Author: Paul D Hutchcroft, ANU
After the 13 May 2019 midterm elections, President Rodrigo Duterte enters the second half of his six-year term with an even stronger grip on power. While the electorate decided on some 18,000 elected posts, major attention was on the Philippine Senate — the last remaining potential bastion against the Duterte juggernaut.
Half of the Senate’s 24 members are elected every three years, and in each of the previous four midterm elections the opposition managed at least a few victories against the sitting President. In an historic result, opposition candidates failed to win a single seat in the upper house.
How did Duterte manage this?
First, endorsements by the President and his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, delivered for pro-administration politicians throughout the archipelago. Nothing was more prized than a photo alongside the highly popular Duterte or the first daughter.
Second, governors and mayors were given marching orders to deliver votes. Duterte was especially vocal in support of his two most-favoured senate candidates: his former special assistant and close confidant Christopher ‘Bong’ Go, and Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa, the former head of the national police responsible for prosecuting the first two years of Duterte’s brutal war on small-time drug pushers and users. From modest levels of support in late 2018, Go and dela Rosa were catapulted to the third- and fifth-highest number of votes respectively.
Third, the opposition is frail. Eight explicitly anti-Duterte candidates formed a multi-party coalition dubbed Otso Diretso (Straight Eight), with the Liberal Party at its core. Nominally the party of former president Benigno Aquino, it was never given much attention during his six years in power. Since Duterte’s presidential campaign in 2016, its ’yellow’ adherents have been pilloried with great success by social media trolls. Even their two candidates with prominent political surnames — Aquino and Roxas — failed to make it into the ranks of the ‘magic 12’ senators elected.
Some of those disappointed by the results have blamed the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), whose performance was indeed unsatisfactory. Just ahead of the election, in a decision widely perceived to be partisan, COMELEC downgraded the official status of the Liberal Party. During the elections, automated equipment malfunction increased as compared to 2016. After polls closed, technical glitches led to a confidence-deflating seven hour delay in the submission of unofficial returns. Nevertheless, major election monitoring organisations have spoken to the general fairness of the outcomes.
Excessive attention to the possibility of wholesale electoral fraud, likely misplaced, removes the spotlight from pervasive retail fraud — most of all longstanding practices of vote-buying. More fundamentally, the current electoral system fuels intra-party competition and thus essentially guarantees the weakness and incoherence of Philippine political parties. This puts the focus of political contention on patronage and pork and personalistic appeals at the expense of policies and programs.
What do the results mean for the coming three years? All three branches of government are now controlled by the President. The Philippine House, ever hungry for the patronage dispensed by the executive branch, is almost always controlled by the Palace. The critical development is the evisceration of the Supreme Court’s independence since the 2018 removal of a Chief Justice critical of Duterte (in a manoeuvre widely viewed as extra-constitutional).
The Senate was thus the last bastion of independence, and it is now dominated by Duterte’s allies. Only four of the on-going members of the upper house are consistent opponents of the regime — and the senator boldest in her denunciations of the President has been detained since early 2017.
Yet this domination is probably not as complete as it appears. Of the ‘supermajority’ of 20 senators, perhaps six senators, including Go and dela Rosa, can be expected to display unflinching loyalty to Duterte. Many others in the Senate have their own ambitions and relatively independent bases of support. Elected as it is from a single national district, the upper house likely has several members who will emerge as contenders for the presidency in 2022 — willing, as need be, to differentiate themselves from Duterte.
In Philippine politics, the power of the chief executive begins to wane, often quite dramatically, across the second half of a presidential term. Some of Duterte’s avid supporters expect that he can defy this general law, perhaps by ensuring that his daughter takes his place. It is more likely that Duterte will have roughly 18 months to further his personal goals — including, on the legislative front, some sort of constitutional revision as well as the return of the death penalty. By early 2021, the Senate ‘supermajority’ may face major strains as key former allies start positioning themselves for 2022.
This disintegration could be reinforced by the failure of the Duterte administration to settle on a clear political vehicle. Competition is already apparent, for example, between the ‘ruling’ party under which the President was elected in 2016 and a loose national coalition of politicians assembled by Sara Duterte ahead of the 2019 elections.
Finally, Duterte’s victory presents new challenges to the supremo himself. Central to the populist playbook, the strongman will likely continue to manufacture crises. This could entail heightened attacks on the media, the opposition and independent constitutional bodies.
But with his uncontested control over all three branches of government, he will find it harder to blame others for the country’s political and economic challenges. When things go wrong in Duterte’s Philippines, the responsibility will increasingly be borne directly by the President himself.
Dr Paul D Hutchcroft is a Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change of the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.