Manolo Quezon III on Philippine Democracy and the 2022 Election
The race is on for the Philippine presidency, but has the country’s democracy entered a terminal phase?
On May 9, 2022 voters in the Philippines will head to the polls to decide on a successor to President Rodrigo Duterte. The country’s single six-year term limit for presidents means Duterte isn’t eligible for re-election, but it’s clear he has no plan to fade into political retirement just yet. Duterte himself is running for senator, while also backing his daughter’s vice presidential bid. With the list of candidates settled, the opening salvos of a potentially very nasty campaign have already been lofted.
To chart the contours of Philippine politics as the election approaches, The Diplomat spoke to Manolo Quezon III, a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and former TV host.
Now that the candidates have announced their intentions, how do you think the 2022 election will compare to the bombshell campaign of 2016? Are the forces that drove Duterte to the presidency likely to play a similar role next year?
The surprise is how the administration seemed unstoppable and unbeatable just a year ago, and now is in disarray and hard-pressed to affect the campaign that will determine who succeeds it. The reason for this is the one thing the president was considered bulletproof to: allegations of corruption. Duterte ended up politically wounded because of a Senate investigation into the purchase of PPE and face shields by the government in the wake of COVID-19.
Not only did the president, personally, take a 20-point hit in the surveys, so did his administration and even his daughter, Sara, widely discussed as a potential successor. It also turned his chief lieutenant, Christopher “Bong” Go, into damaged political goods, so much so that he dropped plans to seek the presidency and became a much-diminished candidate for vice president (he eventually reversed course yet again, filing to run as a presidential candidate at the last minute).
Every polling point drop, in turn, for the president and his people worked to the benefit of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who once seemed headed to being shunned by the president’s allies but who now seems more and more viable as a receptacle for the fears (of post-2022 prosecution) and ambitions (to remain in power) for the president’s coalition. Former President (and past Speaker of the House) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to broker a coalition-saving formula with Sara for president and Marcos being bumped down to vice president, but Marcos didn’t blink, and in holding firm, made Sara settle for the vice presidential slot. But this leaves Go out in the cold.
President Duterte made Go run for president, and has embarked on a demolition job, insinuating Marcos is a drug addict. Duterte is also widely understood to be engineering the attempt to officially disqualify Marcos’ candidacy on the basis of his being convicted of tax fraud. COVID-19 also raises the possibility, depending on how the pandemic is doing, to depress voter turnout, injecting an unpredictable element into the campaign.
There has been a good deal of commentary about President Duterte’s ambition to be followed by a successor of some kind after his six-year term comes to a close. What is the track record of dynastic succession via the ballot box? Have there been any other instances in which leaders have successfully engineered the election of their chosen successor?
The track record is dismal. Part of the reason is that administrations, five years into a fixed single six year term, are often exhausted and unpopular just when they need to try to arrange for a friendly successor to take over. But there are other reasons often ignored. That’s because they’re institutional, inadvertently created as innovations after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.
The first is every administration begins with a plurality mandate in a society that only respects majority mandates. We have no run-off elections, but a multiparty system. President Benigno S. Aquino III
obtained the highest plurality in the post-1986 era; Fidel Ramos eked out a victory with a mere 24 percent; the rest have averaged 39 percent of the vote. Contrast this with the entire period of 1935-1972 when only one president had a plurality and the rest majorities.
The second reason is related to the first: With a single, fixed, term, the coalitions administrations have to cobble together disintegrate in their last year as component groups peel off to reassemble in a new coalition and the rest wait and see for the results of the coming presidential election. There is therefore a permanent majority of parties and factions that wait to see the outcome of an election so they can join the bandwagon – after the winner is proclaimed. Continuity of policy or party is therefore impossible.
The behavior of politicians isn’t unique to them: There is a phenomenon in opinion polling here where more voters claim to have voted for the winner than actually did. The third reason involves the most basic form of government: neighborhood associations, the barangays, which have been declared non-partisan, thus leaving political parties rootless. Local governments instead are scooped up by new administrations who bribe them for support, by legislating extensions to their terms, to guarantee the new administration a local network. Ironically, this means they have no incentive to deliver votes to outgoing administrations trying to campaign for an anointed successor.
After all, they will only run for re-election after the presidential campaign, when whoever is president needs them. It only means that like national officials, these most basic of local officials immediately form a transactional majority expecting to be rewarded for its declaration of allegiance.
