This year, the defining political event to watch in the Philippines is the May 14th national elections, as half of the 24 Senate seats, all 250 seats in the Lower House, and over 17,000 local government positions are up for grabs. In essence, this means that the polls could potentially alter the balance of power in the government, depending on what type of legislators and local government officials are elected. The Opposition is painting the exercise as a referendum on President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s legitimacy, given the allegations of cheating in the 2004 elections. On its part, the Arroyo Administration is confident of retaining its control of Congress, as well as achieving the election of supportive government officials - which it deems key for the continuation of its social and economic reform programs.
While the campaign period officially begins on 15 February, the election season really started in late 2006 with the gruesome and ostensibly politically motivated murder of Abra Province Congressman, Abraham Abesamis. In one sense, this event reinforces the image portrayed by many observers of the Philippines, who have described its elections as characterised by the use of the proverbial 3Gs - guns, goons, and gold - as violence, vote buying, fraud and profligate spending mark each electoral exercise.
The long-standing analysis that elections in the Philippines are dominated by an exclusive group of economic and political elites, who flee from one party to the next depending on what is expedient to their familial interest, is readily observable. The news headlines have been full of ‘turn-coat-ism’, as politicians undertake a mass migration to the Administration’s party and its coalition. Deposed President Joseph Estrada leads the Opposition, which is a melting pot of anti–Arroyo forces. Their ranks have dwindled in the past weeks as four key member politicians left the so-called United Opposition coalition and are reportedly contemplating running under the Administration slate. Thus, it is confusing to track who is in the ruling coalition and who is a member of the Opposition, with the lines getting blurred each day as Election Day nears.
This easy movement by politicians from one party to another clearly supports another long–standing analysis — that there is no such thing as real political parties in the Philippines. Political programs, platforms and policies are mere window dressing for the traditional politician who relies on his familial network or personal popularity. In the absence of real political parties, sociologist Randy David argues, ‘the family continues to function as a mechanism for leadership recruitment’. While the 1987 Constitution contains a provision banning so–called political dynasties, Congress has not passed an effective law to bring this into effect. As a result, perplexing reports have surfaced that the political families, namely the Aquino, Estrada, Cayetano and Pimentel families, will have at least two seats each in the Senate, if they have their way.
Aside from turn-coat-ism, other traditional markers of the election season are the sudden return of jueteng, the illegal numbers game which has been the source of electoral funding for the past decade; as well as kidnappings. Not to be outdone, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and New People’s Army (NPA) have also stepped up their revenue collection schemes, with their issuance of a ‘permit to campaign’ to politicians for a fee. Reportedly, the NPA have gone high-tech and are now utilising mobile phones and text messages to issue approved permits.
Indeed, the elections in May are an important event to analyse. One way to make sense of what is happening is to view it through the established prisms of the 3 ‘Gs’, political dynasties, electoral violence, cheating and the lack of a real party system. These dominant themes are definitely observable and those who look for them will not be disappointed.
However, what is more interesting is to go against the grain and look for the changes, disruptions, and discontinuities in the political system, which have also been taking place. Since 1986, the number of progressive politicians, especially at the local government level, and of reform-oriented parties competing for party-list seats in Congress has been rising.
The most celebrated example is Governor Grace Padaca of Isabela province, who won versus the 30 year-old Dy dynasty, against all odds. In a conference on Philippine politics in July 2006, Padaca stated, ‘Why would people who benefit from the current system want to change it? They won’t - that is why they have to be booted out and be shown the real power of the people’. Governor Padaca has become the epitome of quiet strength and courage, and a symbol of hope and change in the Philippines’ elite-dominated politics. Her electoral victory and example point to the increasing maturity of Filipino voters who are tired of politics as usual. It is high time analysts and observers look at political discontinuities and changes.
WATCHPOINT: How many non–traditional politicians will win local government and congressional seats? Their number may be a bell–weather of change.
Reprinted from Asian Analysis newsletter, February 2007. Asian Analisis is published by Asean Focus Group in cooperation with the Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.