The 2019 Philippine Elections: Consolidating Power in an Eroding Democracy

The 2019 Philippine Elections: Consolidating Power in an Eroding Democracy

The outcome of the 2019 midterm elections in the Philippines displayed the domineering political influence of President Rodrigo Duterte, a crowded-out opposition, and the limits of his promise for genuine and meaningful socio-political change.

Filipinos trying to find their voting precincts.
Filipinos trying to find their voting precincts. — Image Credits

On May 13, 2019, more than 60 million Filipinos went to the polls for the country’s midterm elections. In this particular ballot exercise, voters elected half of the nationally-elected Senate as well as district and party-list legislative representatives, and local government officials.

President Duterte himself is not subjected to this electoral contest as he is given a single six-year term without re-election until 2022. It has been however a widely-shared shared belief that a midterm election serves as an informal referendum on the president. This becomes more salient given Duterte’s sustained popularity ratings despite his deeply polarising policies and his administration firm control over the republic’s political institutions.

It has been three years since the firebrand leader became Philippine president with the promise to embark on widespread and systemic change. Though there have been some changes put in place, there is also the perception that most things have remained the same. Judging by the conduct of the 2019 electoral campaign and its outcomes, one can surmise that Philippine politics was in “business-as-usual” mode defined by patronage, clientelism, and traditional politics.

The more things change, the more they remain the same

As with previous midterm elections, among the 18,000 positions to be filled, the country’s interest was directed toward the competition for the 12 seats in the Senate. The nationwide electoral campaign compelled most senatorial candidates to formulate comprehensive electoral platforms, forge political coalitions, and take a stand for or against the Duterte administration.

Despite being Asia’s first constitutional democracy, there leaves much to be desired with quality and integrity of Philippine elections. The absence of a credible and strong party system continues to influence politicians to rely on traditional political machines that contained “guns, goons, and gold”. Rather than battle of policy-based ideas, an election campaign remains popularity contests where name recall, celebrity status, and political pedigree determines likely success.

The 2019 midterm elections further validated the centuries-old state of electoral play – exclusionary, elite-oriented, and costly. Despite the questionable integrity of its elections, Filipinos often troop the polls in huge numbers with an estimated 75-78 percent voter turnout.

Electoral politics left in the hands of the “one percent” is the default setting in the Philippines. This can be seen in the resilience of political dynasties in this election cycle. Duterte did not stem their growth and persistence leading to the 2019 elections. On the contrary, his own family’s hold on local politics in Davao city. His eldest son also won a district representative seat in the country’s lower legislative chamber, the House of Representatives. Similar to many Filipino political families, not even the Dutertes can avoid the lure of dynastic expansion once they have acquired national power.

While it is entirely possible for any administration to cause significant changes in the span of a few years, it is not totally unfair to expect that from the Duterte presidency. One may remember that his electoral triumph in 2016 was based on a deep and popular resentment over the political establishment composed of the Manila-based liberal, populist, and oligarchical elite.

People’s expectations on Duterte’s ability to improve their plight is still reflected in his highly positive trust ratings. While it baffles many, the firebrand president’s popularity has withstood the negative and critical treatment of the foreign and local press. One may analyse this sustained loyalty of Filipinos to Duterte as a “sunk investment” since many of them have pinned their hopes to improve their conditions to the president with no viable leadership alternative in sight.

Also important is the sense that the public at large has been exasperated with the arduous and long-winding processes that lead to countrywide development, peace and order, and political stability are pegged. Duterte has maintained a performative and a perceived substantive commitment to rapidly deliver outcomes regardless of the collateral damage. It is this impatience with the way Philippine democracy has worked in the past that feeds Duterte’s continued popularity to many Filipinos across classes and locations.

Strange bedfellows: A formidable Duterte coalition

Instead of transforming the country’s political landscape to make it more people-oriented, progressive, and inclusive, Duterte’s actions in the 2019 electoral campaign showed a level of comfort to preserve the status quo he promised to meaningfully change. Unlike other populist leaders around the world, Duterte did not create a mass-based political party with deep linkages from the grassroots that helped him win the presidency in 2016. Traditional politics defined by patronage and personal loyalty seems to have defined the criteria for candidate selection to the administration’s coalition.

