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Mid-term Elections in the Philippines

by Prof. Dr. Stefan Jost

The mega-elections in the Philippines were also a referendum on President Duterte at the mid-term of his Presidency

At the mid-term of President Rodrigo Duterte's six-year Presidency, mega-elections took place in the Philippines with nearly 20,000 positions at the local, regional and national level to be filled. In general, these elections were considered a referendum on the president who is regarded as a controversial figure mainly by the international community. The election of 12 new senators was of primary importance.

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Mega-votes - also a vote on Duterte

​​​​Except for 12 remaining senators (half of the seats in the Senate are being renewed every three years), the rotating mega mid-term elections included all other political offices and mandates in the Philippines – a country encompassing more than 7,000 islands and approximately 107 million people. Nearly 62 million eligible voters were called upon to elect representatives into almost 20,000 posts for the next three to six years.


Position Seats
Senate 12
Party-List Representatives[1] 61
House of Representatives 243
Governor 81
Vice-Governor 81
Provincial Parliament 778
Mayor 145
Vice-Mayor 145
Councilors 1 628
Municipal Mayors 1 634
Municipal Vice Mayors 1 634
Local Councils 13 542

The national interest, however, focused largely on the Senate elections. In the two-chamber system of the Philippines, the Senate is undoubtedly the most powerful chamber as a small minority in the Senate can block the President’s legislative agenda. Hence, the primary interest of a President is to at least prevent a blocking minority in the Senate, or, even better, to achieve his own majority. Right from the start there was no doubt that these mid-term elections would first and foremost be deemed a referendum on the man whose name was not on the ballot: President Rodrigo Duterte. This framing of the elections by the ruling party should not come as a surprise. It is another matter entirely though that the same strategy was pursued also by the opposition, which was rather weak to begin with, especially the Liberal Party as part of the opposition alliance “Otso Diretso”. Without a doubt, this has been the cardinal error of the opposition campaign’s strategy. Irrespective of whether one likes Duterte or not, and while he is regularly attacked internationally owing to his "war on drugs" and the associated "extrajudicial-killings", it has to be accepted that Duterte is a political phenomenon. In other words, he is practically free to do whatever he wants without having to fear political repercussions.

Duterte appears to be protected by an invincible layer of ‘political Teflon’ which allows him to get away with a range of inappropriate and often offensive behaviour, beliefs, and actions. These include abusive language, sexist slogans, and behavior not in keeping with Filipino politeness; his excessive and regular attacks on the Catholic Church and its officials where even God himself was not spared (in a predominantly devout Catholic population); his policy towards China which is widely rejected by the political class and the population; the way he deals with his critics in politics, the judiciary or the press; his regular charge of plots planned against him or the publishing of lists of drug suspects.

As the macroeconomic development in the Philippines is largely positive and Duterte succeeds in portraying himself to the public as a hands-on President, for example by closing the tourist destination Boracay for environmental rejuvenation or by tackling the cleaning up of Manila Bay in the capital, Duterte does not suffer any political fallout even when he decides to completely withdraw from political life for one week following a state visit to China and only posting a picture of himself lying on the bed watching Netflix as proof of his wellbeing during his absence.

High Acceptance of the President

As reflected in all surveys, Duterte has been able to consistently achieve astonishing approval ratings during his first three years in office. According to Pulse Asia, in September 2018 the lowest approval rate was 75%. In March 2019 approval rates stood at 81%. Satisfaction ratings concerning the work of the government as such, which are by no means consistent, marked 72% in March 2019 (see Social Weather Stations). Besides displaying an attitude widely seen as arrogant and elitist, the cardinal error committed by the opposition was to direct their campaign against a president who manages to deflect any form of criticism and who represents anything but a political sparring partner. The campaign itself brought few surprises for the Filipinos. A highly personalized campaign, it was dominated by lines of loyalty and the strong influence of political dynasties (understood here as families whose members dominate the political scene on many levels over the generations, as well as the ability to purchase votes). The latter characterized by none other than President Duterte himself as an "integral part" of political culture.

"Endorsement and the “Magic 12”

Given the undisputed position of the President, it is not surprising for two interests to converge. On the one hand, the interests of numerous candidates to back Duterte as they anticipated a considerable boost to their own election campaign from an official endorsement by the president. On the other hand, Duterte’s interest in converting said endorsements into political loyalties redeemable in the future but also to gather support for his present political goals.

Duterte’s endorsement was far reaching, as the Philippines does not exclude the President from the election campaign. This permitted Duterte to adopt a dual strategy of endorsing candidates both personally, as well as through the selection of candidates via his daughter’s coalition Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod (People of the Town's Party) – an electoral coalition of regional and national parties.

This strategy proved largely successful, at least concerning the election of twelve new senators, the "Magic 12", whereby the actual "renewal" of the Senate is limited. Of the twelve elected senators, five have been re-elected, three were senators from an earlier period, and only four are represented in the Senate for the first time. All four enjoy the explicit support of Duterte and are absolutely focused on Duterte in their political approach. The opposition did not win any of the 12 contested seats. As such, the opposition represents only four of 24 senators, including one female senator currently in pre-trial detention. According to experts, Duterte can rely on the unconditional support of ten senators, while the remaining ten senators can be considered "more or less independent", but do not count themselves part of the opposition.

As far as results are available at this point, the election outcomes at the regional and local level are mixed. For example, the Duterte family in Davao failed to secure all their candidates.

