OPINION: The sea change that is the 2019 midterm Philippine elections

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at May 15 2019 07:08 PM | Updated as of May 15 2019 07:45 PM

I didn’t know Vico Sotto, but I know the family name Sotto. The family name has been popular because of the longest running noontime TV show Eat Bulaga. And also because of that, I eventually found out the family name is also an old name in politics. In other words, it's a popular name and it’s also an old name. In other words, instinctively I thought, ya, he would definitely have a chance of winning as the name is a “perfect” name for politics in the Philippines.

Then I heard his live interview while on deck analyzing the midterm elections as it happened on Monday, 13 May. The confidence in the voice was evident. It's “not just a name,” I thought. I’ve seen and heard a good number of political leaders of similar stock who talk confident but empty that the sound is just plain brashness. He was confident that he knew what he was talking about. It suggested depth and certainty, especially when he was asked why he was poised to win even if he barely had a team with him, no vice mayor who ran with him. His answer was remarkable; he simply said, he didn’t find the need to get a vice mayor to run with him because he knows what the incumbent vice mayor has to say to the incumbent mayor and that he didn’t have a problem working with the current vice mayor. Simple reply, but to me, it sounded incisive.

It can be argued, and to this I agree that there is a need to have a more complete picture of the results of the recently concluded midterm elections. Still, it can’t be helped for some to feel like they were in a dreamland when the turnout in some key areas in the capital was unexpected, a turnout that seems consistent with the anticipated results of the senatorial elections (a sweep and not one seat for the evident “opposition”), and ultimately following the “experimental path” (see “Crossroads of Philippine Politics”, earlier blog post) that was set in 2016. These are simply unexpected results that many assume that winning against the established names requires a miracle.

Up to the last day of the campaign, so many of my friends, neighbors in our old place were asking if Isko Moreno was already a sure win. I said the surveys say he is, but Erap is an old hand in politics and could very well be said to have some kind of magic that he never lost any election until this one. What did him in? Timing is of course most significant, same reason why he managed to take over Manila even if everyone knew he and his family are from San Juan.

As in most cases, mainly because of the system, it’s always a question of choice or lack of it. Former Mayor Alfredo Lim was always seen as an action man that made him the unbeatable father figure for Manila, the old city and capital of the Philippines. Lim was Manila’s chief executive for so many years, from 1992 to 1998 and from 2007 to 2013. These last two terms in office however proved to be too controversial for Manilans that it would then lead to his loss to his erstwhile political ally, former President Erap Estrada.

There are so many possible reasons why a dáyo or settler like Erap can beat a local-bred leader like Mayor Lim. The deteriorating conditions in Manila could very well sum it up but there may be other reasons. It was initially a welcome sight for many to see marked houses of suspected drug users or pushers but the reported involvement and eventually arrest of Mayor Lim’s son led many to ask the effectiveness, even legitimacy of this high-handed approach to crime. Then of course, the Luneta hostage crisis happened in 2010.

So, when 2013 came, it can be assumed that there were just enough ammunition to use for former President Erap to wrestle the mayoral post from Mayor Lim. These issues, coupled with the Erap magic, proved to be a perfect formula that ended Mayor Lim’s reign as the city’s father. 2016 could have been a different story. By then, Manila had already experienced a city run Erap-style and the perennial issues of deterioration and lack of services remained. Erap still won but the race was closer compared to the first face-off. This time, the only thing that went in favor of the former president turned Manila mayor was his experience and vaunted machinery that had never lost any election.

This experience should have reminded “President-Mayor” that politics is addition, and that revenge can apply only to opponents but not to the people or the voters. Then again, whatever the reason is, some claimed it was quite obvious which barangays did not vote for Erap, you just have to ask the barangay officials and “smell” the surroundings. Waste management remains a remarkable problem in the city, accentuating deterioration that many have long noted, comparing the country’s capital seemingly stuck in a time capsule compared to the continually developing neighboring cities in the Metro.

Simply put, Isko’s throwing his hat in the political ring was a perfect timing. There’s no other way to describe the choice as simply a vote for change. More of the same simply wouldn’t cut it anymore that the result was overwhelmingly in favor of the new kid on the block. There’s a long 9 years ahead of this young mayor-elect. To reach that 9 years however, the first 3 years have to count, and with the foregoing, it is quite a tall order.

The same can be said with the end of the Estrada clan’s domination of San Juan. Vice Mayor Janella could not offer something comparable to the incumbent Mayor Guia Gomez, and the opponent Mayor-elect Francis Zamora rode on an image of zeal and therefore change. Details on this interesting contest should be provided in another piece, same with the other stories of old familiar names toppled by new candidates all over the country. Of course, each is unique and should not be taken to mean good or bad, not even what we have just covered above. The point in all these is that there seems to be a pattern that was started in 2016 that was continued in this election.

These are telltale signs, a continuation of what we saw in the unexpected election of a former Mayor Duterte from Davao and the end of a number of political dynasties and or the emergence of new ones in 2016. Those analyzing for the opposition could not have missed this so that a better strategy to get back in power could have been formulated. In fact, if we are to review the pronouncements of the President in his early days in office, there were instances the media seemed to goad him, in several press conferences, into blaming the previous administration as the latter did of its predecessor for the most part of its incumbency. In many of these instances, the president avoided pointing fingers. There were insinuations of shortcomings on the part of the previous administration but there was no mention of names in the most part of the first year in office.

