Philippine Election 2019: The Senate that Would Say Yes
by Federico V. Magdalena, PhD
The recently concluded 2019 senatorial election in the Philippines tells a lot.
Some say it is for change, bannered by the party Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Movement for Change) formed by Sarah Duterte, President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter. But others ask, why do trapos (traditional politicians) dominated the midterm election, as did those with questionable record? These include the likes of Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. (charged though acquitted of plunder) and Imee Marcos (for lying about her academic credentials).
Some also question political newbies, such as Bong Go (personal assistant of Pres. Duterte) and Bato dela Rosa (the police chief who led the War on Drugs highly criticized by human rights activists). Or one with his acting career (Lito Lapid) as the only visible record of accomplishment to get elected senator.
All but one of the 12 senatorial positions up for grabs during the last election will be occupied by those who received the blessings of President Duterte. (Only exception is Grace Poe, who ran as independent.) Not a single man or woman from the opposition party, Ocho Derecho, made it to the magic circle!
The bottom line is, the 2019 midterm election sounds like a referendum for President Duterte and his program for governance. He can now confidently push for his pet projects, backed by policies most of which are under protest among his critics. He now basks in a “supermajority” in the Senate, as in the House of the Representatives, to make them happen. In the pipeline are: changing the constitution from presidential to federal, lowering the age of children to 9 years old for criminal prosecution, bringing back the death penalty, siding with China at the expense of the Philippine claim on some islands in the Spratly, and continuing with the same brutality his Drug War.
Above all, the Senate will likely change its being independent, critical body to one that would say Yes to all, or most of Duterte’s policies.
Two issues beg scrutiny.
- Why did the opposition lose during the election? Is there not a single, credible man or woman who can challenge the Duterte government?
- Why has Duterte remained popular as president, receiving at least 80 percent favorable rating? Despite his controversial programs, in particular his campaign against dangerous drugs that has killed at least 20,000 (CHR chief Chito Gascon says it could be as high as 27,000).
Analysts are divided on the first. Some argue that the opposition’s political strategy failed, targeting Duterte rather than his bets, or instead of propping up the opposition’s programs that promise a better governance. Some others say that voters continue to patronize those they know, or who give them goodies for the table to feed their hungry families. This has been documented by reports of massive vote buying during the last elections.
A theory that offers a plausible answer is the so-called Protest Vote. Filipino voters are now disenchanted with politics, which has lost its appeal and meaning to their lives. If not abstain, they cast their votes as protest against the elite, or against those who have held unto power for so long that ordinary citizens are sidelined. This theory is reinforced by political disenchantment or frustration with identified politicians or their party, family background, or ideology. In the Philippines, it animated disliking of the “yellow” politicians (dilawan), as it condemned corruption and deception in high places. This explains why Mar Roxas, Jejomar Binay and Grace Poe miserably lost to Duterte in the 2016 presidential elections.
Electing Duterte’s candidates may have also meant a rejection of elitism in politics and discontent with political and rich families (unless the affected candidates are endorsed by Duterte himself), while people have not seen meaningful changes around. True, there was People Power to take down a dictator (Marcos) in 1986, but decades of supposed change and democratization under a “liberator” did not make a dent in the lives of the masses. Desperation or feeling “alienated” in Philippine politics has repeatedly surfaced in blog discussions in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, particularly in “counter” social media supporting Duterte through his “keyboard army”.
Remember Mocha Uson? She has enjoyed wide popularity in Facebook, having marshalled millions of supporters in favor of Duterte’s presidency. (She recently quit her juicy post in government because of a bungled video or messages that backfired.)
After getting elected, Duterte has successfully weaponized the Internet to his own advantage. Disinformation and fake news inundated cyberspace extolling his accomplishments or policies and actions, while hate messages targeted those who criticize him, according to Rappler reports. No wonder Rappler earned the ire of Duterte, who wields control of many government agencies besides the seemingly abiding NBI and DOJ. Or DILG, to reign in local officials.
A popular line that props up the president is embedded in a symbolic language that demonizes the opposition as “Yellows” (led by Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos) as well as the leaders (Erap Estrada and Gloria Arroyo) who came after them but still detested by many. They have not brought about real progress, so they say. All share one thing in common, they all come from elite families. Or geographically from Luzon and the Capital Region.
If the protest vote theory is true, one of its expressions is that voters throw support on somebody who epitomizes the anti-thesis of elitist politics. Doesn’t matter if it brings back the authoritarian legacy left by Marcos. Duterte did not hide his Marcos inclination, allowing the latter to be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani, despite the objection of his critics. Didn’t the High Court sustain him in that decision, though it was unpopular?
A strategy that also seemed to have worked for Duterte and the election of his pet senators is his tactic of deflecting public blame at the right time. An example is his “Matrix” (list of drug lords or drug protectors), that consigned many opposition candidates in the local scene to lose.
Beware, even Duterte’s constant cursing, or his threats to kill, can cause someone his/her career or even life, as observers have noted. Even priests or bishops critical of his ruthless drug war were exposed to this risk, as many others did (e.g., Senator Delima, SC Justice Sereno, Sr. Fox, etc.). His unconventional language seems to have added flavor to his being a populist president.
Meanwhile in Davao, where he started his political career as mayor, his children tightened their grip of a stronger Duterte dynasty. Sarah is re-elected Mayor, with son Baste as vice mayor. Another son, Polong, is elected Congressman of the city’s First District.
With all these things in the horizon about to happen (or already happening), with apparent public approval, who can stop President Duterte from acting like a king? Can the Senate afford to say No?