle for equality and democracy. Most of those on the left who chose to split from the CPP in 1992 have been working within the Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses) coalition, but the launch of the PLM marks the abandonment of this project.
In a recent interview, Sonny Malencio, leader of the Filipino Workers' Party (PM) and newly elected chairperson of the PLM, spoke of the failure of Laban ng Masa to reach consensus on major issues. 'There were some problems there which were related to the character of a left coalition, meaning that the different left groups have different interests and different directions. Just recently on the Mindanao question, we couldn't give a sure statement and then we could not undertake a project where we could use all of our resources.'
Mindanao, the easternmost island in the Philippines has been the stage for a four decade old insurgency by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and violent responses on the part of the government. So far thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands internally displaced in Mindanao. Attempts at quelling the insurgency through extending the autonomous Muslim region have so far failed and negotiations continue to prove unfruitful.
For Malencio and those allied around the new PLM, the party presents an opportunity to make gains for socialism in the upcoming elections, scheduled for 2010. 'We want to put power into the hands of the masses,' says Malencio. 'This has to happen from below through the transformation of barangay (neighbourhood) councils into barangay assemblies that can institute alternative structures to replace the congress that is dominated by the trapo (traditional politician) elite.' The programme of the PLM includes in addition proposals for nationalisation of essential services and the provision of basic necessities – education, housing, jobs, health – for the people. But the relevance of the PLM has been questioned.
While the opening congress of the new party boasted support from mass organisations with a combined membership of as much as 300,000, Alex de Jong is suspicious of the veracity of this claim. 'There is a difference between membership of these mass organisations and members of the party proper. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the members of these groups didn't know about the PLM.' There is also the suggestion that the PLM represents a relaunch of Malencio's old party, the PM, which has been oddly silent of late. If the PM were able to take into the new electoral party some of the support of the old Laban ng Masa coalition, it could significantly increase its political potential.
The members of the RPM-M, which has also been engaged in combat with the government, with which it is now in peace negotiations, as well as the CPP guerillas who have been targeting the leadership of those groups who split from it in the early 90s, who spoke to the Voice also warned of the lack of support for the PLM outside of the capital Manila. It is typical, they said, of some political organisations to act only within the Manila area and be completely inactive elsewhere. 'These people from Luzon (the most economically and politically important island in the country) are dominating everything. Even when there is an opportunity for the smaller peoples to speak, they don't give them the chance.'
However, the RPM-M members share the same goals as the new PML in terms of welfare and democracy, citing government corruption as a key obstacle to progressive social change. While concerned about the possibility that the PML will turn out to become a party similar to the social democratic Akbayan, they do see the launch as a welcome development. 'If all the left stands together we could do some good. The Arroyo government is weak, but the left is weaker at the moment.'
De Jong agrees with the analysis presented by the RPM-M members. 'It looks like a step forward. I don't think it's only a front for the elections, because the people involved are people with a lot of experience and a long history in revolutionary socialism.' With the PML in talks with revolutionary elements within the armed forces, and proclaiming their intention to build a mass party based on the experiences of Chavez and others in Latin America, the prospects for a genuine socialist movement arising from among the people of the Philippines may be good. Ultimately, the selection of a candidate for the 2010 elections and the conduct of the PLM in those elections will be the litmus test for the potential of this new grouping to achieve genuine socialist change in the Philippines.