The campaign for the midterm elections on May 13 under the Aquino administration opened Tuesday with the proclamation of candidates for 12 positions in the Senate by two major contending coalitions—the administration’s Liberal Party ticket and the lineup of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).
The LP-led ticket, handpicked by President Aquino himself, was proclaimed Tuesday at a large rally at Plaza Miranda in Manila, while the opposition rally was held in Cebu City, an opposition bastion. The President considers the midterm elections as a referendum on his performance in office during the past two and a half years, and if his coalition wins fewer than half of the 12 seats up for grabs, his administration will be in danger of being reduced to a lame-duck, do-nothing administration. Thus, the voters’ scrutiny is focused on his economic performance, the central issue of the elections.
The opposition has hammered on this economic issue. The LP has put the President’s record on the line, which means that its candidates for the Senate either swim or sink on his record. For UNA, its stakes in the election are whether it has the capacity to transform itself into a credible opposition to avert being overwhelmed by the drive of the administration to take full control of the Senate, historically the main stronghold of legislative independence, and prevent it from becoming a legislative rubber stamp of the Chief Executive.
The opposition faces the challenge that unless it exerts its independence more aggressively by wining more seats in the Senate, it is in danger of dissolving into a token and impotent opposition.
The LP’s general campaign manager, Sen. Franklin Drilon, makes no bones about the fact that the administration seeks to make a 12-0 sweep of the Senate elections and convert the chamber into a legislative body of “yes” men and women, whose political philosophy is “conforme.”
This goal poses a clear danger to Philippine democracy. The LP strategy is aimed at delivering the Senate, historically a bastion of parliamentary democracy, with arms and legs bound, to the President’s hands. Mr. Aquino is known to have stifled debate among his Cabinet officials, few of whom have stood up to contradict him. Rigorous debate is anathema to this Cabinet; the silence of the sheep is the hallmark of this highest policymaking body of the administration.
But the recent Pulse Asia survey, conducted on Jan. 29-30, shows signs that the LP’s designs to bring about a subservient Senate through a clean sweep of the elections may be thwarted. The survey shows that UNA and Team PNoy are locked in a close race for the 12 Senate seats, with each lineup polling five candidates in the top 12, aside from two of their common candidates. Senators Loren Legarda and Francis Escudero have been drafted into the Team PNoy ticket and are also claimed by UNA as its candidates. Legarda, of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, tops the survey; Escudero, an independent, comes in second. Their high survey ratings give them leverage to be independent without echoing the administration’s campaign line. They can win without being carried by the LP bandwagon or riding on the coattails of the President. The LP team needs them more than they need it.
The survey also warns that the LP cannot be too cocksure of winning a clean slate and the ground is full of obstacles that can turn the administration’s dream of a landslide vote into a catastrophic rout.
According to the survey, the UNA candidates in the top 12 are Nancy Binay, San Juan Rep. JV Ejercito, Cagayan Rep. Jack Ponce Enrile, former Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Sen. Gringo Honasan. The LP candidates in the top 12 are Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, former Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar, and Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara.
Because of their front-runner positions in the survey, Legarda and Escudero are placed in a pivotal role in the Senate race, who can serve as the fulcrum of the opposition team. With this strategic position to determine the outcome, UNA faces the challenge of whether it can act as an effective or sham opposition.
Ahead of the Plaza Miranda rally last Tuesday, President Aquino called for the drawing of clear lines between the UNA ticket and his team, behind which he is throwing all the weight of his political capital. His candidates rise or fall on his record of achievements or deficits.
This campaign strategy highlights, among other issues, the 6.6-percent economic growth in 2012, as one proof of the fruits of his reforms.
According to administration propaganda, the 6.6-percent growth “is attributable to nothing else but confidence in the President due to his unwavering adherence to ‘daang matuwid’ (straight path).”
“Hogwash,” independent economists reply. It takes more than self-righteous sloganeering to achieve sustained inclusive growth, under which no sectors, such as the poor, are left behind.
The President claimed at Plaza Miranda that his Team PNoy campaign is anchored on good governance. UNA leaders, chiefly Vice President Jejomar Binay, quickly hit back. Where are the jobs from growth? Binay asked. Why is there growing unemployment? Why do prices continue to rise? How about the rising crime wave? others asked. Who is safe from house break-ins, robberies, bank holdups, breakdown of law and order? Who can protect the ordinary citizens from the lawless?
Will control of the Senate by Team PNoy change things?