Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

US Meddling in Filipino Poll?

No Philippine president has ever won without US backing. So, who’s the secret US candidate this year, asks Mong Palatino.

Mong Palatino
By Mong Palatino for

The Philippines may have gained its independence from the United States in 1946, but its former colonial master continues to be influential in the Southeast Asian nation’s politics.

The colonial legacy has meant Filipinos want their leaders to emulate their American counterparts, and they’re proud when their elected leaders are compared to popular US politicians. Former President Joseph Estrada, for example, was likened to former US President Ronald Reagan (both were actors before joining politics), while current President Gloria Arroyo always reminds visiting US dignitaries that Bill Clinton was her classmate in college. And, after the historic victory of Barack Obama in 2008, several Filipino politicians identified themselves as the ‘Filipino Obama’.

Indeed, Obama’s win looms large over the Philippine presidential election taking place next week, underscored by the fact that the most popular campaign message espoused by candidates here has been the idea of ‘change’ that was used to such good effect by the US president. In addition, Filipino politicians have taken another leaf out of Obama’s playbook and are tapping social media to reach a broader audience.

That Filipino politicians want to adopt the styles of leadership of successful US politicians reflects the enduring power of colonialism and the hegemonic appeal of the US brand of politics.

But activists and scholars here are less worried over the lingering colonial mentality that afflicts many Filipinos than with how the US exercises its influence through indirect (or even direct) interference in the domestic affairs of an independent nation like the Philippines.

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It’s an open secret that Filipino politicians who covet the presidency must first seek the support of the United States if they want to prevail at the polls, even if this means compromising the country’s sovereignty. A case in point was the Marcos dictatorship, which lasted for more than a decade because it was tolerated by the US.

Much more recently—just two weeks ago in fact—presidential candidate Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino told the media that he and his team had been meeting with mid-level diplomats from the US Embassy. Is this a hint that Sen. Aquino is the favoured candidate of the US?

This revelation must have come as uncomfortable news for rival and former Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert ‘Gibo’ Teodoro who was assumed to have received Washington’s tacit approval to serve as the country’s next president after he boasted of his ties with the United States after a well-publicized trip there last year.

Speaking to a US audience made up largely of defence officials, Teodoro reportedly said:

‘My great grandfather came from here and helped build what is now Baguio City in the Philippines. My own grandfather, my father’s father, was among the very first Filipino scholars to graduate from a United States college.’ He also affirmed his support for the continued presence of US troops in the Philippines to fight terrorist cells.

The United States at one time operated two military bases in the Philippines, until the Philippine Senate decided in 1991 not to renew the military treaty between the two nations, a move that forced the US to abandon its bases in Central Luzon. In 1999, however, then President Estrada signed an agreement that allows the temporary entry of US troops and warships into the Philippines, while current President Arroyo encouraged a greater US troop presence on taking office in 2001 to help fight terrorism in the region.

US leaders understandably want to protect their country’s geo-political interests in the region, and Teodoro certainly appears to have the right qualifications for ensuring this can happen. But Aquino’s recent revelation suggests that he is either angling for US support or already is the preferred candidate of the Obama government.

The supposed Aquino meetings are not the only indication of US influence. For example, some commentators have questioned the timing of the visit last March by the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, who met with senior security and military officials of the Arroyo regime. There’s speculation that this year’s presidential election was discussed, an idea fuelled by the announcement by US embassy officials following the visit that they would closely monitor the conduct of the 2010 elections.

Interestingly, the visit by US defence officials coincided with the Red Shirts protest in Thailand, another Southeast Asian nation that is a close US ally. According to former US State department official W. Scott Thompson, his country is concerned over recent developments in the Philippines, where talk of a failed election due to voting irregularities and malfunctioning voting machines could trigger a political crisis similar to what is happening in Thailand today. Thompson suggested that the appointment of a new US envoy to the country earlier this year is an indication that the Obama administration is no longer satisfied with the reports received from the embassy over the situation in the Philippines.

The concern over a failed election has been compounded by speculation that Arroyo is hoping to remain in power beyond her current term, a suggestion that has prompted some analysts to warn that if elections next week fail, military adventurists might use the opportunity to seize power and install a military junta with Arroyo as the head of a transitional government. Under normal circumstances such theories would be dismissed as a wild conspiracy. But they were given some credence after a former president, a former national security adviser and a former Speaker of the House suggested such an outcome was possible.

But even if such a turn of events remains speculative, one thing is clear—the credibility of the current election process is already substantially diminished. It’s still possible the elections could be postponed over concerns of failed voting machines and the major parties have said they want the election commission to prepare for manual voting.

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So, will the US meddle in Philippine affairs and somehow impose its will on the country’s leaders and parties? Will it continue to support Arroyo or has it already tacitly endorsed a new candidate? And if a coup did take place, would the US launch ‘persuasion flights’ in Philippines airspace to help defeat the rebels, similar to those of the bloody 1989 coup?

The Aquino meetings with US embassy officials, even if they didn’t include an indication of US support, are still symbolic of the power the United States has over the country’s politics and have prompted criticism, including from former head of the Senate chamber Sen. Edgardo Angara.

‘Why are they meeting so close to the elections?’ Angara asked. He advised US officials to refrain from contacting the presidential candidates in this ‘delicate period,’ reportedly telling one newspaper that ‘we don’t want to get the impression that a foreign power is interfering in our internal affairs.’

So far, at least, the signs suggest that the theory that any potential Philippine president needs the blessing of the mighty United States still holds true.

Raymond ‘Mong’ Palatino is a Filipino activist, blogger and parliamentarian.

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