Despite some notable electoral defeats by prevailing political dynasties, including former President and current Mayor of Manila, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, there is no reason to bid farewell to this dominant structural principle of Philippine politics just yet. Of 24 senators, at least 12 are tied to different dynasties. An analysis of the House of Representatives and the regional level will only be available in a few months. Nonetheless, the question arises whether one dynasty has not simply been replaced by an existing or newly emerging one.

Consequences and Outlook

The consequences of these elections at the national level can be summarized as follows:

1. However differentiated the election results may be interpreted depending on the national level and outcomes, overall, they are considered a major success and even a “landslide victory” for President Duterte. This assessment is shared by the governing parties, the opposition, the media, and the general public.

2. Ultimately, the importance of these elections is thus not determined by individual results and figures – which in fact may (or may not) lead to a more differentiated picture – but rather by the psychological impact they have had.

3. In the past, President Duterte has not conveyed the impression of suffering from the slightest self-doubt or to be affected by either national or international criticism. Following the elections, he will be left to implement what he believes to be right with an even greater level of self-confidence. It is safe to assume that the lame-duck syndrome is unlikely to occur after these mid-term elections.

4. What Duterte will focus on remains at least partially unknown. He will certainly continue his "war on drugs" with undiminished severity. Whether the introduction of the death penalty and the proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years will be put forward again is open to speculation.

Duterte confessed his dissatisfaction with the progress in the fight against corruption. More drastic measures on this issue can thus not be ruled out. The peace process in the predominantly Muslim Bangsamoro region, which has received extensive autonomy following a referendum in 2019, represents an immense challenge for all parties involved. The first elections to form a government for the region are scheduled to take place in 2021, however, it remains to be seen whether the central tasks of the transitional commission can be completed by then. For Duterte, this autonomy was of special importance and he can be expected to make every effort not to let this process fail.

Finally, it remains to be seen if and how passionately Duterte will pursue his plan to transform the political system into a federalist one. The debate up to now has shown how sensitive this economic and political interest is to tangible projects. Nationally and internationally, it will be interesting to see how strongly Duterte will continue to engage China – a China that is viewed with extreme suspicion and hostility in the Philippines.

5. Duterte will face negligible resistance from Filipino political institutions. The House of Representatives has towed the President's line in the first three years of his office. This is due, on the one hand, to the political culture of the Philippines, which boasts hundreds of political parties but no stable party system as such. Politicians that swap parties after elections – the so-called "butterflies" – have a long tradition and are usually not punished for doing so by the voters. In addition, representatives who have to deliver successes to their electorate on the ground, are much more tied to the goodwill of the executive for budgetary allocations than the non-constituent Senators. In the House of Representatives, the government currently has at least 195 of the 245 seats, the assignment of the other 61 party list mandates is still ongoing, but in any case, it is a comfortable majority.

The Senate is traditionally considered to be somewhat more independent, not the least because it is regarded as the reservoir of all those who consider themselves to be "presidential" and therefore do not want to be taking orders from the incumbent President right from the start. Apart from resisting the introduction of federalism in the last parliamentary term, the Senate did not establish itself as the stronghold of resistance in the first three years of the Duterte government. Given the numerical weakening of the opposition and the arrival of some new senators with absolute loyalty to Duterte, the Senate should present even less of an obstacle to Duterte than before. Whether he will make use of these circumstances, for example, for the dismissal of his Vice-President remains to be seen.[2] However, all reform projects, which, depending on their design, could also affect the debate on federalism, touch on the nerves of the Filipino political structure such as "political dynasties", and as such, are likely to be doomed to failure with this senate.

6. Duterte has nothing to fear in the foreseeable future from the opposition – an opposition which is undeveloped in parliamentary terms after these elections. The rebuilding of the opposition with a view to the presidential elections of 2022 represents its greatest challenge.

7. The only thing that could affect Duterte in the present is a poor economic development or, and this is the big unknown that has cropped up in the past years, the decline of his health.

8. Although it is still too early to speculate about possible candidates and the outcome of the Presidential elections in 2022, the following should be stated: Duterte has forged the best possible conditions for him to have a serious say concerning the choice of his successor. The fact that his daughter, re-elected mayor of Davao and creator of a successful multi-party coalition for these elections, has refused to run for a senate post, is mistakenly understood as a permanent rejection of a national career. Her father is the perfect example that even previously unknown local politicians with outsider qualities can succeed at the national level. It should not be surprising if a new political dynasty is emerging.

And finally, maybe this is the last country report from a state named the Philippines. Since assuming office, President Duterte has repeatedly taken up the proposal made by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to rename the Philippines "Maharlika". This is a clear desire to rupture itself from its colonial past as its name is derived from Spanish explorers desiring to honour Spanish king Philip II.[3] One will see what the priorities of the next three years will be.

[1]"Party-List Representatives" mandates are a special form of enfranchisement; these parties have a minimum number of seats (max. 3) from 2% votes, while the remaining members are elected in constituencies.

[2] State and Vice-Presidents are elected separately in the Philippines so that, as is currently the case, it is possible that they belong to different parties. The Vice-President belongs to the opposition Liberal Party.

[3] The fact that experts argue about the significance of "Maharlika" with definitions ranging from "serenity and peace", to "nobility" to "nobly created" to "warrior class", will be only of secondary importance if the situation arises.

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