Here are some data:
· Over 80,000 positions are at stake, from national to local.
· There are more than 54 million registered voters.
· Expected turnout is 75 percent of registered voters or about 40.5 million.
· Youth make up 40 percent of registered voters.
In the Philippines, the president is very powerful. What is interesting is that the president appoints between 11,000 to 14,000 officials, including those for autonomous institutions like the election commission, the anti-corruption bodies—Ombudsman, Commission on Audit--justices of the Supreme Court and the lower courts. He or she gets to shape the bureaucracy.
There are five presidential candidates, but the first four are considered serious candidates:
· Grace Poe, a neophyte senator whose claim to fame is being an adopted daughter of a popular movie actor. She is running as an independent.
· Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, the current vice president and former mayor of the prime city of Makati, host to the country’s financial district. He belongs to an opposition political party.
· Mar Roxas, former cabinet secretary, the candidate of the ruling coalition.
· Rodrigo Duterte, former Davao city mayor, who belatedly declared his candidacy.
· Miriam Defensor Santiago, former senator who in 1992 ran for president and lost to Fidel Ramos. She claims to have been cheated. She’s not taken seriously because of her health woes.
For a time there was a cliffhanger: Would Poe be in or out of the race? A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court resolved the legal challenges facing frontrunner presidential candidate Grace Poe--her 10-year residency in the Philippines and the status of her citizenship.
Poe lived in the US for 17 years where she became a naturalized American. Legally, there were requirements she needed to fulfill to be considered a permanent resident of the Philippines. Based on her timeline, she complied with these years after she returned to Manila, thus making her residency short of 10 years.
About her citizenship, there is no doubt that she is a Filipino citizen; it’s whether she’s a natural born citizen that’s the contentious point. This is a basic requirement for running for higher office. The Supreme Court finally allowed her to run.
2016: Tight Race
The upcoming election is a very tight race, compared with 2010 when it was clear a couple of months before election day that Noynoy Aquino was going to win. The surveys showed him ahead of the pack, enjoying a wide lead. He won 42 percent of the votes.
This looks more like the 1992 race—our first election under the multiparty system (as opposed to the two-party system that had been in place since 1935). Seven candidates ran for president, and we ended up with a minority president, Fidel Ramos, who garnered 23.6 percent of the votes. He turned out to be a good president, though, because he formed a coalition with other parties to pass major reform bills.
The danger in a five-way race—Binay, Poe, Roxas, Duterte, Santiago—is that votes will be split. This scenario is keeping anxiety levels high as it could derail the path to growth—an opportunity the Philippines doesn't always have. (Of the unfinished business, more later.)
Voters have been fickle in the past months in choosing their candidates, with surveys showing Binay and Duterte alternating with Poe as the most preferred to succeed President Aquino.
In the most recent survey of Pulse Asia, conducted in March 2016, after the Supreme Court decided that Poe was qualified to run for president, Poe’s numbers did not rise dramatically. Poe and Duterte are the frontrunners, with 26 percent choosing Poe and 25 percent for Duterte. This is considered a statistical tie. Binay (22 percent) and Roxas (20 percent) are the second and third choices for president. This also could be considered a statistical tie.
Analysts say that the candidates have hit their ceilings and possible change depends on issues—some twists of fate—that will have an impact on them and their campaign strategies. At this point, it could be anybody’s ballgame, although Roxas has not yet topped any of the surveys.
Unlike the US, where much has been written about the “angry vote,” voters in the Philippines tend to be un-angry and hopeful. There is no anger against a womanizing candidate, a corrupt candidate, or a candidate who has presided over a city with a record of extrajudicial killings.
Every year, surveys show that Filipinos embrace the New Year with hope, from 80 to 90 percent of the respondents. The least hopeful times were under President Gloria Arroyo, when corruption scandals and her supposed cheating in the 2004 elections rocked her regime.
According to another Pulse Asia survey, the top five “most urgent national concerns,” as of January 2016, were: 1) improving workers’ pay 2) curbing illegal drugs 3) controlling inflation, 4) fighting graft and corruption in government and 5) reducing poverty.
All the candidates have said they will address these issues, some more consistently than others. Duterte is a one-issue candidate, who promises to reduce criminality and this includes stopping the spread of illegal drugs. Roxas consistently says he will continue Aquino’s anti-corruption program and he himself has not been tainted by any corruption scandal. All of them vow to promote inclusive growth and reduce poverty.
