The Great Divide: The midterm election of 2013, Part 1

Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Great Divide: The midterm election of 2013, Part 1

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Every campaign brings with it the old and the new, a clash between conventional wisdom and the new and unexpected. Some trends and practices endure; others, come to an end; something new can emerge, just as the tried and tested can demonstrate tremendous staying power. We are a young population often dimly aware of the past—even the recent past—yet in many ways, asked to make choices from a pool of candidates and coalitions whose methods and behavior are far more set in their ways than the electorate on whom they are dependent for a mandate.

The May 2013 campaign and the May 13 elections will, once more, demonstrate these characteristics. In the frenzy of the campaign, opportunities for taking stock, for seeing what remains the same and what has changed, or is changing, are few. But the period right before election day up to the declaration of the winners, provides an opportunity, in a sense, to step back, take a breather, and look at the big picture: to make sense of the different factors that have, and will, contribute, to whatever group decision the electorate makes.

Factors such as demographics—who constitutes the voting public, and where they live—and behavior, influence the strategy and behavior of candidates, parties, and the media that covers them and the voters being courted. While public opinion as something measurable ahead of elections first came to the fore in 1933-1941 (pioneered by the mail-in questionnaires of the Philippines Free Press in the independence debates of 1933 and the constitutional push of 1939-1940), surveys in the Gallup mode began to matter—and began to be controversial—in the 1960s, coinciding with the television era.

The result is a hybrid method of conducting campaigns on the national level, informed as much by the reality of many politicians having earned their spurs by marathon old-style stumping (raised to a whole new level by Diosdado Macapagal when he made a point of visiting every part of the archipelago from 1957 to 1961) while having to adapt to what has come to be known as the “air war”: the pitch, made over the airwaves, to an ever-increasing population. As political parties have withered as true national organization, other groups, from religious sects to warlords, have tried to take their place in terms of mobilizing not only voters, but the army of campaigners and poll watchers every campaign requires.

This article won’t attempt to take a comprehensive look at every aspect of the May 13, 2013 polls, but rather, a specific aspect of it: the Senate election in the context of midway in the administration’s term.

Why is there such a thing as a midterm election, and why is it important? What was the purpose of having a nationally elected Senate, and why do some observers consider it conducive to celebrity and dynastic politics? And how do all these things come together in a midterm campaign?

Today began yesterday

In the 1934 Constitutional Convention, the bicameralists were split between those who wanted senatorial districts and those who wanted a Senate elected at large. The result was that the unicameralists won.

In 1939, the big push for constitutional amendments began, ending with the ratification of the restoration of the Senate, this time elected at-large. At the time, the main reasons for not only restoring the Senate, but having its members elected at-large (by the national electorate and not by senatorial districts) were as follows: to foster a more national, instead of regional, orientation, thus providing a training ground for future national leaders; to serve as a check and balance to both the executive (elected on a national basis) and to the Lower House, with its district and provincial orientation.

(The price of restoration was a compromise we live with to this day, perhaps uniquely: joint House and Senate membership in the Commission on Appointments, when normally, executive appointments should be vetted strictly by the upper house, as was the case from 1916 to 1935, following the American model.)

In 1941 voters thus selected the first nationally elected Senate. In the debates leading to the restoration of the Senate, concerns had already been raised about popularity and money having given an unhealthy advantage to candidates. To address this, bloc voting was introduced for the purpose of facilitating party-centric voting.  Counter what had already been pointed out as the potential pitfalls of nationally elected senators: celebrity and money as undue advantages to individual candidates.

Two other factors also entered into the equation: geographical representation (for example, the inclusion of the Sultan sa Ramain was part of the policy of attraction—inclusion—for Moros, and began to carve out a role for traditional Moro leaders to shift to the electoral arena), and public opinion (an example of public opinion was that two proposed administration candidates were basically hooted down by public opinion: Manuel Nieto, and Carlos P. Romulo: neither of whom had electoral experience).

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The result of the 1941 elections would provide a model for things to come, at least for the next decade, and in some respects, longer, so long as term limits did not exist.

It also gives a glimpse into what the Senate was supposed to be, by design: geographically balanced, not by districts (the old senatorial districts, as one legislator, Jose E. Romero, who was from Hiligaynon-speaking Negros Occidental, had pointed out, were viewed in some respects as artificial constructs, lumping together areas without any real ethnic or linguistic affinity: the senatorial district he’d belonged to included Negros Oriental which is Bisaya-speaking) but rather, on the basis of competing slates that themselves would be geographically balanced based on party preferences, with candidates selected on the basis of political experience or in order to push national development (hence, as the chart shows, the significant presence of businessmen such as Vicente Madrigal and Ramon Fernandez).

But in 1951, bloc voting was abolished, beginning the institutional erosion of party identity and mobilization.

Consider the following: the election of Lorenzo M. Tañada, who, in 1953, ran in coalition with the Nacionalistas; 1953 was a watershed too, in the manner that the Nacionalista Party adopted Ramon Magsaysay as its presidential candidate. Both were indicative of parties facing difficulties in finding candidates from within their ranks.

Then there was the first “guest candidate,” Claro M. Recto, who was adopted by the opposition Liberals in 1955, even though he was a member of the ruling Nacionalista Party. It is also no coincidence that the first celebrity candidate was elected to the Senate in 1957: Rogelio de la Rosa, a matinee idol whose appeal owed everything to the screen and not to the political parties.

