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Philippines - 2019 Election

The Philippines is scheduled for mid-term elections on 13 May 2019, when 12 (out of 24) seats in the Senate and all 297 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for contest. The winners of the 2019 mid-term Senate elections will replace the batch elected in 2013 and join the elected senators of the 2016 elections to form the 18th Congress of the Philippines. It is looking increasingly likely that lawmakers aligned with the ruling PDP-Laban party will dominate the Senate after the vote. President Rodrigo Duterte's consolidation of power would likely be positive for policy making and would also bode well for his attempt at changing the constitution, both to introduce federalism and shift the presidential system to a presidential-parliamentary model. However, there was a risk that checks and balances in the country could slip further. Currently, the upper house is made up of a mixture of parties, and President Duterte still did not have the solid backing of many of its members. This can be seen from the ouster of Senator Aquilino 'Koko'Pimentel III (who is president of the PDP-Laban) from the post of Senate president in May. In our view, the change in leadership was indicative that lawmakers in the upper house want to portray themselves as more independent and assertive rather than simply being the rubber stamp of the executive branch and lower house.

Senator Pimentel is the president of the ruling party and typically tends to share the views of other party members such as ex-speaker of the lower house Pantaleon Alvarez (who was replaced by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in July) and President Duterte. Pimentel was elected Senate president at the start of the Duterte administration in July 2016, not because the PDP-Laban had a majority in the chamber, but because a consensus emerged among lawmakers who - although made up of nine separate parties - wanted to work with the new administration. Since then, there have been reports that some senators felt that the chamber has not been as assertive as it should be on a number of issues, particularly with foreign policy such as the Philippines' rights in the South China Sea and its relations with the West.

Similarly, the new Senate leader Vicente Sotto III's Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC) only has three members in the chamber, so the party was likely not a factor in his advancement. Rather, it is likely that majority of senators believe that Sotto will be more assertive of the rights of the Senate as an independent chamber of Congress and balance the interests of the senators regardless of their political affiliation. In a political culture where loyalties easily evolve, there was a growing chance for Duterte-aligned policymakers to gain control of the Senate in the mid-term elections. The once-dominant opposition Liberal Party (LP) had been weakened considerably following the defection of dozens of its members to the ruling PDP-Laban party, and was struggling to even field a 12-person roster, according to Vice President Leni Robredo.

Furthermore, two of Duterte's staunchest critics in the Senate - Senators Leila De Lima and Antonio Trillanes - have also been prosecuted on separate occasions. This may stifle the voice of the opposition as lawmakers could be deterred from speaking up against President Duterte out of fear. On September 4, President Duterte withdrew amnesty for Senator Trillanes for his participation in a failed coup in 2003 (against then President Arroyo) and ordered his arrest, arguing that he fell short of the minimum amnesty requirements, including admitting his guilt. This was preceded by the arrest of Senator Lima in February 2017 on drug-related charges.

If President Duterte managed to consolidate his power during the mid-term elections, this will likely facilitate the implementation of changes to the 1987 constitution. The shift to a federal form of government was among Duterte's 2016 campaign promises, aimed at providing more autonomy and faster development to regions outside of Manila. Under Philippine law, amending the constitution would require the support of both houses of Congress and the approval of the people through a national plebiscite.

Although the senate was handed a copy of the draft federal legislation in July 2018, there appeared to be little appetite among existing lawmakers to move forward with it. For instance, LP Senator Francis Pangilinan, chairman of the committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes, said that his committee would not commit to any timetable for completing the consultations on Charter Change. He explained that there are a number of key questions that needs to be addressed before going into the specifics of the proposal, such as if there is a need to amend the Charter to begin with, and what are the motives of the proponents of Charter Change. Furthermore, a survey conducted by Pulse Asia in June showed that 69% of Filipinos have little or no knowledge of the proposed federal system of government, while only 28% of respondents are in favor of the amendment, suggesting that the matter will not be a priority for most senators.

While the policy-making process is likely to improve should Duterte's allies gain more seats in the Senate, this would pose downside risks to the system of checks and balances in the Philippines. The dominance of the executive branch poses a threat to the principles of separation of power and independence of each government body. We have already observed a decline in the freedom of press, while the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in May 2018 also cast doubts about the independence of the judiciary.

Furthermore, Duterte appeared to be allying with political heavyweights in the country like the Marcos family and former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to compensate for his shallow political network at the national level, and that may further entrench political dynasties in the country. This will likely limit political diversity within Philippine democracy over time.

Duterte had floated the idea that Ferdinand Marcos Jr (better known as 'Bongbong'), son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), would be a capable replacement for him if he stepped down before the end of his term in 2022, as he has indicated. However, he said that he cannot resign because a constitutional succession would mean handing power to opposition Liberal leader and Vice-President Leni Robredo, whom he said was not up to the top job. Bongbong came a close second to Leni Robredo, a rival of Duterte, in the 2016 vice presidential election, and has challenged the result in the Supreme Court. The recount, which was initiated in April, is a complex process and could take several years to complete.

Rising inflation, endemic poverty, declining infrastructure and competing claims over territorial waters are among the issues facing Philippine voters when they vote May 13 in midterm legislative elections. But instead of evaluating candidates on these issues, they are expected to cast ballots based largely on whos been endorsed by President Rodrigo Duterte a charismatic leader who remains popular in opinion surveys even though not all Filipinos like his policies. If his supporters keep their majorities in the two-chamber legislature, he will find it easier to cement such policies as a $169 billion infrastructure building effort, a deadly crackdown on illegal drugs and a fragile friendship with China, with whom it has competing claims in the South China Sea. Philippine elections are normally characterized as more personality driven, rather than program or party based, so in that sense the endorsement of the president is also very important.

The president received a 79 percent satisfaction rating in the first quarter of 2019 in a survey by the Metro Manila research institute Social Weather Stations. Other polls suggest his public approval rating sits at a staggering 81 percent. A pro-Duterte coalition held 16 of 24 Senate seats and 248 of 297 seats in the House of Representatives.

For Duterte the key was control of an independent-minded Senate while keeping the House of Representatives in the hands of his allies. Historically, the nation's 24 senators -- who serve six-year terms -- had a reputation for being more independent-minded than the lower house. Winning a Senate majority, something which independent national surveys indicated is well within reach, would give him legislative backing for his anti-crime proposals and his plan to rewrite the constitution. The opposition warned that could lead to the single-term limit for the presidency being lifted, allowing him to seek re-election despite his repeated statements that he would stand down at the end of his mandate.

The president's daughter Sara - tipped by many as the president's potential successor in the 2022 presidential vote - was running to keep her post as mayor in its southern bailiwick of Davao city. Her younger brother Sebastian was seeking, unopposed, the city's vice-mayoral seat, while the eldest presidential son Paolo was standing for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Early results suggested Duterte-backed candidates would take most of the 12 Senate seats available, with none taken by the opposition side. All but all three winning candidates belonged to the administration-backed Hugpong ng Pagbabago slate. A Senate majority would lessen the chance of censure moves and lower house probes against Duterte's Government and make it easier to pass controversial legislation, such as restoring capital punishment and changing the constitution to introduce federalism, and possibly extend term limits. The odds had long been stacked against the opposition bets, most of whom ran either under the Otso Diretso slate or the Labor Win coalition of labor groups. Pro-Duterte candidates for House of Representatives seats were expected to hold their massive majority. That coalition already controlled 245 of the 297 House seats.



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