President Duterte with Christopher Lawrence 'Bong' Go, presidential aide turned senator-elect in the 2019 Election — Image Credits

As expected, Duterte became the centripetal force for different aspiring candidates in the senatorial and local elections. The popular chief executive’s endorsement became the most valuable political currency vital for any politician’s electoral success. Similar to other populist leaders around the world, Duterte never left the campaign pulpit. Without hesitation, the president willingly supported and campaigned for his personal choices. He also continued to disparage the opposition that he vanquished in the 2016 elections.

But there is a stark difference – unlike in 2016, he has the entire machinery of the Philippine state to provide the resources for his preferred candidates. Duterte’s “incumbency advantage” was transferred to the administration’s slate for the senate and local positions. Though this is not something new in Philippine electoral politics, the electoral competition became highly skewed against those in the political opposition as the Duterte administration pushed for a complete sweep of the senatorial elections.

Thus, the challenge for the Duterte administration is to have a strong line-up of senatorial candidates given the many politicians who wished to be included in the slate. But instead of coming up with a single list, the coalition that propped Duterte has produced several line-ups with more candidates than the seats that were in electoral contention.

In the end, there were three groups of senatorial candidates associated with the administration. The first is the official line-up of Duterte’s party (PDP-Laban) composed of five candidates. The second is Duterte’s personal list composed of the 5 PDP-Laban candidates with seven sourced from other smaller parties and independent personalities. To many observers, the combination of the two lists should be sufficient for the Duterte administration to field a strong line-up.

A third list however emerged that pitted some candidates against the supposed administration slate. This was led by Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter and an emerging force in the political arena. Sara founded Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP, Group for Change), a regional party based in southern Philippines, to unify Mindanao-based political groups and support the agenda of her father. It must be noted that PDP-Laban itself has a solid base in Mindanao. Therefore, it was unavoidable that both parties competed against each other in the elections at the local level.

Wanting to prove that she is her father’s daughter, Sara started to show her political influence last year when her party became instrumental in the ouster of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, a known stalwart of the president’s party PDP-Laban. He was replaced by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a known ally of both the president and Sara Duterte.

Sara’s HNP senatorial slate however had 13 candidates which is more than the twelve seats to be filled in the elections. It also had controversial candidates included in its line-up such as an ex-senator convicted of plunder, a daughter of the country’s dictator during martial law, and a former chief of the police that helped carry out Duterte’s bloody war on illegal drugs.

Having multiple lists, created some confusion but also had several important revelations. First, Sara Duterte’s political manoeuvring is distinct and even contrary to the interests of the leaders of her father’s official party. This is based more from the dynamics of local politics in Mindanao as the Dutertes want to remain the sole broker and political warden of the South.

Second, having more bets is consistent with the administration’s overall goal of sweeping the senatorial elections. This is critical to capturing the “last bastion of resistance” from the complete domination of the Duterte administration of the government in its entirety. Duterte has a comfortable super-majority in the House of Representatives and he has appointed enough member in the country’s judiciary. The 24-member Senate is the only political institution where the Duterte administration does not fully control.

Finally, there is some indication, admitted by many political figures that included President Duterte himself, that Sara Duterte is positioning to be a strong contender for the presidency in the 2022 elections. If this is true, it will alienate some prominent members of the Duterte coalition down the line especially those who have presidential ambitions. Thus, the 2019 elections are really about giving us a glance on the likely political landscape of competition for the 2022 elections.

The opposition: Outnumbered, outspent, outmaneuvered

Since he assumed office in 2016, President Duterte’s domineering influence has severely weakened the opposition. Some of its members are currently detained for alleged wrongdoing while others have been harassed. His administration has shown a great disdain for criticism and opposing views that it refused to share power with the political figures associated with the previous government.