Still, whatever the reason was, the opposition proceeded with the same chin-up attitude of having the monopoly of virtue, failing to even just reflect on the probable reason/s that led to the unexpected election of a mayor straight to the presidency. From day one, the attack on the president was the strategy the opposition would pursue, without the benefit of a review after a year, at least, and a recalibration.

The opposition and criticism to many of the President’s agenda and governance approach was obvious. The drug war was foremost on the list of the opposition, raising the alarm of extra-judicial killings or EJKs. This issue would dominate the media for more than a year, culminating with the administration’s recalibration of what was dubbed as Oplan Double Barrel. The next policy issue that was criticized was the TRAIN law, dominating the public discourse for the good part of 2017 and 2018, until it faded away in the third quarter of last year. One that has been a recurring policy issue is the country’s China policy. Not only on the West Philippine Sea but the administration’s preference to China as an ally compared to the traditional partner that is the US. There are of course other policy issues that served as subject of criticism against the administration; all of these should be subject of another article. One thing that is common in all these is the opposition and its followers’ criticism of the President himself, as a person.

Without doubt, this President is arguably the most controversial chief executive that this county will have. Whether true or not, his being from the south, acting and sounding from the south, is something new that--for that alone--makes him different from many of the presidents we've had of recent memory. If our reference is at least former presidents Marcos, Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo and even Noynoy Aquino, all are from north of Manila but have lived most of their lives in Manila. President Duterte spent the greater part of his life in Davao and has made a name for himself in Davao. Whether many of us will accept or not, the style and personality of the President is different, and therefore, good or bad is new for many of us. On the other hand, that is precisely why many chose him over and above the other candidates who, in 2016, seemed to simply offer more of the same.

We voted for different; we have taken what I call the experimental path. This is not the first time the electorate will experiment, but this is the first time it will lead to significant modifications to our politics and governance. Again, this change in governance should be the subject of another article. This change has essentially placed the traditional elite to a defensive stance, so much a departure from the way things were before.

This, of course, is something that cannot readily be acceptable to many who have become used to the same kind of politics, whatever that could mean specifically. More than the criticisms of policy, the opposition, knowingly or unknowingly, has been hitting the president as a person, for instance, on the way he speaks, noting and knowing full well his being a foul mouth and a misogynist, to say the least. This approach, unknown to many, or simply ignored by the opposition, is almost always the perfect bait for the president to retaliate, indiscriminately lambasting whoever it is who hits him and the people close to him. Perhaps this is even part of the strategy: provoke the president and perchance lead him to lose his temper and the public reacting negatively and leading to a drop in his popularity. The President, in fact, did a number of times lose his temper, but leading to a drop in his popularity is something else.

This is then is the dilemma. The President is able to survive crisis after crisis, criticism after criticism, managing to accomplish many of what he promised, a lot more compared to his predecessors, including maintaining a vibrant economy and, as a result, remaining popular. This should have been apparent already at least in the first year and a half of the President’s term and provided enough reason to stick to the issues and learn how and when to work with the president and when and how to criticize, or better than that, offer an alternative to the policy or policies that are being criticized. What is clear in this exegesis is that it is not going to work if the criticism is directed at the president’s person. The people see the president as a results guy, an action-oriented leader more than being a womanizer, and unorthodox in the way he does things. The latter characteristics may be a reason for some not to like him, but this simply is not enough to deny and not to appreciate the many things that the administration has been able to accomplish so far.

Let’s use as an example the Free Education Policy. This had been the advocacy of many in the legislature, even before this administration. The question, however, is whether this kind of policy could have been passed under the previous administration. One could say this is hypothetical, but can we say that if the circumstances simply aren’t right, and as a policy maker, one should know this because in the first place, you cannot pass a single legislation on your own, so would you even be inclined to introduce such kind of legislation?
The point is that the prevailing political and therefore policy atmosphere is simply conducive to getting multi-partisan support for your pet legislation, allowing you to successfully pursue it. This should have signaled that the strategy to be constructive and not obstructive to this administration. Unfortunately, the opposition still assumed that they are the only ones who know what is right, principled and patriotic.

The message of change is not for the opposition to make. On the contrary, they are seen as the very representative of the old and the elite. Pursuing an ivory tower campaign is ineffective to say the least. To claim to be representatives of what is right, principled and patriotic is to assume that you are entirely new in politics or that you have a track record that is at least near perfect and not characterized by similar questions of propriety and transparency, if not effectiveness. 

Of course, this is far from true. Some of the candidates in the opposition slate no doubt are new in name but the whole team is identified with the old. A campaign that assumes moral ascendancy unfortunately contradicts what many still remember to have taken place not so long ago. You can always claim that it's a question of resources that the administration has the advantage, as it always was before. To a certain extent, this is true, but compared to the results of the previous midterm elections, this is the only time that it is a sweep, a stinging rebuke of the opposition. You can claim that the president campaigned vigorously against the opposition, denigrating each of the individual candidates of the opposition, hence leading to their losses. True again, but precisely, the president can do that and rather unprecedentedly effective at that because of an unprecedented public approval, suggesting the public approves of his leadership. If that weren’t the case, no president, regardless of personality, would dare call people names.

(The author is a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government. -- Eds)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.