As the Philippines go down to vote for a new President on May 9, let’s have a look at how democracy functions in the archipelago and what can be expected from the upcoming elections.
The Tough Road to Democracy
Emerging from nearly a century of Colonial rule of the United States of America and then under a brief though extremely brutal Japanese occupation during the Second World War (1939-1945), the Philippines attained independence on June 4, 1946, leading to the establishment of the Republic of Philippines. It established a multiparty democracy based on the Presidential system. However, political functioning did not prove to be a smooth road as the new democracy was rocked by a major challenge, the Hukbalahap Rebellion which was a Communist insurgency that started in 1942 against the Japanese imperial army invasion but soon turned its guns against the democratic government post independence. It was finally put down under the Ramon Magasaysay government in 1954. However, stability could not last long.
Within two decades, democracy faced a major challenge as President Ferdinand Marcos, who was charged with allegations of corruption, declared a martial law as he neared the end of his term in 1972. The Dictatorship was marked with numerous cases of human rights violations and suppression of dissent including the assassination of the opposition leader, Benigno Aquino Jr. Marcos quickly won Presidency again by calling a snap election in 1986 which many claim to have been rigged. This incited a massive popular protest in the form of the People Power Revolution or EDSA Revolution (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, after the location of the protest), and Marcos was forced to flee with his family to Hawaii. Corazon Aquino, Benigno Aquino Jr.’s widow was elected President.
President Aquino brought several reforms to install democracy. However, the government faced several challenges including economic slowdown, corruption, national debt, attempts of coup d’état by dissatisfied military men, factionalism, Communist insurgency and Moro separatism.
Another major turbulence came in the form of the Second EDSA Revolution which peacefully overthrew the corrupt regime of Joseph Estrada in 2001. The succeeding government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was also marked by political scandals and corruption but succeeded in attaining economic growth. November 23, 2009 proved to be the Philippines’ worst political massacre as 58 people including 34 journalists who participated in the convoy of Esmael Mangudadatu were killed by the powerful Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao so as to stop the Muslim leader from challenging their monopoly over power by filing his nomination for the governorship.
Arroyo’s government was followed by Benigno Aquino III’s government which pushed for good and transparent governance. Another tragic event occurred in 2015 when 30 officers of the Philippines Special Police were killed in a clash with the separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the remote town of Mamasapano, pointing to the lingering problem of insurgency and separatism.
In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, former Mayor of Davao City,won the elections and became the President.
The Electoral System
The 1987 Constitution legalises any party which does not endorse violence to compete in elections.
The Presidential and Vice Presidential elections, which are held at an interval of six years, take place on the second Monday of the month of May. While the Presidency is limited to a single term, the Vice President can contest for two consecutive terms. The President and Vice President may be from different parties. The First Past the Post (FPTP) system is followed where the candidate with the highest vote wins, irrespective of whether she/he manages to secure the majority. In case two or more candidates have the same vote share, the Congress decides the winner by a vote.
Half of the Senators run for elections during the Presidential elections and the other half during the midterm elections. All members of the lower house,regional and local officials run for elections every three years. All elected representatives gain a plurality and are directly elected by the people. Voting is compulsory, with all citizens aged 18 or above enjoying the right to vote. Elections are overseen by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). The new position holders begin their term on June 30.
How is Duterte perceived?
As the outgoing President, Rodrigo Duterte has garnered mixed reactions at home. His loose tongue (controversial remarks on the 1989 Davao hostage crisis; criticism of international leaders such as Barack Obama) as well as mishandling during the Covid Pandemic which saw the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) slide down by 9.5%, its worse since World War II, has drawn much flak not just within the Philippines but also across the world.
His Tax Reforms for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) was vehemently criticised by left wing groups as ‘anti-Poor’.
Duterte’s pro-China foreign policy has also been heavily criticised. While his “War on Drugs” campaign has been criticised as one of the worst cases of human rights violations and extra judicial killings by human rights activists as well as international organisations including the International Criminal Court which called for an investigation against him, many in the Philippines still support him as a strong leader who dared to launch a campaign against the drug cartels.
