Filipinos have just gone through another election, apparently unchastened by a past too ignoble, too repetitive and too recent to be forgotten: They endorsed the repressive presidency of Rodrigo Duterte by voting in all of his candidates to the Senate.
Half of the Senate’s 24 seats were up in midterm elections recently, and all, the election commission announced, have gone to Duterte supporters. It was a sweep — and the freshest baffling evidence that Duterte’s repressive regime and growing authoritarianism have not put a dent in his popularity.
For decades, Filipinos have time and again brought on themselves leaders who promised quick reforms but ended up exploiting them.
First there was Ferdinand Marcos, who in 1972, as he was nearing the end of his second term as president, declared martial law — and then ruled as a dictator until he was toppled by popular protests in 1986. After that, in 1998, came the dynastic patriarch Joseph Estrada, who was deposed by protests during his impeachment trial by the Senate in 2001.
His vice-president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, served out the term and then stayed on as president after an election in 2004 widely thought to have been rigged. She managed to complete that term of her own despite corruption allegations against her and during that time pardoned Estrada.
And then, three years ago, Filipinos elected Duterte, a provincial mayor known to deal justice by death squad. Since becoming president, Duterte has waged a war on drugs estimated to have produced more than 5,000 extrajudicial killings as of late December, mostly by police forces. At the same time, the president’s inner circle has been accused of maintaining links to major drug traffickers — an allegation that gains some credence from the fact that no big fish have been caught so far.
Duterte’s administration has persecuted his critics, be they journalists (like a founder of the news site Rappler, where I work) or even sitting senators. He has repeatedly threatened to impose authoritarian rule. Mindanao, the largest of the country’s three main islands, has been under martial law for two years, a state of exception repeatedly extended after an initial conflict between local terrorists and state security forces. Duterte has cosied up to China, ceding to it access to the resource-rich West Philippine Sea, partly in exchange for loans, despite the risk of being trapped by debt.
The Marcoses are back. Both Imelda, Ferdinand’s widow, and their children, have reclaimed their place in high society after a brief exile. Daughter Imee is among the new senators-elect.
Duterte has managed to pull this off with the assent of Congress and the Supreme Court. The court now comprises mostly judges whom he or Arroyo appointed. Arroyo’s efforts to stack the bench were presciently self-serving: The court dismissed corruption charges against her in July 2016 — just a few weeks after Duterte became president. Today, she is speaker of the House of Representatives.
The midterm elections last week involved half of the Senate, nearly 300 seats in the lower house and numerous local positions. But it was the Senate races that were the critical battleground — the Senate being a rare institution to have shown some effective resistance against the president. Knowing he lacked support there, Duterte hasn’t pushed too hard for reinstating the death penalty for drug crimes or lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9 years old.
But now his camp holds 20 of the 24 seats in the Senate.
The voting on May 13 was heavily clouded by election-day violence and anomalies at polling stations and, later, by inexplicable delays by the election commission. Vote buying, Duterte told a journalist as he emerged from casting his own ballot, is “integral” to elections in the Philippines. “There are no candidates who do not buy votes.”
More integral still, perhaps, is Filipinos’ enduring attraction to strongmen leaders despite the abuses they have endured as a result. These elections prove not only that Duterte’s electoral machinery is working well, but also that voters are more than ready to look past his authoritarianism — apparently for the sake of quick justice and a semblance of security, however slight. Opinion polls report respondents saying that there are fewer drug users around them. According to a survey from late March, just a few weeks before the election, 79 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with the president’s performance.
Duterte’s latest success now paves the way for him to extend his tenure beyond the existing one-term limit by redrawing the system altogether.
In December, the House of Representatives approved various amendments to the Constitution that would move the Philippines towards greater federalism. Congress still needs to vet them — though it’s not immediately clear whether a two-thirds or a three-quarters majority is required for that nor if the requirement applies to both houses voting together or separately. Then, the changes would have to be approved by popular referendum. All of this could be a long, drawn-out affair, but it may well happen before the next general election, in 2022, when Duterte’s term is set to expire.
The president has said that he will not seek another term under a new constitution. But there is ample reason to doubt that. Alternatively — especially if the process drags on — his administration could try to extend its tenure by recasting itself as a caretaker government that needs to oversee the transition to a federal system.
Opinion polls suggest that Filipinos hardly endorse the move towards more federalism. For now, though, they certainly continue to endorse Duterte. It seems that more and more, the people of the Philippines may well have the president they deserve.
— New York Times News Service
Vergel O. Santos is a columnist for Rappler, a Manila-based online news site.