We do not see any radical departure from the current government’s economic and social policies, except under a Duterte government (more, later).
No More Uncertainty
Now that Poe is definitely in the race, will she get further boost in her ratings? Her soft votes—those who could still change their choices—could firm up and go for her without reservations.
We can see that the vote for Poe as well as other candidates is not issue-based but a personality-based one. Poe’s short record in government has not been stained by corruption. She is a fresh face in Philippine politics.
For a time, the voters’ second choice was Binay, who has pending corruption cases. Binay is an old face in Philippine politics and leads a political dynasty.
A few words about Binay’s unexplained wealth: The Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) found that the bank accounts of the vice-president and his cronies “violate the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.” Binay’s bank deposits do not match his declared assets. As of 2013, he was worth P60 million ($1.30M). But the AMLC computed a total of at least “P263.97 million” ($5.70M) in deposits and at least “P266.73 million” ($5.8M) in withdrawals.
“There is a wide gap between his legitimate income and his total bank deposits,” the AMLC said.
Another concern about Binay is his political dynasty. Members of his family are in politics: his daughter, Nancy, is a senator; Another daughter, Abigail, used to be in Congress and is now running for mayor of Makati; Abigail’s husband, Luis Campos, is running for Congress to take her place.
Binay’s son, Junjun, served as Makati mayor until he was suspended on corruption charges. His wife, Elenita, was once mayor of Makati.
For his part, Mar Roxas’ record is not tainted with corruption. But some say his track record as secretary of transport and communication was unimpressive: He did not show decisiveness. The result has been the delayed approval of transport infrastructure projects. However, Roxas did not stay long in the DOTC because President Aquino moved him to the interior and local governments department.
He has difficulty connecting with the poor—he comes from an elite family—and the majority of the voters in the Philippines are from the poor.
Duterte is the most controversial candidate. He has made democracy and the rule of law issues in the campaign. (More about him later.)
Three themes surround the 2016 elections:
1. The future of democracy and the rule of law.
2. Deterioration of Philippine political culture.
3. Viability of independent candidates.
This is the first time since 1986 that a potential return to authoritarian rule is a campaign issue. Democracy and the rule of law are at stake in the upcoming election for two reasons. One of the declared presidential candidates has an iron fist. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor who made Davao a disciplined, progressive and among the most livable cities in Southeast Asia, said he wants to rule like a dictator and abolish Congress and shut down the courts if they stop his infrastructure projects. His answer to criminality is to “kill them all, those criminals!” Many in Davao support his strong leadership.
Duterte has captured the imagination of many voters. He is quite popular, even among the young (youth, ages 18-30, make up about 40 percent of registered voters). Duterte has openly said that his antidote to fighting criminality is murder: “If I have to kill you, I’ll kill you. Personally.” No ambivalence there. Unapologetic.
In reality, it is Duterte who represents a sharp break from today’s politics because he believes in a dictatorship. “It’s the police and the military who will be the backbone [if he decides to run and wins],” he said.
Human Rights Watch has reported that more than 1,000 were killed by death squads during the term of Duterte as mayor. These include petty criminals, drug dealers and street children. In his local TV show, Duterte addressed this issue: “Am I the death squad? True. That’s true.”
But no case has been filed against him. The killings apparently could not be directly linked to him.
Duterte promised that if he became president, he would execute 100,000 more criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay. “If by chance God will place me there, watch out because the 1,000 will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you.”
A senatorial candidate, Walden Bello, hit the nail right on the head when he wrote that “Duterte is a creature that emerged from the dismal state of the administration of justice in this country.” The acceptance of Duterte is scary because it shows that some voters are willing to go for vigilante justice because of the failure of government to prosecute criminals.
It also speaks of cynicism about the justice system when the powerful, like Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who was jailed for corruption, was released on bail. It was the Supreme Court, no less, that ruled in Enrile’s favor because of his old age (91) and supposedly declining health. A day or so after he got out of jail, he reported for work in the Senate, looking healthy and energetic.
Duterte’s big support from Mindanao, where he hails from, shows that Mindanao wants to put one of its own in Malacañang. This is like the revenge of the periphery. The country has never had a president from Mindanao.
When it comes to social media, among the presidential candidates, Duterte is one of two darlings (the other is Miriam Defensor Santiago). Duterte has a fanatical following in social media.
It’s amazing that news stories about him are shared thousands of times over, as if the public’s appetite for the latest and newest, the highs and lows, the kinks and quirks of this politician cum celebrity is insatiable.
