The Long View
What’s at stake in the Senate race
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:23:00 03/15/2010
OVER the past few years the only real obstacle to the President’s ambitions has been the Senate. The Senate we elect in May can either hinder or help the next administration, depending on two things: who is elected president, and whether that president will enjoy the support of a cooperative majority in the upper house. Put another way, the next president has to have a working majority in the face of what will surely be a committed opposition coming from the supporters of whichever of the two main contenders loses (including one of the two main contenders who, if defeated, will remain in the Senate) plus the bloc of the current administration which might position itself as a critical swing vote on bills and the chamber’s leadership.
The conventional wisdom, backed by the example of every administration since 1935, is that the House will be controlled by the next administration, with the Speakership essentially determined by presidential patronage. This was the case even in the era of the two-party system, when the ruling party lost the presidency but retained the House (in 1953, when LP incumbent Quirino lost; in 1961 when NP incumbent Garcia lost; and in 1965, when LP incumbent Macapagal lost, the administration party in these instances maintained its control of the House). By midterm of the Magsaysay, Macapagal and Marcos administrations, House control had shifted to the incumbent’s party. President Arroyo wants to deny the next president the Speakership – a bold bid indeed.
The Senate, on the other hand, goes into 2010 with 12 senators with terms until 2013: two independents, Escudero and Honasan; two Liberals, Aquino and Pangilinan; two Lakas Kampi-CMD, Arroyo and Zubiri (who is already being touted as the leader-in-waiting of the Frankenstein Coalition since the President will be going to the House and Teodoro’s chances are slim); two from UNO, Lacson and Trillanes; two NP, Alan Cayetano and Villar; an LDP, Angara; and an NPC, Legarda. In reality, the blocs might be more like this, based on the two front-runners: the Aquino bloc of four (Aquino, Escudero, Lacson, Pangilinan) versus the Villar bloc of five (Arroyo, Cayetano, Legarda, Trillanes, Villar) with Angara, Honasan, Zubiri up for grabs depending on who else gets elected.
If Aquino wins, the Liberals and allies will start off with three in the Senate; if Villar wins, then the NP and friends can count on four to start with, unless Legarda also wins, in which case the starting count can be four or three, depending if the NP tandem wins or not.
Veteran senators Pia Cayetano (NP), Drilon (LP), Enrile (PMP), Estrada (PMP), Sergio Osmena III (affiliated with LP), Recto (LP), Revilla (admin) and Santiago (PRP) are widely expected to win: that’s already eight, leaving only four slots for the rest, including Lapid of the admin and Sotto of the NPC, and first-timers, of whom, for now, the ones with the best chances seem to be Guingona and Biazon of the LP, Marcos of the NP, De Venecia of the PMP: in the latter’s case, one can only hope (properly, to my mind) that he’s poised to be suitably rewarded for his whistle-blowing efforts by election to the upper house.
If we assume the top eight as shoo-ins, this expands the respective LP and NP blocs from four to seven and five to six. The wildcard bloc, so to speak, would go from three to seven, but more likely disposed to collaborate with the LP than the NP.
But the LP could considerably improve matters if it manages to get Guingona and Biazon elected (with Hontiveros-Baraquel and Roco still having a fighting chance at this point), which is the challenge confronting Francis Pangilinan, the LP campaign manager for his party’s senatorial ticket. At stake is his future within a party long uneasy about his past closeness to Villar, and his prospects as either a potential Senate president or even vice-presidential contender in 2016. Either he will actively seize the reins, barnstorm the country, move heaven-and-earth to get the resources needed by the LP ticket to get at least four more from its ticket elected, or he will have to take the blame and the corresponding dilution of his political clout, if the slate he manages fails to achieve its electoral potential.
The NP, on the other hand, can still work on getting Gwendolyn Pimentel and Gilbert Remulla who remain viable contenders; if the LP manages to elect two more, its bloc would reach nine; the NP could conceivably elect eight in total.
In both cases even if they lose a senator because Aquino or Villar becomes president, the nucleus of an administration majority is there: with the Estrada (PMP) and PaLaKa blocs angling to decide the actual leadership of the Senate. Any bloc with 13 members determines the leadership of the Senate and the prioritization of bills. A bloc of 16 will be as iron-clad a majority as one can ever hope for, enabling constitutional amendments to pass, for example. Any bloc with at least nine members can block things quite effectively, including a shift to a unicameral parliamentary system; a bloc of eight can’t, on its own, stop things, but makes a case-to-case coalition to stop specific legislation quite easy, not to mention keeping the leadership on edge about coups.
The electorate, conventional wisdom also says, likes to cherry-pick its choices for the Senate on the basis of promoting a kind of informal checks-and-balances by not giving any slate too strong a showing; balanced, in turn, by a mischievous combination of electing senators either on the basis of solid qualifications or merely for entertainment value. Considering the challenges ahead, a critical choice, at least for supporters of the two leading contenders, is to ensure their presidential bet also obtains a working majority in the upper house.