The 18th Philippine Congress opens in late July, but the new Senate configuration has generated concerns about the health of checks-and-balances in one of Asia’s pioneer democracies. With 20 majority and only four minority members, some fear that the allies of President Rodrigo Duterte will simply railroad through legislation deemed priorities by the executive. However, insights into the nature of Philippine politics reveal variables that make the future less certain than it may seem.
The near-landslide victory of administration-backed senatorial aspirants in the last May 13 midterm elections demonstrate the unflinching influence of Duterte among Filipinos. For all the controversy and criticisms that his rhetoric and policies have generated, the fiery 73-year old leader remains immensely popular among his constituents. Duterte has crossed almost all traditional Filipino political taboos without much effect on his appeal. Despite some of his unwholesome rhetoric and posturing, Duterte’s popularity remains anchored on strong economic fundamentals marked by all-time highs in both foreign investment and tourist arrivals, a bullish stock market, an unprecedented BBB+ credit rating, and a declining poverty rate. Over 46 million voters trooped to poll booths last May 13, a high 75-78 percent voter turnout.
The Senate win is expected to further bolster the continuity of his policies. But beyond Duterte’s magic, the massive electoral win also signals Filipinos’ growing weariness over intense politicking and the adversarial executive-legislative relations that have long stymied domestic politics in the Southeast Asian country.
With 10 out of 12 just-elected Philippine senators doing the famed Duterte fist bump during their proclamation on May 22, some expressed worry that the last bastion to check the possible excesses of the president has fallen. But this is still premature and may not necessarily hold.
To recap: Nine out of 12 Senate seats were won by coalition Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Faction for Change) chaired by Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter. These include four out of five candidates from the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan/PDP-Laban (Philippine Democratic Party–People’s Power). It was a complete rout for the opposition Otso Diretso (Straight Eight) slate, who did not land a single seat, leading campaign manager Senator Francis Pangilinan to resign as Liberal Party president.
Aside from the presidential endorsement, name recognition and prior experience were important factors in the midterm results. Five incumbents and three with previous senate experience won. Only four are neophytes. And despite calls to end political dynasties, seven incoming senators came from influential political clans whose family members are represented in local and national posts.
The new Senate mix also increased the representation of Mindanao, Duterte’s home island and the country’s second largest, from three to five. This said, the upper chamber remains dominated by lawmakers from Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon with nine members a piece. Only one member hails from the Visayas, the country’s central islands. Given this geographic grounding, federalism advocates worry that the inadequacy of regionally-rooted legislators means less champions for the cause in the Senate.
If the electoral win is taken as a vote of confidence for Duterte and his policies, then people will expect the new Senate to support the president’s legislative agenda. On the justice, peace and order, and security fronts, this may include continuing the controversial drug war, lowering the age of criminal responsibility, reimposing the death penalty for heinous crimes, resuming military training program for civilian reservists, and crafting a stronger response to terrorism and insurgency. However, Senate may have to consider public sentiment and the country’s international commitments in tackling these issues, knowing how some of them have become divisive and affected the country’s international standing. Support for the modernization of the armed forces, coast guard, and police is also expected.
As for economics, tax reform, development of economic zones, and support for the Build, Build, Build infrastructure program may be seen as priorities. A longstanding measure to amend part of the constitution to relax restrictions on foreign capital, making the country more attractive to foreign investors, may also get a renewed lift. On foreign policy, support for Duterte’s preference for dialogue, dispute management, and confidence-building in the South China Sea (called the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines) and closer economic ties with China will be solicited. However, incidents like the June 9 sinking of a Filipino fishing vessel may compel the Senate to conduct greater oversight of the president’s exercise of foreign policy.
However, the senators’ fist-bump photo-op may not necessarily say it all. While most people may expect the winning candidates to support the government’s legislative agenda, the Senate’s independent tradition, changing political loyalties, and personal ambitions of senators suggest that the landscape may still change.
Given the loose tradition of party and coalition politics in the country and the 2022 presidential elections in the horizon, political realignment as early as next year is not impossible. In fact, even within the administration camp, the seeds of discord are already sown. Jockeying for committee chairmanships may cause wrangling within the uneasy alliance. The contest for the House Speakership also put Hugpong Chair Sara Duterte at odds with other notable allies of the president. This includes former Foreign Affairs Secretary and incoming Taguig City First District Representative Allan Peter Cayetano and former House Speaker and returning Davao del Norte First District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez. The presidential daughter does not also see eye-to-eye with her father on such flagship priorities as the proposed shift to a federal form of government.
This said, presidential wannabees in the Senate would do well to get Duterte’s endorsement. The 2019 midterm vote served as an enormous display of the president’s clout. But aspirants may still keep a safe distance knowing how controversial the president can be. People may also fire back on those who try to copy Duterte’s style but lack authenticity. Furthermore, aspirants may want to project their own character instead of being in the shadow of a popular leader they would always be measured up against.
The new Senate configuration may easily feed into doomsday scenarios of the august chamber becoming a rubber stamp parliament or the country going down the authoritarian path. But the swings and nuances in Philippine politics suggest that alliances can be short-lived and personal pursuits remain paramount.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University and contributing editor for the Reviews section of the Asian Politics & Policy Journal.