In this election cycle, the opposition slate composed of eight senatorial candidates failed to make it to any of the twelve contested seats. Other individual candidates who took an anti-Duterte stance also were not successful. This is the first time in contemporary Philippine political history that the opposition has not won a single seat in a legislative election since the 1930s.

Being unable to field a complete slate of twelve candidates, the opposition showed political weakness. It has utterly failed to build a coalition against the formidable Duterte line-up. While their slate contained strong contenders, they were politically outnumbered but also unable to mobilize local political networks as most of their allies have already shifted their loyalties to the administration.

The opposition also did not have access to the entire machinery of the Philippine government. Even though it is against electoral rules for the bureaucracy to participate in partisan politics in the Philippines, this is rarely enforced. The same opposition candidates who ran in this election also benefitted from the government apparatus when they were associated with the ruling government in the past. In the end, they simply did not have adequate resources to match the Duterte coalition. The playing field simply was not at all competitive.

However, the political opposition’s failure mainly stemmed from their failed electoral strategy. They chose to face-off with Duterte who was not even competing with them for an electoral seat. He was not on the ballot and yet the opposition candidates chose to primarily engage him rather than Duterte’s own candidates for the Senate. They were no match to his populist style of campaigning.

The outcome for the opposition also demonstrated that the electorate were mainly mobilized through groundwork campaigning through local political networks composed of community leaders and local government officials. While they spent a lot of time targeting a “market vote” through media campaigns and rallies, they were unable to convince many voters who already committed to their local brokers.

The widely-televised national debates among senatorial candidates did not have a significant effect to improving the standing of the opposition candidates. In fact, many of those who won in the senate refused to participate in these debates. Also, those who were perceived to have done well in the debates did not win while pro-Duterte candidates who were assessed poorly were successful in the polls.

The opposition had a lost opportunity to convince the electorate to vote for them. At the height of the campaign, the negative impact of inflation has already been attenuated. Some of the candidates were also not successful with using Duterte’s pro-China stance to rally support. Finally, by associating with the severely weakened Liberal Party, the opposition took a nose dive as it was not able to convince many Filipinos that it can provide the viable alternative to the current Duterte-dominated political status quo.

Democracy in distress: Future prospects

It was unsurprising that Duterte’s senatorial candidates dominated the 2019 elections. Given this, his administration currently enjoys a “super-majority” or almost two-thirds of the Senate. It also has maintained its control of the House of Representatives and most of the local governments in the archipelago. Duterte has effectively concentrated political power in ways unseen since the country underwent dictatorial rule.

It is not coincidental that Duterte’s consolidation of power goes side by side with the further erosion of the country’s already weak liberal democratic regime. It is a mistake to attribute the decline of the Philippine democratic quality solely from the populist leader as the country’s elites have generally paid lip service to institution-building and democratic deepening. However, it is quite obvious that Duterte made major moves to cause the further deterioration of Philippine liberal democracy.

This conforms to the global trend of democratic rollback around the world. Duterte is identified as part of a cabal of populist strongmen bent on undermining the liberal foundations of democracy. In Southeast Asia, the outcome of the 2019 elections further proved that democracy remains in deficit in the region. Almost all states in the region seem to be comfortable in suspending or sabotaging their own democratization processes.

With its long experience with democracy, the Philippines is not showing a good example of democratic progress to its neighbours in maritime and mainland Southeast Asia. The future of democracy in Southeast Asia remains bleak.

It remains uncertain where the Philippines will end up after Duterte finishes his term in 2022. While his coalition already has an upper hand in dictating the political succession after Duterte, a lot of things can still happen between now and that election cycle. Duterte has promised to change the 1987 Constitution and his allies have threatened to remove most of its progressive components. This undoubtedly will effectively destroy what remains of the republic’s liberal democratic institutions.

This possible tragic outcome comes at the expense of the great expectations of empowerment, development, and inclusion that Duterte promised when he ran for president. While ordinary citizens are used to being manipulated by the usual predatory elites that dominated politics for decades, they were made to believe that Duterte is not one of them. If the president fails to deliver on his promises and he proved to be just like any other traditional politician, it will not only be frustrating but truly heart-breaking for many Filipinos.