One of the intriguing, if slightly depressing, subplots of the presidential election is the bid by the Marcos clan to recapture Malacañang, this time in the guise of the dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., who came within a hair of the vice presidency in 2016. How do you explain Bongbong’s appeal, given his father’s divisive legacy, and do you think his run has any chance of succeeding?
Six years after their fall from power, the combined votes of Imelda Marcos and Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., the closest crony of the dictator, would have been enough to beat any other candidate in that election, but they split the Marcos votes. The Marcoses went into exile because President Corazon Aquino knew there was the genuine danger of a civil war. Since their return, in running for the Senate, which is elected by the same at-large constituency as the presidency, the Marcoses (Ferdinand Jr. and his sister, Imee) have proven they can count on a constituency roughly constituting 30-odd percent of the electorate. In an “ordinary” election (with many strong candidates), this is shy of the roughly 39 percent you need to win the presidency: but according to current, very early, polling, they are miles ahead of every other contender. But then it is also a truism in Philippine polling that those who obtain early leads in a long
campaign often do badly by the end.
The run has a chance of succeeding, not least because they have the best thinking money can buy. Part of the Marcoses’ current strength is because early on, they realized they had lost the generations politically active in the ‘80s and ‘90s; but they could leapfrog over them through three main campaigns.
First, the assiduous care of cadres of loyalists who slowly climbed the ranks of the bureaucracy, academe, etc. After 30 years, these once-young followers are now mid to senior level officials in many
institutions, while the old middle class that rejected the Marcoses have emigrated abroad.
Second, the cultivation of every means to foster a positive attitude to President Marcos. One example I was shown, some years back, was children’s penmanship exercise books, where the sample sentence for students to copy was, “President Marcos was the best president ever.” As a reform to cure the Marcos-era propaganda centralization of government, textbook procurement has been liberalized and individual schools pick their own books; therefore, individual schools can be lobbied to use pro-Marcos teaching materials.
Third, and most effective of all, has been the role of the Marcoses as early adopters and patrons of new technologies, including new media. Anecdotally, game developers are very loyal to the Marcoses because Imee Marcos actively funded local developers; I recall her telling me in 2010 she was investing in apps. The new generation of Marcos admirers who are young, and have no memories of Marcos himself, date their awareness to a series of pro-Marcos and anti-Aquino animated stories on YouTube, and in this campaign, the Marcoses have focused on TikTok, not to mention other tactics on Facebook. This means even as the old generation of original Marcos loyalists passes away, a new generation of millennials and Generation Z followers have been recruited online.
Given the prominence of populists (Bongbong Marcos, Bato dela Rosa) and celebrities (Manny Pacquiao) among the presidential hopefuls, how do you assess the health of electoral politics in the Philippines as the 2022 election approaches?
A star in its death throes turns into a giant before it collapses and becomes a dwarf. Four factors suggest a kind of terminal point for the democratic culture that was born in 1986-7.
First, an elderly and tired, top-heavy political class unable to reproduce itself. The economy has expanded enough that the kinds formerly attracted to politics to improve their place in the world
can choose different avenues to improve themselves. The dominance of old media and its fading means those who have the exposure and name recall for national election belong to a fixed set of generations, with few able to take their place. This is best seen in Senate elections, where the only antidote to money is celebrity.
Second, a political class that has to arrange unopposed candidacies because even traditionally competing families can no longer afford to do so. The reason for this is migration around the country, weaking old ties, and substituting a mercenary and cynical electorate in its place. Political dynasties cannot hope to recoup expenses, or, put another way, the price of competition is increasingly prohibitive. So they must divide positions among themselves, to ensure unopposed candidacies.
Third, the system has proven incapable of evolving itself. The Philippine Constitution, written in a rush, has proven impossible to amend because some provisions are contradictory, or vague, or so complicated as to be beyond execution. Thus the increasing attractiveness of leaders who promise to produce results regardless of the official rules.
Fourth, the collapse of traditional media. This is the first election in which the biggest network, ABS-CBN, won’t be dominating coverage because President Duterte revoked its franchise to transmit; it continues to exist not as a TV broadcaster but a digital one only. Print still sets the agenda but readership is tiny; radio is increasingly sinking and has roughly lost half its audience in one election cycle (if memory serves). This means social media matters more and more and this also means, according to recent surveys, Filipinos prefer to discuss elections and candidacies not with family members or friends, but only like-minded people in online venues.