The midterm elections of 2019 seemed to affirm a number of realities of Philippine politics. It is about personalities and not issues or policies. While not a case of mission impossible, defeating members of political dynasties in their bailiwicks in an election requires a historic conjunction of forces. And President Rodrigo Duterte remains the most popular politician in the country and is capable of translating his immense popularity into great political capital that could enable relative political unknowns and newbies toward electoral success. In the recently concluded elections, the race for 12 Senate seats became the venue where this last point was tested. Nine of the twelve seats were won by candidates endorsed directly by President Duterte, and the other three were copped by candidates who were not out and out oppositionists to the Duterte administration, i.e. independents. In other words, those in direct opposition to the President were shut out from the Senate.
SOME IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
The above raises a number of issues. The Senate is seen as the part of government which best provides a balance against what is constitutionally a very strong president. This has nothing to do with President Duterte himself as a strongman president, although a president with his authoritarian personality could do a lot with the powers granted to him by the Constitution. What this points to is the question of institutional checks and balances. The members of the House of Representatives have traditionally aligned themselves with the president regardless of their party affiliations at the time of accession of a new presidential administration. It could be said that the political connotations of the balimbing fruit became part of our vocabulary with them in mind. The judiciary with the Supreme Court at its head is intended to be the non-political branch of government. Yet, the current Supreme Court has shown a tendency to make decisions that seem to have extra-legal bases that favor President Duterte. Thus, the Senate, with its members elected at large, has traditionally been the institution of government that has greater independence from the executive. It is feared that the current Senate, however, might be different. With nine or ten new Senators acknowledged as allies of the president, he has a potential supermajority that will vote to support his programs and policies. Only four members of the Senate self-identify as being part of the opposition, with the rest being either outright allies of the President (although not members of his party), or have expressed a willingness to collaborate with the administration.
This has raised the question of the Senate becoming a “rubber stamp” for the President. That is, key legislative objectives of the administration will only be given cursory attention before being passed—much as what the House of Representatives tends to do. Particularly, these include the question of the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility. These are issues which Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa has promised to champion in support of the President’s emphasis on fighting crime. Yet, characterizing the current Senate as a “rubber stamp” might make us miss out on a number of other factors that define Philippine politics. It would not be unusual for a number of the members of this supermajority to have political ambitions over the short term; that is, in relation to the presidential elections of 2022. While President Duterte’s endorsement was important to their Senate ambitions, they are not without their own political base independent of what was provided by the Duterte “charm.” In the run-up to 2022, they may find the need to create space between themselves and the President especially if their ambitions run counter to that of the President’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, who it seems is being prepared for a presidential run in 2022. These choices become more stark as the lame duck period of the presidency (which usually comes very quickly after the midterm elections) starts to kick in. This means that instead of having another three years to accomplish whatever it is that he wants to accomplish in the second half of his term of office, President Duterte must contend with a shorter time span to complete his agenda. An estimate given by Dr. Paul Hutchcroft, a long- time observer of Philippine politics, is that this may be as short as 18 months.
Where interests converge,… we can expect the Duterte administration’s agenda to continue to prosper.
FACTORS SURROUNDING POLICY CONTINUITY
If we therefore look at policy continuity in the context of the above, it is not just a matter of how strong the support is for President Duterte coming from the legislature, particularly the Senate. Other factors matter, such as the sustainability of the political alliance backing President Duterte. Where interests converge, or at least where they are not in complete contraposition with each other, we can expect the Duterte administration’s agenda to continue to prosper. Thus on issues that have to do with the drug war, we can expect continuity. Support for the reinstatement of the death penalty, and lowering of the age of criminal responsibility might be a bit more problematic if the Catholic Church flexes its muscle. In this context, other influential players with whom the Catholic Church has a history of close collaboration may play a role in how issues play out. In this context, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may have more of a say on how sustainable the coalition backing Duterte might be.
The issue of sustainability also has to do with perceptions of how vulnerable President Duterte is. At present, his popularity is unassailable. At the same time, even the President apparently cannot do anything about the infighting within the coalition supporting him, from the question of which is the ruling party (the President’s own PDP-Laban against the loose coalition of regional groups put together by the President’s daughter under the banner of the Hugpong ng Pagbabago), to the issue of factions within the different institutions of government. In the Senate for example, the intramurals around who should be the Senate President already indicates cracks in the coalition. President Duterte’s oft-stated claim that he does not wish to become involved in these leadership tussles sends messages that may be open to interpretation and which does not bode well for the coalition. Duterte’s personal vulnerability may be the most important factor in what his administration accomplishes in its remaining years. Questions about his health continuously bedevil the Duterte administration. The broad coalition of self-interested political dynasts requires a strong hand to keep everyone in line. The Senate is less prone to this internecine fighting, but it is not immune from it. With Duterte’s health in question (speculations about whether he can even finish his term abound), whose hand will discipline and give direction to this coalition?
Absolute domination over the principal institutions of government may be the administration’s undoing.
As it is, the Duterte administration has little to show as far as a clear political program for the rest of the President’s term is concerned. The constitutional change line that had been a major plank of his campaign in 2016 seems to have run out of steam. If one thinks that this is what the supermajority in the Senate is for, then how do we explain a Senate wishing to commit suicide institutionally in the march to federalism? Especially since the Senate is the institution that is the most likely incubator of Presidential “wannabes.” In other words, the pursuit of federalism during the Duterte administration’s term needs a re-start. And time is not on the side of those who want constitutional change. The Aquino administration spent the whole of its six years trying to push for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. It took the first half of the Duterte administration to build on what had been gained during the six years of the Aquino administration. It is not likely that a drive for a Federal Philippines can be successfully achieved before 2022.
The “Build, Build, Build” economic development program is actually in the hands of his economic team led by Finance Secretary Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez III. Duterte’s participation in it seems to be largely connected to trying to get foreign loans and buy-in on the ambitious infrastructure program. In this context, a major factor is Duterte’s line to China and Chinese capital. In the last year or so, this has been a thorn on the side of the Duterte administration. Despite all his efforts trying to bring China closer to the Philippines, Filipinos remain largely suspicious of China. The case of the fishermen rescued off Recto Bank by Vietnamese boats (what the Vietnamese fishermen were doing there is of course another issue altogether) after their boat was rammed by a Chinese vessel and left to sink in June 2019 has shown how badly the Duterte administration mishandled the control over the narrative of the case. Or control over the news cycle. The Recto Bank case showed that the government cannot always dictate what news hits the airwaves or the broadsheets. There may be attempts on the part of the Duterte administration to try to divert the public’s attention by pushing negative news about the media, independent constitutional bodies, or opposition figures—the Dilawans. As Hutchcroft pointed out, however, absolute domination over the principal institutions of government may be the administration’s undoing. Duterte cannot pass blame for when things go wrong when his administration has unprecedented control over the apparatus of government in the Philippines. — HERMAN JOSEPH S. KRAFT
The writer is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman, and Convenor, Strategic Studies Program, Center for Integrative and Development Studies, University of the Philippines.