The most recent polls for the coming May 13 midterm elections in the Philippines project all eight opposition senatorial candidates landing outside the “magic 12” circle of those elected to the Philippine Senate. (In an electoral quirk, Philippine senators are elected nationally.) That even the most high-profile opposition candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas, an influential cabinet official in the previous administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino who was the runner up to Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 presidential elections, seems a long shot to win shows how poorly the opposition has fared in the campaign thus far.
Sweeping the race would be good news for the Duterte administration as the Senate has become a key battleground. It has thus far stood in the way of his proposed change to a federal system through a new constitution and opposition senators have led high profile investigations into the president and his family.
Assuming the polls prove prescient, the half of the 24-person Philippine Senate elected this year will be dominated by Duterte loyalists (his close and previously low-profile aide Bong Go, whom one critic has dismissed as “Caligula’s horse,” and his former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, known as “bato” or the rock who launched the bloody “war on drugs”) and politician allies as well as a few high-profile independents (such as frontrunner Grace Poe, another 2016 presidential candidate).
This likely means the last institutional bastion of the opposition will have fallen as Duterte has, as past presidents, easily seized control of the lower house through pork barrel distribution-driven defections. The Supreme Court has become more pliant through new appointments as high court justices reach retirement age — Duterte appointees will account for 12 of the high court’s 15 justices by the end of 2019. In May 2018, pro-Duterte judges removed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who had been critical of the administration, through a controversial judicial maneuver.
Duterte allies are also expected to dominate races for the 238 congressional seats elected by district and the thousands of local government races also taking place in the midterms.
Duterte has engaged in typical verbal excesses during the campaign – cursing a staunch critic of his drug war Bishop Pablo Virgilio David as a “son of bitch” and taunting Kit Tatad, a retired politician and critical columnist, about his manhood. Already in 2017 opposition Senator Leila de Lima was jailed on dubious drug charges (which recently led to a bipartisan rebuke from the U.S. Senate) just after she led investigations into Duterte’s human rights abuses. Another leading opposition senator, Antonio Trillanes, has faced sudden legal travails. Critical voices in the press have been under pressure as Duterte has threatened not to renew the franchise of a leading TV network while Maria Ressa, the editor of the critical online newspaper Rappler, has been arrested several times on multiple offenses. Recently, the administration claimed there was an oust-Duterte “matrix” that included leading human rights lawyers, journalists, oppositionists, and left activists. An opposition leader denounced that claim as a diversionary tactic meant to spread fear during the election campaign, and warned it could “cripple democracy.”
But pro-Duterte candidates have not relied only on intimidation. The problem has also been that the issues the opposition Otso Diretso (direct eight) senatorial candidates have raised during the campaign – human rights abuses, subservience to China, and the foibles of several pro-administration candidates who have previously been jailed on plunder charges or have been proved to be dishonest – have evidently not swayed voters. Duterte’s opinion poll ratings are the highest of any post-Marcos president at this stage of his term of office. Opposition candidates Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, and Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III are the nephew, son, and grandson, respectively, of leading anti-Marcos activists who have drawn parallels between the growing authoritarianism under Duterte and Marcos’ martial law rule. But this has been of little help at a time when nostalgia for the fallen dictator is strong (with Duterte giving Marcos a “heroes burial” early in his term).
Also, with limited financial resources and few local political supporters, the opposition slate, already only contesting eight of a possible 12 seats, has held relatively few campaign rallies and has been able to buy only limited political advertising. This has meant that the opposition is not only disadvantaged in terms of what political scientist Julio Teehankee calls the “ground war” (local political machinery) but also in terms of the “air war” (TV and radio), as well as the increasingly important “net war” (use of social media). This has given the opposition little chance to get their political message across. As Otso Diretso’s campaign manager Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan has admitted, the opposition needs a “miracle” to do well in the senatorial races.
Yet looking back over the last three decades to the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos that ended in 1986 — and even before that to the democratic period after Philippine independence in 1946 — this midterm electoral advantage for an incumbent president is not unusual. Except in a handful of cases of usually long-serving presidents who had become increasingly unpopular, the incumbent party or electoral alliance has won a majority of senatorial seats in the midterms, often by a lopsided margin. In the most recent midterms held in 2013, the senatorial candidates of then-President Aquino, who was also very popular at the time, won nine of the 12 seats against only a quasi-opposition composed of the camp of his then-Vice President Jejomar Binay.
But the Philippine senatorial race has been compared to a “royal rumble” in professional wrestling with all-against-all. While the opposition has struggled, the Duterte administration has a surplus of candidates. This has led to a free-for-all that will also leave a number of pro-Duterte candidates outside the winning circle. This may well open up future political fissures, as historically candidates who have not felt well treated have turned to the opposition, increasing its ranks as new presidential elections loom.
Philippine presidents have also had a very poor track record in securing the election of a designated successor, with the last example being Fidel V. Ramos, Corazon “Cory” C. Aquino’s chosen successor, who squeaked to a contested victory in the 1992 presidential elections with less than a quarter of the votes. The national debut of presidential daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, whom many Filipinos believe to be a favorite to succeed him in the 2022 elections, has been far from flawless. Although campaigning hard for her Hugpong Pagbabago, an alliance of regional barons that has overshadowed the de facto ruling party her father is associated with, she has made several missteps, including an awkward legalistic defense of the dishonesty of Imee Marcos, daughter of the former dictator, who falsely claimed to have to have a degree from Princeton and a Philippine university.
The expected electoral tsunami will likely enable Duterte to further consolidate his illiberal populist rule. Duterte has transgressed even the limited constraints on his power in a “hyper-presidentialist” system such as the Philippines’. The failure of successive post-Marcos administrations to create strong institutions and to significantly reduce poverty created a political opportunity for Duterte’s rise. “Dutertismo” has consisted of the tough-talking president decrying a corrupt elite accused of coddling drug dealers, which has mobilized mass support, particularly through social media, which the Duterte administration has assiduously cultivated. It has even given government positions to leading “trolls,” with Facebook recently deactivating several fake accounts, including several managed by Duterte’s social media manager. Although Duterte has done little to reduce poverty (a spike in inflation last year hurt the poor and “jobless” growth has worsened under his administration), his strongman leadership style has effectively deflected attention from the “death of development” in the Philippines.
Yet most recent Philippine presidencies have often begun with a bang but ended with a whimper. Aquino’s promise of “a straight path” toward honest government hit a dead end after a major pork barrel scandal, among others. With the Supreme Court ordering the release of police documents about the thousands of drug killings under Duterte (with initial reports showing a suspiciously uniform template of those killed “fighting back” before being shot) and an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court despite Philippine withdrawal from the body under Duterte, the bloody war on drugs seems likely to be an issue that comes back to haunt him. A recent investigation of Duterte’s growing wealth by a respected media outlet has prompted repeated outbursts by a president who evidently lost his cool while accusations that his son Paolo has been involved in drug smuggling continue to surface. China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea (with Chinese paramilitary fishing vessels recently swarming around the Philippine-occupied Thitu island), worries about a debt trap with Chinese financing of infrastructure projects, and growing concerns about an influx of 150,000 or more Chinese workers, particularly in the country’s online gaming industry, are also potential political landmines.
The Duterte administration’s likely victory in the coming midterm elections may yet prove a Pyrrhic one.
Mark R. Thompson is professor of politics and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong. He is currently working on a book about the Philippine presidency co-authored with Julio Teehankee.