Duterte has schizophrenic positions. He has declared that:
1. He is against corruption but, if he wins, he promises to have one detained senator released. This senator is charged with stealing hundreds of millions of pesos (P224M or $4.8M) in public funds. He also said early in the campaign that he would endorse Binay, who faces corruption charges, for president if he himself were disqualified from the race.
2. He has supported gender-sensitive programs as mayor. But he is disrespectful of women (he forcibly kissed on the lips some women supporters in a rally), and likes to womanize and flaunts it.
3. He is sympathetic towards the Left, the Communist Party of the Philippines, but he has threatened to kill trade unions that threaten corporations and announced that he is for bigger foreign ownership in Philippine businesses, from 40 percent to 60 percent or even 70 percent.
4. He is not a dictator, he says, but he will shut down Congress if they do not support his reforms and he will also close the courts that issue temporary restraining orders (TROs) on major infrastructure projects. He also is a fan of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and would have his remains buried in the heroes’ cemetery.
Shock and Awe
What makes Duterte attractive?
He brings color to the political canvas, a wild flash and a rawness--all ingredients that make for good entertainment. He is outspoken, candid, funny, provocative and likes to dish out outrageous remarks. He shocks and awes.
The fascination with the likes of Duterte is not unique to the Philippines.
Donald Trump is the US media’s flavor of the season. Pundits have pointed out how Trump has parlayed his fondness for professional wrestling into politics, making a spectacle of his performance in debates and press conferences. After all, Trump is a member of the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.
He has taken extreme positions and is offensive in his attacks. Duterte has a Trump in him. We regard him as a little Trump, a Trumpette.
What we see in Duterte is the potential of forceful leadership. A quick fix. The man who will keep our streets free of crime, haul to prison or kill those who violate traffic rules, make our trains run on time, finish construction of roads as scheduled, abolish red tape—all this while entertaining us with his stories about his women, his shocking quotes, and crisp expletives.
The second reason democracy is a theme in this campaign is that, in the vice-presidential race, one of those running is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator. Recent surveys show him catching up with the frontrunner Senator Chiz Escudero. Prominent in the media coverage of the young Marcos’ candidacy is the legacy of his father, although the son has not promised to return the country to authoritarian rule.
Should Marcos Jr. win, it would mean that an entire generation of voters put him in office, a generation with no memory of the 14 years of dictatorship, the bursting political prisons, disappearances, the corruption the failed economy.
Economist Emmanuel de Dios recently wrote: “The economy suffered its worst postwar recession under the Marcos regime because of the huge debt hole it had dug…collapsing completely in 1984-1985 when the country could no longer pay its obligations, precipitating a debt crisis, loss of livelihood, extreme poverty, and ushering in two lost decades of development.”
Deterioration of Political Culture
There is a marked decline in the political culture of the country and a further weakening of political parties.
The phenomenon of “guest candidates” most illustrates how differences among political parties have blurred, how political parties have turned into flags of convenience. This practice applies to the Senate as well as local positions. How does this work?
Popular candidates running for the Senate are “adopted” as “guest candidates” by political parties or coalitions because they could not fill up their own slates. They could not find 12 men/women to run on their team.
For example, Senator Tito Sotto, who is also a TV noontime show host, is an official candidate in the senatorial slate of candidate Grace Poe. At the same time, he is a “guest candidate” of Vice President Binay. This is because Sotto supports Poe for president and Senator Gringo Honasan for vice president. Honasan is Binay’s running mate.
Senator Ralph Recto is a member of the Liberal Party and an official candidate in the team of Mar Roxas, the ruling coalition’s candidate. Yet Recto agreed to be a “guest candidate” in the senatorial slate of Poe.
There’s more: Panfilo Lacson, former senator and police chief, who is running as an independent senatorial candidate, is in both the slates of the administration and Binay’s party, which belongs to the opposition. Former Senators Richard Gordon and Juan Miguel Zubiri are members of both Binay’s and Poe’s senatorial slates.
Poe is all out for sharing of candidates. “We have no conditions,” she said. “We believe we chose them because they could do something in the Senate regardless of which party they join. Of course, we would prefer that they endorse us.”
Even candidates from the Left have become part of the fray. Bayan Muna party-list member Neri Colmenares is running for the Senate with the team of Poe-Escudero.
The most obvious reason why this is happening is because political parties are nothing but vehicles to get elected. Politicians join political parties because it is convenient to do so and shift when it is no longer convenient. No law in the Philippines sanctions political butterflies.