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While other trends endured: the careful inclusion—and political viability—of Moro candidates such as Domocao Alonto, there was, too, the rise of media personalities as viable candidates, exemplified by Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo with his popular radio experience and as a patently Catholic candidate. Ruperto Kangleon’s election, too, indicated the popular appeal of those with guerrilla or military credentials.

As parties withered, 1961 would bring forward another new, and now lasting, trend: Sergio Osmeña Jr. was the first national candidate to zero in on the bloc voting power of the Iglesia ni Cristo. Although he lost, the INC had become, and remains, an important political consideration—on the basis of a strength formerly enjoyed by the parties, voting straight tickets.

All three—celebrity or media prominence, outsider (particularly military) credentials, and being able to mobilize blocs of voters such as the INC—point to the disintegration of party politics both as a means to create electoral coalitions for the Senate, and its substitution with the “every man for himself” attitude that has become prevalent, in which individual candidates can leapfrog over the parties and the seniority system as they jockey for election. Add to this the elections of 1971, when, for the first time, two members of the same family served in the Senate when Sergio Osmeña Jr. was joined by his nephew, John Henry Osmeña.

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On the eve of martial law, then, many of the characteristics of today’s senatorial races were in place: the weakening of party discipline, not least because of the removal of incentives, within the rules, for voting party tickets since bloc voting had been eliminated; the replacement of party influence with the influence of other blocs, such as religious groups (as mobilized by Osmeña); the rise of candidates who owed their prominence not to rising through the ranks, politically speaking, but instead, to their ability to appeal directly to the people on the basis of celebrity (Eddie Ilarde), media prominence, or appealing to constituencies such as the military or former guerrillas. Finally, the death of Gaudencio Antonino, who had been campaigning on the issue of rejecting lavish legislative allowances, catapulted his wife, Magnolia Antonino, to the Senate as a substitute candidate for her husband: the electorate was embracing the concept of proxy candidates, even as the political imperative for including Moro candidates endured (Tamano), at a time when the dominance of traditional Moro leaders was eroding.

In 1987, with the new Constitution, two more changes would further degrade party influence while promoting celebrity politics and dynastic succession.

The first was meant to inject new blood into the body politic, through a provision in the new 1987 Constitution imposing a two-term limit for senators. This had the unintended consequence of making the past careers of such legendary members of the Senate as Lorenzo Tañada, Claro M. Recto, Jose P. Laurel impossible in the future. In the beginning, those who already had an advantage because of their pre-martial law or martial law prominence, could still appeal to voters. But once they used up their terms, or faced the rise of candidates with competing sources of popular appeal, the result would be that experience would be less of a competitive advantage in the face of celebrity or media prominence; or, that the veteran’s place would be assumed by proxies from the same family (recall Magnolia Antonino right before martial law; and recall, further, the electorate’s apparent comfort with electing multiple Osmeñas to the Senate at the same time).

Another change was to abandon the election of eight senators per term, increasing the number to twelve. This was to accommodate more candidates, but it had the unforeseen effect of almost permanently miring the 9th to 12th slots in electoral controversy, adding “dagdad-bawas” to our political vocabulary. In nearly all senatorial elections since, the mad scramble and win-at-all-costs methods for the often tiny margins that determined success or failure for slots 9 to 12, further eroded the credibility of the results. An interesting side-note to this, which points to the unintended consequences of tinkering with a well-thought-out design, is that surveys suggest most voters are hard-pressed to make up their minds past eight candidates. A survey firm like Pulse Asia, for example, can show that an average of seven to eight senatorial preferences is not unusual, based on past electoral surveys conducted. Another unintended consequence is that the Senate was designed, and viewed, as a continuing body, since from the time it was restored until martial law, only a third of its membership was changed at any given time, maintaining a quorum to conduct business even when the entire House was up for election. This is no longer the case, as former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban pointed out a few years ago.

So how do these institutional tweaks since 1987 affect the composition of the Senate, and the availability of choices to the electorate?

The first post-martial law Senate saw many old veterans returned to the Upper House, but a higher percentage of celebrity (Estrada) and media (Mercado) candidates than ever before, as well as the short-lived power of the unions (Herrera), and the best showing for Moro candidates.

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The next iteration of the Senate saw the introduction of senators whose claim to fame was military service (Biazon), and an increase in the number of senators who were elected based on celebrity (Webb, Sotto).

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These trends endured in the next Senate, and in fact even more analysis could be done on its composition in terms of candidates with professional credentials, but whose success could be attributed to their media savvy or prominence (consider Defensor-Santiago or even Flavier).

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The same trends can be seen in the next batch, which even had a higher percentage of senators with a military and police background (indicating, perhaps, popular concerns with law and order) and celebrity or media backgrounds.

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The result is a far less geographically diverse set of senators, though as we will see, perhaps a set representative of where the votes really are (see the “Politics is Addition” section, a little later on), and how the majority of voters are reached. Parties by this time have become vehicles, but hardly matter in terms of providing a pool of candidates or having a say in the selection of candidates. And what diversity there is, seems to be more along broadly sectoral lines: there are the old-style politicians who are either lawyers or veteran politicians; there are the candidates who represent “strong man” or “action man” appeal (soldiers and policemen); and there are those whose prominence is due to their being media practitioners or celebrities.

And with this shift, there is also a shift in whose endorsement matters: not of the parties, but of celebrities, the media, or religious groups. But as we will see, in one respect, the dynamics have remained durable, and this is in terms of a particular kind of senate election: when it occurs halfway through a sitting president’s term.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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