ASEAN Beat

The Philippines’ Coming ‘Duterte Referendum’

The May elections will serve as a litmus test for the Duterte administration’s popularity.

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The Philippines’ Coming ‘Duterte Referendum’

President Rodrigo Duterte gives a thumbs up during a press conference in Davao City, September 10, 2016.

Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office

On May 13, the Philippines will head to the polls to vote in legislative, provincial, municipal, and city elections. The official campaigning period for the legislative elections kicked off on February 12, 90 days ahead of polling. Campaigning is set to conclude on May 11, allowing for a pre-election cooling-off period. This period lead to an uptick in political hostilities, and violence is also expected, with the Philippines National Police (PNP) declaring  701 “hotspots” for electoral violence and a countrywide gun ban being rolled out.

While President Rodrigo Duterte is not facing election himself, the legislative elections are essentially a litmus test on his administrations’ performance and popularity at the halfway point in his six-year term. Duterte remains a highly divisive figure. His hyperbolic and occasionally crass rhetoric, his laid-back leadership style, as well as his controversial policy platforms, including the “War on Drugs” that has resulted in over 5,000 fatalities, have polarized the electorate. Despite this, his approval and trust poll ratings have remained remarkably high; December 2018 surveys conducted by Pulse Asia indicated an 81 percent approval and 76 percent trust rating. The majority of this support derives from lower-income urban voters, as well as the middle class, who tend to see Duterte as a more direct and honest alternative to the “traditional” politician. This blunt approach has already been seen in this campaign period, with Duterte ridiculing Senate candidate Mar Roxas as a “traffic aide.”

The legislative elections will see half of the Senate’s 24 seats, as well as all of the House of Representative’s 297 seats, up for contestation. To date, 62 people have registered their candidacy for the Senate, marking one of the highest contestation rates of recent Senate elections. Among those running are seven current senators seeking re-election, and seven former senators hoping for a return. The current Senate has been the prime source of political opposition against Duterte thus far, and he currently only has the support of around nine senators. Of these nine, the seats of three are up for election in May; Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, and Gregorio Honasan. As such, for the Duterte administration, winning greater leverage in the Senate in the upcoming elections is critical to consolidating power and streamlining the policymaking process for the next three years.

This is particularly important given Duterte’s ambitious constitutional reform agenda. A lead promise in his 2016 presidential campaign was constitutional change, designed to transition the Philippines from a centralized “Imperial Manila” model, to a federalized system of governance. Achieving this agenda has been more difficult in reality. To change the constitution, at least three-quarters of the bi-cameral Congress must support the proposal; within the Senate, this means 18 of the 24 senators must agree with the reforms. There is currently little appetite for constitutional reform, particularly given the low level of support Duterte enjoys in the upper house. Even if Duterte did manage to get the requisite numbers, the legislation would then have to obtain a majority in a national referendum. As such, rallying support and ushering in allied candidates into the Senate will prove crucial in his aim of constitutional reform.

In order to do this, Duterte has used the Philippines’ weak party politics system and reliance on personality politics to his advantage. Despite being the leader of the Philippine Democratic Party – Power of the Nation, known as the PDP-Laban party, he has thrown his weight behind a slate of 11 candidates fronted by the PDP-Laban and various allied parties. His endorsements have been calculated on the basis of who would provide support for his administration should they be elected. He has also voiced support for the 13 candidates put forward by his daughter’s political party, Faction for Change (HNP), which is gaining traction in national politics. This personal-over-party approach is common in the Philippines, where allegiances tend to be fluid; following the 2016 elections, a large number of elected politicians, notably belonging to the opposition Liberal Party (LP), defected to join PDP-Laban to reap the benefits of Duterte becoming president. This personal-over-party approach also fits with Duterte’s leadership style, and his allegiance to the PDP-Laban has not featured highly in the first half of his time in office.

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What has been noted in the campaign so far is the continuation of the Philippine’s political dynasties. Among those running for Senate are Imee Marcos, daughter of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos; Mar Roxas, grandson of former President Manuel Roxas; and Paolo Benigno Aquino, cousin of former President Benigno Aquino III. This is also the case across the House of Representative, provincial, municipal, and city elections; for example, Pia Cayetano is running for Senate, while her brother and his wife are running for House of Representative seats, and another brother is running for a mayoral position.

As the campaign progresses and political rhetoric heats up, socioeconomic concerns, along with relations with China, will remain at the forefront. Duterte has had an arguably stable record when it comes to the economy, with unemployment rates falling and GDP growth remaining at a respectable level, standing at 6.2 percent in 2018. However, inflationary pressures have been the main concern; inflation peaked in late 2018 at almost 7 percent, marking the sharpest rise in years, and significantly surpassing levels in the country’s Southeast Asian neighbours. While this has subsequently fallen to around 4 percent in early 2019, rising living costs are a concern for voters and such bread-and-butter topics can be a vote-deciding issue.

In addition, Duterte’s administration’s move to court China and win foreign direct investment also remains controversial. While this has fueled the much-needed “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, rising domestic concerns have been noted over the conditionality of Chinese support and possible “debt trap” diplomacy. Over 200,000 Chinese nationals have immigrated to the Philippines since Duterte’s election, marking a three-fold rise. This has brought economic benefits, but domestic concerns are rising regarding the impact this will have on the country’s social fabric, including the availability of jobs for Filipino nationals and the rising crime rates perpetrated by Chinese nationals. Opposition parties have used these fears, along with the government’s South China Sea policy to a lesser extent, to rally nationalistic support ahead of the elections. Among those using the approach is Vice President Leni Robredo. Robredo, a leading opposition LP figure and Duterte adversary, has criticized Duterte for a lack of transparency on the conditionality of Chinese loans, as well as calling for more domestic jobs for Filipino workers.

While Duterte is expected to receive a significant boost in the upcoming elections, the scale of success for his PDP-Laban party, along with allied parties, will shape his administration’s agenda up to the next elections in 2022. This is particularly so in the Senate, where Duterte needs to secure greater support than he has already or face overhauling or reneging on his constitutional reform promises.

Joshua Jervis is a Singapore-based Associate Security Consultant for Healix International, a global risk management company headquartered in the United Kingdom.