A group of dejected Catholics filed out of the plenary hall of the House of Representatives one early morning last December. The legislators had just passed the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill on second reading, the beginning of the end for the faithful followers of the Catholic Church, who fought the proposal for 10 years.
The bill would eventually clear both houses of Congress and would be signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III four days before Christmas.
But Church leaders and their followers vowed revenge: The legislators who voted for the bill and who would run for reelection or other offices in the May midterm elections would fall at the polls.
The supporters of the bill scoffed at the threat. There was no such thing as a “Catholic vote” in the Philippines, they said.
They might have been right, as the winners of the senatorial race were a mix of supporters and opponents of the RH law.
But for incoming party-list Rep. Lito Atienza, it was the Catholic vote that carried Buhay Hayaang Yumabong (Buhay) to victory in the party-list election.
Buhay, which campaigned against the RH law and other bills allegedly promoting a “culture of death,” finished the race at the head of the party-list winners. That, Atienza said, is proof that the Catholic vote is “alive and well.”
“The message is loud and clear; it’s a clear manifestation of the Catholic vote,” he told the Inquirer shortly after the Commission on Elections proclaimed his group’s victory on Friday.
Buhay polled more than 900,000 votes, assuring the group three seats in the House of Representatives.
El Shaddai clout
“That’s El Shaddai. They have the numbers [to carry Buhay to the head of the] party-list election,” a leader of the Catholic lay movement El Shaddai said Saturday.
The lay leader, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the group, said El Shaddai chief Bro. Mike Velarde mobilized the movement’s reported six million members in the country and two million members abroad to make sure Buhay made it to the top of the party-list election.
It did, proving once again the El Shaddai clout that makes the group, like the influential Iglesia ni Cristo sect, a regular stop on the campaign trail for politicians during elections.
But unlike Iglesia ni Cristo, whose followers vote as a bloc, El Shaddai’s influence is most palpable only in Buhay, the movement’s party-list organization.
The Buhay campaign concentrated on traditional strongholds, such as Metro Manila and Cebu. Metro Manila produced nearly half of the group’s total votes while Cebu delivered more than three times the 10,000 votes Buhay polled there in 2010.
Other provinces with strong Catholic influence also generated additional votes, according to Atienza, former mayor of Manila.
Atienza, who is making a political comeback as Buhay’s second nominee to the House, claimed part of the credit for Buhay’s strong showing.
“I presented myself to voters,” he said, noting that many other party-list organizations opted not to publicly disclose their nominees.
Besides Atienza, the other Buhay nominees are Velarde’s son, Michael Velarde, and William Tieng.
The strategy was double-edged. In the RH debate, taking a stand was risky, even for a longtime politician like Atienza, who also served in the Cabinet of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and helped organize Buhay in 1999. It ran the risk of losing those on the other side of the RH debate.
Atienza said he had been with the prolife movement even before he joined politics in 1992. As mayor of Manila, he was roundly criticized by RH campaigners for refusing to provide free contraceptives. Instead, he campaigned strictly for natural family planning methods.
After the RH bill was passed into law came the perception that politicians who swam against the current had become unpopular. Buhay defied the perceived odds and Catholics came out in full force for a group whose name denoted “life.”
But the overwhelming victory of Buhay appeared to had come at the expense of allied party-list organizations far more active on the prolife front.
Among them was Ang Prolife, whose nominees consistently opposed the RH law. But its first attempt at representation turned out to be disappointing (it garnered only more than 100,000 votes), in part because of Buhay’s aggressive drive.
Running over others
The lay leader from El Shaddai said the political officers of Buhay became overzealous in the push for the top and campaigned as if the organization were running alone.
“In their drive to be No. 1, they ran over other groups, like Ang Prolife party-list, when the objective after the RH law was passed was to get as many prolife party-lists [elected to] Congress,” the lay leader said.
“There was no coordination in the campaign. When they campaigned in one place, it was like it was theirs already. They even approached an archbishop to ask that [he urge his province to go for Buhay only],” the lay leader said.