A bill to reform political parties has been pending for years, but even President Aquino did not make this one of his priority bills. The bill would punish those who shift political parties by disallowing them to run, provide; it would also provide for transparent campaign contributions and expenses and a state subsidy for political parties.
It is costly to run a national campaign, and given the limited funds of political parties they find it difficult to complete their senatorial slates. It is usually the presidential candidate who raises the funds and gets most of it—so the easiest thing to do is to share candidates.
Do voters mind parties sharing candidates? Apparently not. Many of the voters do not look for differentiators in terms of positions on various issues. The Commission on Election has no rule against it.
The practice of having a “guest candidate” began in 1955. When Claro Recto ran for re-election as senator, his conflict with President Ramon Magsaysay left him out of the Nacionalista Party slate. Thus, Recto accepted the offer of the Liberal Party to be its guest candidate. Since then, there had been no other known case of “guest candidacy,” until perhaps in the 2010 elections.
To avoid confusion: Roxas is Liberal Party; Binay is United Nationalist Alliance, which is the dominant opposition party; Duterte is with PDP-Laban while his VP candidate, Cayetano, is with the Nacionalista Party (NP); and Miriam Defensor Santiago is running under her People’s Reform Party while her running mate, Marcos Jr. belongs to NP.
A brief note on political dynasties: A Pulse Asia survey shows that public opinion regarding electoral support or non-support for politicians belonging to political dynasties is split three ways: 34 percent do not see anything wrong with electing candidates belonging to dynasties; 32 percent have a contrary opinion; 34 percent are undecided.
The other bizarre phenomenon is a vice-presidential candidate running solo, without any presidential teammate. An “orphan” VP candidate, Senator Antonio Trillanes is embarking on this misadventure.
Earlier, some politicians declared their candidacies for VP without running mates. They then began a search for teammates. Senator Marcos found Miriam Defensor Santiago and Senator Alan Cayetano is now in the tight embrace of Duterte, after a very public wooing of the latter.
Marcos Jr.’s partnership with Santiago came as a surprise because the senator is suffering from lung cancer, stage 4; although she says she is cured. She refuses to make her medical records public.
Here’s one for the books: an old political party, the Nacionalista Party, is fielding three of its members for VP.
Viability of Independent Candidates
Rarely have independent candidates won in Philippine national positions. They call themselves independent because they do not belong to any political party; but the equation “politics is addition” still works to this day.
These independent candidates are usually regarded as a “third force” in electoral politics. But historically in the Philippines, those who ran as a third force formed their own political party.
In 1957, Senator Manuel Manahan formed the Progressive Party of the Philippines or PPP as an alternative to the LP and NP. Same with Senator Lorenzo Tañada of the Nationalist Citizens’ Party (NCP). Both parties lost. The NCP fielded Claro Recto while Manahan himself ran for president.
PPP was eventually dissolved. No successful third force-parties have since emerged. How this will play out in 2016 will be interesting, considering that Poe, an independent candidate, is the most popular among the candidates.
One political party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, has officially announced support for the tandem of Poe and Escudero, but the running mates say they will remain independent.
No Succession Planning
The problem really lies in the country’s political culture. Succession planning is futile because of weak, fractious political parties and the dominance of personalities rather than platforms. Who wins is determined by twists of fate. And elections are huge popularity contests.
History offers examples. In 1986 Corazon Aquino, a housewife, was propelled to the presidency by the murder of her husband, a popular opposition leader. Similarly, her death in 2009 thrust her son, Benigno III, then a neophyte senator, to the presidency. Some have called this phenomenon “necropolitics.”
For Joseph Estrada, a popular actor, it was the movies that led him to politics and eventually to Malacañang Palace in the 1990s.
High Stakes, Some Successes
Undoubtedly, the stakes are high in the upcoming elections. Under Aquino’s watch, the Philippines enjoyed a consistent boost in its economy, as the former “sick man” of Asia hurtled past its neighbors. From 2010-2014, growth rate in GDP of 6.3 percent was the highest five-year average during the past 40 years, according to a study by the think tank, Philippine Institute for Development Studies. Growth is expected to continue at least in the first half of 2016.
This makes the Philippines the “exception” in the region, according to the International Monetary Fund.
