2007 Philippine Election: What’s At Stake

Vol. VII, No. 12 April 29-May 5, 2007

What is at stake in this election?
As it has been since 2005, political survival for (President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), access to patronage and the perks for her loyal lieutenants, who have only begun to enjoy their positions now. For Mr. (Joseph) Estrada, it’s literally life or death, a strong showing by his anointed will give him leverage and guarantee better treatment. For a divided civil society, it’s the last hurrah of an entire generation of middle-class activists who became politically involved in the ’80s, and who are fighting to remain relevant. For the Left, it’s the same thing, a fight to retain their piece of the political real estate. I do not think the actual direction of the country is at stake, though, because most of the political factions are committed to fundamental economic policies and attitudes that are already represented by the administration. The public senses this, I think.

Some say the Arroyo administration is determined to dominate the elections to head off another possible impeachment and political turbulence. Any thoughts on this?

The administration’s own rhetoric has put forward impeachment as a topic: a vote for the administration is a vote against impeachment, etc. That has served it well in mobilizing its constituency, together with anti-Communist rhetoric and the line that a vote for the opposition is a vote for turbulence. I don’t think anyone can deny, then, that avoiding an impeachment effort is an explicitly stated administration goal. What has not been stated is that midterm senatorial elections are a dry run for the presidential elections that come next. This means that any sitting administration needs to show it can deliver the votes, because that is what will give it the clout to be courted by those who top the senatorial elections. An administration that has its slate defeated in a mid-term election becomes a lame duck.

The President can’t afford to become a lame duck. First of all, it would open her up to impeachment. Second of all, it would narrow her options for 2010. If she is only interested in stepping down from power in 2010 unmolested, then she has to be a major, if not the major, player in the 2010 polls. She has to anoint her successor. If she discovers, however, that the leading senatorial candidates are hostile to her, and are poised to run strong campaigns in 2010, the temptation to either pursue charter change, or find other means to protect herself politically, will be irresistible.

There is also the sense that local political groups or politicians are exploiting the administration’s desperation. They do this by getting political concessions from the administration which they would then use to beef up their own political domains. Any thoughts?

My sense is that the president is operating from a position of strength in this regard: the local officials have to go to her, not the other way around. This was perfected between the first and second impeachment efforts, when in the case of the former, the president practically groveled for local support, and the latter, when they had to come groveling to her. The central role of the presidency has been underscored by this election: there are far too many factions and too little patronage for the local factions to demand anything from the president. She can in a sense, be more discriminating and more calculating. For example, she gets Lito Lapid to run against Jejomar Binay in Makati, putting an opposition icon on the defensive. But Lapid’s Makati candidacy means he can’t devote his time or resources to backing his son, Mark, in Pampanga and that allowed the president to quietly support Pineda: until that priest came along it seemed the administration was poised to harm Binay, neutralize Lapid, and enhance Pineda. Multiply this many times, and it shows the president’s attitude toward patronage and politics.

What are the issues do you think should be on the table during the campaign but are not being discussed?

Impeachment was waffled about as a commitment of the opposition; and a serious discussion of the economy and what should be the policies for both sides, didn’t take place; human rights should have been central to the campaign but wasn’t; constitutional change was avoided as a topic, too.

What do you think is the administration’s strongest points, and the opposition’s?

The administration has a keen grasp of the importance of logistics and the propaganda value of appearing willing to win at all costs. It’s more focused on consistently putting forward a message that appeals to its base of supporters (the business and middle classes) and causing mischief among its foes. It’s fundamental premise is, whatever it does, the capacity of the public to express and act on its outrage is non-existence.

The opposition has the sympathy of half the electorate behind it, but seems to be running the campaign like a presidential campaign when no single candidate is running for national leadership: two major strategic errors were made, for example: much time was spent bickering over whether to print sample ballots, and second, the ads originally didn’t even feature the names of the candidates.

The fundamental premise of the opposition is that most Filipinos intensely dislike the President, but it still assumes the public will do something about that dislike, to the extent of voting — and that’s proving to be a stretch.

The administration has made it clear it has some sort of even hazy gameplan past election day; the opposition probably hasn’t even fully discussed what it will do after election day.

What would swing the polls? The middle class? The Left? The Right?

The Left, in announcing support for a mixed bag of senatorial candidates from the admin and opposition, has blunted its own ability to appear as a crucial block of votes. Its support will not be credited in terms of winning administration candidates — if they win, the Palace already says it will be due to local machinery, period. The Left will be blamed for the defeat of some opposition candidates, the blame coming from the Palace or members of the opposition themselves. Whether the Left can crucially mobilize votes on the ground, then, it doesn’t matter: they won’t get credit for it.

The middle class, in my view, has decided to boycott this election. They will go on vacation and enjoy the three-day weekend the president proclaimed for election day. Some of them will be involved in the quick counts and it is here that they will matter: they won’t matter in terms of votes, but will be crucial to the determination of whether the election was acceptable or not. The trouble could start if middle class volunteers discover, and point out, and object to, widespread fraud.

The Right is trying to prove it can knock out the Left but won’t succeed in doing so, not least because they’ll win some races through such obvious fraud, that it will enhance the public image of the Left. Neither can the Right quite manage media, and media is aroused enough, I suspect, to do a more comprehensive job of reporting and analyzing the conduct of the coming elections.

Finally, what is your sense of how Filipinos regard or appreciate the elections? Is this something important to them? Do they even care? Or have they become jaded?

My sense, and it’s only based on anecdotal evidence, is that this election is a major non-event. This doesn’t mean people haven’t taken sides, many have. But many more regard their partisan positions as irrelevant to the outcome. There also seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the national candidates. Not one has sparked excitement on a nationwide scale. (davaotoday.com)

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