IF ONE goes by the prevalent commentary in the media, the thinking by now regarding this year’s midterm elections is that this transition in Rodrigo R. Duterte’s presidency will serve as a referendum on his administration.
The view, however, about the midterm polls as a referendum on a given administration is limited to the senatorial arena where 12 seats are at stake every three years.
The last time, in recent memory, that this contest was regarded as referendum was the 2007 midterm polls — three years into Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s controversial 2004 election victory — when the opposition then swept the senatorial race amid the public backlash to the “Hello Garci” scandal that marred the 2004 presidential election.
Today, however, despite the bloody outcome of Mr. Duterte’s drug war and gut issues like the effects of last year’s inflation being raised against his administration, Mr. Duterte’s popularity remains solid by and large. And recent senatorial polls — the noncommissioned surveys by Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Stations so far — indicate that this year’s senatorial race might serve as a referendum, not on Mr. Duterte, but on the opposition Liberal Party (LP), three years after the Duterte bandwagon routed the party in 2016.
Among analysts sought for comment, professor Maria Ela L. Atienza, chairperson of the University of the Philippines’ Department of Political Science in Diliman, still regards the midterm polls as a “review” of the current administration.
“So the midterm election is like an assessment of what he has done for the first three years of his term,” Ms. Atienza said in a phone interview. “So parang du’n natin makikita (we will see) how voters assess whether they agree or disagree their happy or not with what had happened after he assumed the presidency.”
She added: “(I)f the people will continue trusting him, they agree with much of what he has done or what they perceive he has done, then they will elect the candidates he will endorse. So parang ratification ‘yun ng ginagawa niya or parang vote for continuity kung ‘yung mga preferred candidates niya will be elected by the people (It is like a ratification of what he [Mr. Duterte] is doing or a vote for continuity if his preferred candidates will be elected by the people). If not, then parang (it is like a) vote of no confidence, in a way, if the people will vote for the opposition candidates.”
Assistant professor Dennis C. Coronacion, chairperson of the University of Santo Tomas’ Department of Political Science, said in an interview that “this 2019 midterm elections will determine whether or not…the President’s policies and programs have the approval or the nod of the people. So if it turns out (that) after the 2019 elections, the administration candidates, the majority of the administration candidates will not make it, then it’s a sign that the people disagree with the policies, programs and decisions of the President.”
Also sought for comment, University of the Philippines (UP) law professor Antonio G. La Viña disagrees on the referendum view. “I think in the Philippines it’s never been the referendum. It’s always about personalities. People do not vote on the issues, people just vote on personalities,” he said.
“That’s why it’s about reelectionists, returnees,” Mr. La Viña said. “It’s mostly people, it’s about popularity. You know there might be some candidates — I would say, Bato (former National Police chief Ronald M. Dela Rosa) and Bong Go (former Special Assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence T. Go,) if they win, that could be considered a referendum.”
Voters are also expected to consider the candidates according to their stand on certain issues. Outgoing Marikina Representative Romero Quimbo, the deputy campaign manager of the LP-led Oposisyon Koalisyon, cited inflation “as it’s felt by everyone.”
Mr. Coronacion, for his part, said, “If you put all these things together, they add up to ‘yung perception ng people that they are suffering from poverty. That’s going to be an election issue.”
Mr. La Viña said, “Economic issues are very important, human rights issue is very important, foreign policies are very important. Kung ‘yan ang issues, wala naman ano d’on, matatalo si Duterte at ‘yung mga candidates affiliated with him. (If these are the issues, no [question] there, Duterte and the candidates affiliated with him will lose). But that’s not gonna happen because…he has more popular candidates that are affiliated with him or his parties, than unpopular candidates or not know(n) candidates. Just as simple as that.”
“So these candidates will also be against inflation, you know, all of this things, but…(p)eople are not also voting for (these candidates) because they are with Duterte. They would still vote for these people.”
Also sought for comment, former House speaker and Davao del Norte Representative Pantaleon D. Alvarez said in a phone interview, “(D)ito naman sa national level, sa Senado, mapapansin natin na ang nagiging basehan ‘yun bang nakasanayan nating apelyido (In the national level, the Senate, it is noticeable that the basis for voting is familiarity with certain surnames).”
“Kasi ‘yun naman talaga kaya tayo pumipili ng mga government official ay upang matugunan ‘yung ating mga problema (The reason why we choose government officials is for them to deal with our problems.),” Mr. Alvarez also said.
Foreign policy, a leading topic in the polls, may count as a gut issue, considering its impact on fishermen affected by the unresolved maritime dispute with China.
“(W)e need to know the details and we need our lawmakers to defend our Philippine sovereignty rather than to capitulate with China,” said lawyer and Ateneo Policy Center research fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco.
He also suggested candidates address the alleged involvement of Chinese money in the rehabilitation of Marawi City, as well as “the fact that many raw materials for the drugs do come from China.”
“Our lawmakers should take our administration to task specifically in this drug war, we have to look into this, that the raw materials actually come from China. Again, we want the presence of China in many of our political lives to be part of the campaign,” Mr. Yusingco said.
The outcome of the senatorial race will of course determine the direction of Mr. Duterte’s legislative agenda.
“(L)egislation will be easier for the President’s preferred laws or bills if there will be more people from his administration (who) will be elected. But if the opposite happened, many of his priority bills will not pass…the Senate,” Ms. Atienza said.
Mr. Yusingco, who sees the midterm elections as a referendum only to “a certain degree,” said, “So if in the midterm elections, the administration…get(s) more candidates in and then that will result (in) more senators voting yes to charter change.”
“And then, if they convene as a constituent assembly, then the charter change process will be initiated so, actually (the) fear is that they will fast-track the process. Not just initiate the process but actually fast track the process so we could be looking at a plebiscite for the new charter in December or January of 2020, earliest December of 2019,” he said.
“In other words we should be electing leaders with that consciousness, na they are actually acting not for us now but for the future. So they should be focusing on legislation relating in education, health, environment, social protection,” Mr. Yusingco also said.
Mr. Quimbo, for his part, said, “(T)he minority always serves as a scalpel that…removes the abscesses of a body called democracy. Meaning it is always an imperative that we have a vibrant minority so the majority will not abuse its position.”
Mr. Alvarez, secretary-general of the ruling PDP-Laban, said, “(M)as plano naming masuportahan ‘yung mga programs ng ating Pangulo especially ‘yung last half term which is ‘yung 2019 until 2022 (We plan to support the programs of the President in the last half of his term from 2019 to 2022).”
Mr. Coronacion said the midterm elections is the “right time (for the electorate) to express their disapproval” if they think the administration is not doing well.
“They should care about the midterm elections because this would be a good chance and opportunity for them to express their frustration, disappointment with the administration or express their support (for) the administration,” he said.
For her part, Ms. Atienza said the midterm elections will signal who are the possible candidates for the next presidential elections, particularly in the Senate which has “usually been one of the training grounds for future presidents.” — Vann Marlo M. Villegas