On other fronts, the fight against poverty and corruption has resulted in some successes. The conditional cash transfers, the Aquino government’s centerpiece program to uplift the poor, have covered 4.4 million families, making it the third largest in the world, after Brazil and Mexico. These cash grants oblige parents to keep their children in school, take them to clinics for check-ups and participate in meetings that teach skills like managing finances. The Asian Development Bank has called the CCT “an increasingly effective weapon in the fight against poverty in the Philippines.”
Other firsts in contemporary history have taken place during Aquino’s presidency. Three senators have been in jail for a year now for taking massive kickbacks from congressional funds (although one has been released). A chief justice was impeached for lying in his assets statement.
Internationally, perception of the Philippines has improved. Congress also recently passed an anti-trust law, 20 years after it was first filed. It is expected to increase fair competition and protect consumers.
Gains at Risk
More needs to be done. Unemployment is still a pressing problem, with a 6.7 percent jobless rate, the highest in Southeast Asia. This forces millions of Filipinos to take up jobs overseas as domestic helpers, construction and factory workers. Millions have yet to be brought out of poverty. Thus, the government has made “inclusive growth” its new mantra.
That these reforms happened in a rambunctious democracy makes the case that growth can take place without sacrificing freedoms. Nearby, democracy has taken a hit in Thailand with the generals still in control of the country. For their part, Myanmar and Cambodia are on a slow march to democracy.
Aquino is also untainted by dirty deals and is perceived to have kept a level playing field in business. Many are comforted by the thought that the corruption scandal rocking Malaysia is not likely to happen in the Philippines with Aquino at the helm.
Many of these gains are at risk if a corrupt leader wins.
In its July 2015 rating, Standard & Poor’s said the Philippines could be upgraded from its current “stable” outlook, the highest ever given to the country, if the government undertook structural and institutional reforms. This is not new, of course. That it comes from a credit ratings agency gives it more currency. This assessment is spot-on.
What has happened under Aquino’s watch is basic, honest governance. The next big step is to undertake sweeping reforms in three areas:
· to change the highly unequal structure of Philippine society;
· to make government institutions accountable, transparent, competent and effective;
· to end the internal rebellion.
First, the next president will have to lift millions out of poverty and strengthen and broaden the middle class. There are more poor than middle-income families. A PIDS study shows that the middle class, as of 2012, comprised about 3.6 million households while the poor comprised 4.2 million households. In contrast, only 156,000 households made up the rich. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the wealth of the billionaires led by Henry Sy, John Gokongwei Jr. and Enrique Razon, “are growing faster than the entire economy.” This is untenable.
The same study shows that the poorest 20 percent own only 8.5 percent of the national income while the richest 20 percent own 44 percent.
Second, effective governance can only be achieved if competence and transparencyare embedded in the institutions. As one opinion writer said, “Institutional reform is about governance and competence, not just daang matuwid or the Straight Path.”
Third, it’s time that the twin insurgencies that have persistently divided the nation came to an end so that Filipinos could look beyond their shores and focus on external threats. Hope that the conflict in Mindanao would lead to a political settlement under Aquino’s watch is gone. It will have to be under a new administration, but that will only be the beginning of a long healing and rehabilitation process. The communist threat has to be resolved.
Continuity is the ruling party’s battle cry in the elections. As key Aquino adviser and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said, "What we’ve seen is basic good governance. We need to do structural reforms next...where survival issues will no longer be at the top of the agenda.”
Aquino’s endorsement is valuable as he remains popular. He is the only Philippine president to enjoy high approval ratings of 54 percent on his fifth year in office and will possibly step down almost unscathed. While his ratings will not necessarily transfer to his candidate, Roxas, he will still have influence.
It is critical that the next president possess certain qualities to be able to address these tough challenges.
The vision thing. He or she should be a strategic thinker, committed to the common good, and has the facility to stretch his or her mind to get a panoramic view of issues. This way, decisions are made with clarity and ample regard for how they will affect others.
Character. Integrity and a strong sense of fair play are vital. The next leader should be honest and sincere. He or she should value meritocracy. A candidate who is unable to say no to friends with vested interests does not deserve to be voted into office.
Executive skills. The Our next president should be like an orchestra conductor, deft in making a team work together, equipped with leadership and management skills.
The hope is for the new president to be able to unite the Philippines in the face of global challenges and pressing national problems.
From the lecture Marites Danguilan-Vitug gave before the World Bank-IMF Filipino Staff Association and the US-PH Society, March 23, 2016 in Washington D.C.
Marites Danguilan-Vitug is editor at large of Rappler and author of several books on Philippine current affairs.
More articles from Marites Danguilan-Vitug