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Elections as referendum

President Duterte’s anointed senatorial candidates hope that voters consider the midterm elections as a referendum on presidential performance. This perspective is understandable. They look at the elevated approval and trust numbers of the President and believe that running under his banner will lend them the luster of his ratings.

They make two assumptions: first, that trust is transferable. If the people trust Mr. Duterte, they will trust his choices.
This assumption is problematic. First, Mr. Duterte has a poor record in selecting his officials. Promising to appoint only the best and the brightest to his team, the turn-over of officials at Cabinet and sub-Cabinet levels in his first three years has, instead, established a record of futility. People he had hired he had been forced to fire, for incompetence or suspicion of corruption.

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Second, self-identification as a Duterte loyalist has not always sufficed to cleanse a politician’s reputation. Gloria Arroyo, the least regarded and least trusted among post-Edsa I presidents, has willingly subordinated herself to the President’s policy and political preferences. As head of a coequal branch of government, her subordination to the executive compromises the constitutional obligation to protect the system of check and balance required in democratic governance.

But her abdication of duty has not bought a bounce in her own approval ratings. Her most loyal followers now surround Mr. Duterte. How will voters factor into their equation the weight of the Arroyo forces behind Mr. Duterte and his candidates?

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Third, while Mr. Duterte remains personally popular among survey respondents, they oppose many of the policies that he has personally championed. They reject the practice of killing suspected drug dealers. They reject the criminalizing of “loitering.” They reject the subservience to China in the West Philippine Sea. They reject federalism as a priority concern.

The election of candidates with a proven record of integrity and professionalism in public service would help assure voters that the President has the benefit of expert advice on the issues that concern them. They may trust the President, but democratic governance is too big and complex a task for one person with a single, and necessarily limited, perspective.

Last and not least, Mr. Duterte has chosen candidates not distinguished by integrity and competence. Voters can do better than elect leaders who have to justify to the electorate what they can do in government, or whose signal achievement is escaping criminal conviction. Problematic choices like these can only remind voters of the mistakes Mr. Duterte has made with his high-level appointments.

The Duterte candidates expecting to benefit from the elections as referendum make a second, problematic assumption: that the election victory of the President translates to numbers in their favor. In 2016, Mr. Duterte recorded 16 million votes, giving him a clear margin of 6 million votes over runner-up Mar Roxas.

Considering that only 39 percent of the electorate voted for Mr. Duterte, however, the numbers do not look so decisively favorable for his candidates. The 61 percent who voted against Mr. Duterte represented 26 million votes, 10 million more than he received. The value of the Duterte anointment would, therefore, have to rest on the further assumption that both those who voted for Mr. Duterte and those who supported other presidential candidates in 2016 would now cast their votes for his handpicked senators.

While Jojo Binay’s constituency may be open to switching to the Duterte camp, both Mar Roxas and Grace Poe are running in the senatorial race under their own parties. The way our senatorial elections are structured, even candidates from the same party are running against each other.

If these opposition voters rejected Mr. Duterte in 2016, their support for his candidates now would appear questionable; most of them would probably belong to the majority who also oppose Mr. Duterte’s policies on the killing of suspected drug criminals, the policies toward China and the priority placed on federalism.

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The decision rests with the electorate. But let government, police and military officials fulfill Mr. Duterte’s Easter injunction to ensure that the elections “become an exercise of integrity and reflect the true will of the people.”

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club.

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TAGS: Business Matters, Duterte, Edilberto C. de Jesus, Elections
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