What’s exactly at stake in the 2019 elections?
President Duterte is now in cruise mode. He has weathered the rice shortage crisis and inflation spike in the last quarter of 2018 to attain a new equilibrium. This equilibrium means he can continue to be his misogynistic, coarse self, with no danger to his political capital.
He has created the perfect escape routine. If the people are shocked when he speaks, then it must be a joke. This same convenient detachment works with the Cabinet as well. It allows Cabinet members the relative autonomy to choose to obey him. As the Spanish authorities in the Philippines said in regard to the King of Spain’s orders, “Obedezco pero no cumplo” (I obey but I do not comply). This is Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s formula, which has been adopted by Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This curious situation has allowed Mr. Duterte to continue being a jester, but prevents him from causing short-term damage to the government’s standing before the public.
The opposition missed the opportunity to exploit the rice crisis, inflation and “Dutertic” excesses in the last quarter of 2018. Instead of weakening Mr. Duterte, the President is now poised to consolidate his power with the midterm elections. He is out to show the world he continues to enjoy the support of the Filipino people by winning through proxies this referendum on his administration. Nothing could be more blatant in-your-face symbolism than getting his key proxies — Bong Go, Bato dela Rosa, Francis Tolentino and Imee Marcos — into the Senate. Mr. Duterte controls the money, the influence and the Office of the President.
The Senate is a plum for Mr. Duterte. It is the last bastion of the opposition’s receding embers. With the Senate in his armpit, there is nothing to stop the President from achieving what else he wants to achieve. The key policy package for delivering unpleasant surprises will likely be the federalism project. With a pliant Senate, a constitutional assembly looks very likely. A tamed Senate will also have other uses for Mr. Duterte, such as slapping down the long arm of the International Criminal Court. The economy will likely be outwardly stable in the short run, and there will be no reason to want to change Mr. Duterte.
The opposition has out-positioned itself. Curiously, it now seems like Vice President Leni Robredo is to Mr. Duterte what Noli de Castro was to Arroyo — no compelling alternative, no matter how reprehensible the Duterte administration has become.
The prolonged leave of absence that Mar Roxas took did not help the opposition pre-position strategically for the midterm elections at all. While he did return, he did not do it with an overwhelming comeback strategy — say, a formidable silent organization that has been crafted, guerrilla-style, or a social media operation that puts Cambridge Analytica to shame. Instead, he made his debut by making a lame offer to help Mr. Duterte, but was promptly rejected.
Roxas as an economist is not what the people need. As far as Roxas is concerned, he does not have to introduce himself anew to the people. Being an “ekonomista” is not the best peg or role he could play in the current state of the game. His handle should be as a defiant fiscalizer, an opponent of abuse, a defender of democracy. He should compete with Sonny Trillanes for Rodrigo Duterte’s ire.
But this is not how the midterm electoral battle has been defined, and that definition has depended largely on how the opposition has fashioned itself. Mr. Duterte has been true to himself — titillating his audiences with his obscene language, becoming a bit more gross as time goes on. He has not danced around — he has exactly stayed put.
It looks almost funny that the semblance of opposition against Mr. Duterte has been provided by Arroyo and her cohorts in the House of Representatives, with Rolando Andaya as the most visible hatchet man. Andaya has been recently flicked by the Palace, forcing Arroyo to sound much more conciliatory and loyal to Mr. Duterte.
If the opposition misses the midterm elections as an opportunity to push back Mr. Duterte, the next opportunity would be in 2022. Meantime, if Mr. Duterte wins the Senate, the presidential election in 2022 is a domino that could fall easily into Mr. Duterte’s hands. And that in turn will decide what kind of Philippines we will be.
See the bigger picture with the Inquirer's live in-depth coverage of the election here https://inq.ph/Election2019
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