The leader said El Shaddai divided its mass base, with members in southern Manila being asked to vote for Buhay while those in northern Manila were asked to go for Pacyaw (Pilipino Association for Country-Urban Poor Youth Advancement and Welfare), whose first nominee was Buhay Rep. Rene Velarde, also a son of the movement’s leader.
“He is building a dynasty,” the lay leader said.
The political officers’ actions strained the relationship between El Shaddai and other prolife groups during the campaign, the source said.
“The election results could have been better [for the prolifers]. But because of what happened, our relationship is strained right now. But we’ve had differences like this before. We will be able to patch things up,” the source said.
“By 2016, you will see a more powerful and better coordinated movement that would champion the prolife cause,” the source added.
Activist priest Fr. Joe Dizon, a leader of the election watchdog Kontra Daya, said Buhay landed at the top probably because of support from the Aquino administration.
Dizon noted that Velarde endorsed two administration senatorial candidates, including a supporter of the RH law, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, President Aquino’s cousin.
“You can credit this to the political [acumen] of Mike Velarde. You can say they are a party-list of the administration,” Dizon said.
“Even during the time of [Arroyo], the government used other groups to sideline progressives in the party-list [election],” he added.
In a separate interview, John Carlos de los Reyes, president of the Ang Kapatiran Party, alleged that the Velarde campaign worked to corner three congressional seats, leaving other prolife groups with nothing.
De los Reyes, who lost the race for the Senate, recalled that the Archdiocese of Lipa in Batangas was asked to support only Buhay.
Velarde’s fielding of Pacyaw did not sit well with others in the prolife movement, as it was aimed at expanding Velarde’s clout in the House, De los Reyes said.
“If you’re prolife, you are prolife across the board. You are also against corruption, political patronage and political dynasties. And Mike Velarde isn’t like that. You can quote me on that,” De los Reyes told the Inquirer.
“The bottom line is greed for power to the detriment of principles,” he said.
Atienza acknowledged the cracks in the prolife movement.
“We fought as allies but the reality was we [divided] the vote,” he said, adding that Buhay could have doubled its votes had other prolife groups not run.
De los Reyes doubted the sincerity of Velarde’s group in promoting prolife legislation. During the voting for third reading on the RH law, he said Buhay representatives were “nowhere to be found.”
De los Reyes said he was also disappointed when the White Vote Movement (WVM), an umbrella organization cofounded by Velarde, endorsed only one of three Kapatiran candidates for the Senate.
Of the 33 senatorial aspirants, only the Kapatiran candidates fully met the criteria set by WVM, he said. But only lawyer Marwil Llasos got the call, leaving him and Rizalito David out, he said.
Insult to injury
Adding insult to injury, he said, was Velarde’s decision to endorse two known backers of the RH law—Bam Aquino and Ramon Magsaysay Jr.—in addition to the 10 candidates previously endorsed by WVM.
Velarde and De los Reyes apparently have a history.
Three years ago when he ran for President, De los Reyes said he went to see Velarde to ask for El Shaddai’s support, a move he deemed right because El Shaddai was a Catholic group.
But he was rebuffed, ignored and insulted, he said.
“He did not even look at me and as he signed checks he even asked sarcastically why I [was] running,” De los Reyes said in an e-mail on Saturday, explaining why Kapatiran should skip a WVM gathering called by Velarde at his Amvel Complex in Parañaque City.
“He’s an arrogant demagogue,” he said.
Despite the knocks on it, Buhay has a solid legislative track record that dates back to 2001. Its proposals were among 11 important measures passed by the 13th and 14th Congresses. Among them were the Anti-Boso law, Tourism Act and Helmet Safety Act.
In the current 15th Congress, Buhay has four pending bills, including a proposal that would require drivers of public utility vehicles to take a seminar in driving and another one that would impose speed limits on drivers.
In the 16th Congress, Atienza said Buhay would work for enough numbers to amend or repeal the RH law.
He said the group would also block efforts to introduce divorce, same-sex marriage and euthanasia in the country.
“Our promise is to continue fighting against antilife measures,” he said.