Why should we care about ‘midterm’ elections?

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Arjan P. Aguirre


Why should we care about ‘midterm’ elections?

In most democracies these days, discussions on electoral politics are surprisingly limited to general elections. Most media analysts and election “experts” really find happiness and satisfaction in describing the fanfare and spectacle of electing presidents and creation of a powerful Cabinet in modern-day parliaments. They are usually silent about midterm elections that are also taking place and how they help define the future of governments and societies across the world.

At present, the attention and interest toward midterm elections have always been negligible, if not nonexistent. The interest toward midterm elections regularly appears months and even weeks before election day. This interest usually culminates on election day, where people are forced to monitor and make sense of the outcome of the election.

Why should we be concerned about midterm election? What is its real function?

Midterm election is commonly understood as an election cycle where people elect members of the government exactly halfway of the term of the other set of elected officials. It is an election that punctuates the term of the sitting head of government. In other societies (such as in parliamentary democracies like UK, Canada, India, etc.), it is an election usually held ahead of a scheduled election. In this regard, it is used as a way to constitute a parliament following its dissolution.

These days, commentators and pundits tend to frame midterm election as a mere extension of the political space of the sitting government — essentially sutured or perhaps even subsumed to those issues and controversies that define an existing political regime. This can be explained by the nature of the election itself which can be conceptually expressed into two elements: 1.) particular — a part of the government is elected; 2.) intermediate — election held in-between general elections.

Another way of explaining this problem is the fact that many of these commentators and pundits are not really familiar of what it really means, especially for contemporary democracies. I think, this is where the blame should be given to our contemporary scholars and academics in the field of political science for keeping silent about the real purpose of midterm elections in democratic societies.

Midterm elections are known to have the following functions to contemporary societies. One, they shape the political contours and climate leading to the next general election. The winning coalition or party in a midterm election usually gets the momentum by holding enough key positions in the government needed to mobilize votes especially on election day. Also, they act as referendum for the sitting government. Winning or losing the midterm elections is reflection of how well or bad the administration is performing. Lastly, they are also seen as an opportunity for emerging political actors to change the political narrative by advancing his/her political issue and redirecting the attention of the general public away from a future lame-duck president (or his/her party in a parliamentary government). Contrary to the analyses of those “political analysts” and “election experts,” these points are fully supported by extant studies on midterm elections (See the works of Prof. James Campbell, Prof. Robert Erikson, Prof. Alan Abramowitz, among others.)

This year, the US will elect all members of the House of Representatives (435 representatives), one-third of the members of the Senate (33 senators) and majority of the Governors (36 states and 3 territories) in the 50 states and 5 territories that comprise the United States of America. The three functions of midterm elections will be useful in understanding the November 2018 elections. President Donald Trump and his Republican Party will certainly try to bounce back to its losses (e.g. Obamacare, Tax cuts, among others) and will fight head-on in securing more seats in the Senate (where 24 Republicans have already announced their retirement from politics), House, and State governorships. But it is going to be an uphill battle, given that the Democratic party is also expected to deliver votes on election day.

In 2019, the Philippines will elect all members of the House of Representatives, one-half of all members of the Senate (12 senators) and all local government officials (except those at the Barangay level).

However, compared to US, the Philippine case is certainly different. President Rodrigo Duterte’s coalition led by his political party, Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas (PDP), enjoys high popularity among the voters. The “Duterte bloc” controls all political spaces as well as governmental institutions in the Philippines today. Opposing groups and personalities, unfortunately, are incapable of mounting an alternative to the Duterte rule.

Given this situation, there is this fourth purpose of midterm elections, exclusively applicable to flawed democratic societies like the Philippines — a way to contest a highly powerful bloc. Democratic forces should explore using midterm elections as a way to engage and challenge the monolithic rule of the sitting government by participating in all aspects of an electoral cycle (pre-election, election, and post-election). By this sanctioned political opening, political institutions will be forced to allow fragmented groups to converge and coalesce on their common issues.

Political strategists, campaign handlers, and most importantly, social movement activists should be aware of this potential of midterm elections to change the status quo (remember 2007 midterm elections under Arroyo’s regime?). They should think of ways to be inclusive of other political groups and be clear in contrasting themselves with the sitting government. Most importantly, they should make sure that they are the better choice than the “fence-sitters” (or those who refused to make a clear stand on issues) and be a complete counterforce to the ruling coalition.


Arjan P. Aguirre is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University. He handles courses on Politics and Governance, History of Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theories, and Electoral Reforms in the Philippines.