For university students, “midterms” is high-stress time, full of anxieties over exams given midsemester. The scores send clear messages to the students: “You’re doing very well; keep it up,” “You can do better,” or the dreaded “It might be better if you just drop the course.”
For US presidents and their executive teams, the term “midterms” creates similar anxieties, referring to elections midway in their term for governors, members of Congress and a third of the senators. The midterm elections become a struggle between the Republicans and the Democrats to control as many legislative and gubernatorial seats as they can.
The results in the just-concluded US midterms were almost predictable: The Democrats gained many more seats in the House of Representatives and ended eight years of being in the minority. They exulted, saying these results reflected the Americans’ discontent, even disgust, with the Trump presidency. Donald Trump, on the other hand, could also claim the Americans were still with him, because the Republicans were able to keep their majority in the Senate.
It is clear, though, that the tilt in majority and minority positions will give Trump a more difficult time in pursuing his agenda and holding off investigations into the many allegations of anomalies directed at him, from tax evasion to collusion with the Russians to meddle in the last presidential election.
More importantly, the midterm elections showed a growing rejection of Trump’s politics of anger and divisiveness. Political commentators noted that Trump could have crowed about some improvements in the economy, but chose instead to continue to court votes by scaring Americans about “the browning of America,” Muslim terrorism, even feminism (in one public event, he said he could no longer describe any woman as beautiful because it would be politically incorrect).
I doubt, however, that Trump will read the signs in anticipation of the 2020 presidential election where he can run again. He may, in fact, become even more belligerent, and continue to scapegoat foreigners overseas and “foreigners” among US citizens (he does not make a distinction), women, CNN and others for America’s problems.
Let’s move across the Pacific to the Philippines where, with a political system patterned after the United States’, we will have our own midterms in May next year, halfway through President Duterte’s six-year presidential term.
The similarities with the US midterms end there, though.
Without a true party system, we will not be able to read election results as an endorsement of Mr. Duterte or not. Not only that, the political machinery is also so much under the control of Mr. Duterte and his men that it will be a very steep, uphill battle to move toward creating any significant opposition bloc.
This is not to say we should just give up on the midterms. The diverse opposition blocs—from the Makabayan on the Left to the Liberal Party and its allies on the center and the right—have been able to hold the fort, even as minorities and even without an alliance, as the military tried to claim with its “Red October” claims.
Our midterm elections will be an opportunity for stock-taking, for braver politicians to speak out on important issues, foremost of which are human rights, economic justice and political democracy. I hope, though, that the various opposition forces will learn from Mr. Duterte and be more concrete in building an agenda of alternatives, in a language or languages men and women on the street will understand.
There are opportunities to push for change with mayors, governors and members of Congress, because they have to answer to local constituencies. The midterms should therefore concretize the issues in local terms, and with possibilities of change at the local level. It can be that controversial plan for a coal plant, for example, or the continuing unregulated tourist activities (now with Boracay to cite as a model by negative example).
The midterm elections should be a time not just for politicians to campaign for votes, but also for stakeholder groups to educate the politicians and convince them that certain causes are backed by the votes they want so badly.
Political groups will need to beef up the educational component for the elections to help voters become more discerning, and to link local issues to broader contexts, from international geopolitics to corruption in the corridors of power.
Our midterms will not be a battle of political parties but of principles. It will be, too, a battle where courage goes a long way—maybe even to the point where we might see a handful of last men and women standing and wielding true power for a cause.
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