A national survey revealed seven major issues which form the crux of the parameters on which the next President is likely to be elected.
Economy and Covid vaccines were cited by 60% and 51% of the respondents respectively as the major issue. Other issues include jobs, education, corruption, poverty and crime.
Manila’s foreign policy towards China might also be taken into consideration with candidates calling out Beijing for claiming the Philippines’ maritime territories in the South China Sea and allegedly harassing its fishermen. Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi stated that the Philippines must not let external “disturbance” in the way of its relationship with Beijing. Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping are set to interact as Manila is about to conduct a military exercise with the United States which would be its largest in the past seven years. Though the United States has been routinely criticised by Duterte in his “War on drugs” campaign, proximity with Washington has been a major issue among left wing supporters.
Who are the Frontrunners and what do they propose?
Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the son of the former dictator Marcos, has his eyes on the Malacañag Palace.
Marcos Jr., who is fighting alongside Davao City mayor and President Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Caprio as his Vice Presidential candidate, has vowed to continue the current President’s policies. While the President, who once called out Marcos Jr. for drug use and described him as a “weak leader” without naming him, has himself not endorsed his candidature, segments of his PDP-Laban Party, which was founded to oppose the Marcos Sr.’s dictatorial role has come in the support of the candidate.
The others in PDP-Laban stand with Manny Pacquiao or ‘PacMan’, the legendary boxer turned Senator, who has vowed to jail corrupt politicians of the Duterte regime. Pacquiao is not just popular for his glorious sports career but also for his rags to riches rise. He has promised to improve healthcare and education, provide housing and secure economic growth. His Vice Presidential candidate is Jose Atienza, former Environment minister and a Congressman.
Pacquiao is not the only celebrity in the race. He would be facing movie heartthrob and current mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno. He has vowed zero tolerance against Chinese maritime aggression and promised to provide labour reforms, infrastructure and healthcare development. His Vice Presidential candidate is Dr. Willie Ong.
Former National Police Chief who as convicted in a murder case but later cleared of the allegations, Panfilo Lacson is also in the contest. He has vowed to support healthcare, small businesses and eradicate corruption. His Vice Presidential candidate is Vicente Sotto, the Senate President and a former comedian.
While Bongbong Marcos seems to be leading, his support has plummeted in favour of former Vice President and Housing Minister, Leni Roberdo. A Human Rights Lawyer, Roberdo quit Duterte’s cabinet after being excluded from meetings and became one of his fiercest critics. She has questioned the “War on Drugs” campaign on grounds of human rights violation. She has vowed to install transparency in the public sector, improve healthcare infrastructure and lead a government that cares about the people. Her Vice Presidential candidate is a lawyer and Senator, Francis Pangilinan. If she wins, Roberdo would be Philippines’ third female President.
A Long Walk to Democratic Consolidation
Democratic Consolidation refers to the maturation process that a new democracy undergoes to the extent that the reversal to authoritarianism becomes impossible. Even though functioning as a multiparty democracy for nearly four decades, the Philippines’ political system retains several flaws.
The London based think tank, Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has classified the Philippines as a “flawed democracy”, lagging behind many Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Vote splitting due to a number of candidates vouching for the same position often means that an unpopular leader comes to power. Moreover, instability over disagreements and misgovernance occur when the President and the Vice President belong to different political parties.
Both Civil liberty and freedom of expression are poorly preserved. Protests are often quelled and journalists murdered.
Moreover, A study revealed that around 40% of the Filipinos acknowledged to have known someone whose vote was bought by the candidates.
It can only be hoped that whoever wins the upcoming elections conscientiously works to elevate standards of living of the common people by addressing the pressing issues as well as contribute positively to make the Philippines a full-fledged democracy, for democratic consolidation is not an end in itself but a long journey that needs to be taken by the leaders, individual citizens and civil society groups alike.