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HORIZONS

Monday night massacre: Hail King Duterte?

It was an absolute, complete and untrammeled evisceration of the opposition. The enervated liberal democrats and progressives were outgunned, outgooned and outgolded.

It was not so much the overwhelming victory of the administration as it was the seemingly irredeemable obliteration of the opposition. In many ways, we witnessed the closest reenactment of medieval total victory in the 21st century.

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In America, midterm elections serve as a break on the hegemony of a single party, and at times the worst instincts of an overzealous incumbent. Both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump suffered major setbacks
in their first midterm elections, creating a much more balanced distribution of power between the two major parties.

In the Philippines, in contrast, the midterm elections tend to boost the powers of the incumbent ahead of the presidential twilight years. Thus, instead of putting a break on President Duterte’s heterodox governance, the 2019 elections have instead placed him on the path to imperial presidency.

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To use the “Game of Thrones” metaphor, the Liberal Party, one of the longest-running organizations of its kind in Asia, suffered the “Yellow Wedding.” In Congress, they got reduced from hundreds of members just few years ago to barely over a dozen. Their performance in the gubernatorial and mayoral races was even more dismal.

Most crucially, as I predicted in my previous columns, the entire opposition, including leftist progressives like Neri Colmenares, struggled to get even a single seat in the high-stakes race in the Senate.

This was the poorest performance by the opposition since the dark days of martial law. There are, at the very least, four reasons that explain this shockingly unsurprising outcome.

First and foremost, Dutertismo is winning by default, since the opposition is bereft of
a center of gravity. Three years into Mr. Duterte’s presidency, the opposition lacks a charismatic leader that can mobilize disparate groups under a single political umbrella.

Second, the broader opposition is deeply divided among liberal centrists, liberal democrats and progressive leftists.

Were they to have fielded a grand coalition ticket—imagine a complete-12 slate that included not only the Liberal Party but also the likes of Colmenares and Grace Poe—the opposition would have likely won 2-3 seats in the Senate.

The third reason is suboptimal usage of limited resources. Former senator Mar Roxas was the top spender in terms of air war, but struggled in his conversation rate. He has almost universal awareness rate, yet his preference rates plummeted amid Mr. Duterte’s mudslinging and right after Roxas took a temporary break during the second half of the campaign, the most crucial phase.

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In contrast, other opposition members had a far better conversation rate, only needing greater awareness levels through expanded air war in order to enhance their electoral preference. The concentration of resources in a single candidate spelled doom for the opposition. The dearth of volunteers, and lukewarm reception among local government units, didn’t help either.

Lastly, the opposition failed to mobilize an effective counternarrative to Mr. Duterte’s more visceral populism. In a country where less than 10 percent of Filipinos identify foreign policy as an urgent issue, attacking the President on his supposed China connections proved futile.

As for the economy, the administration managed to slash inflation by half following massive imports of cheap food ahead of the elections. And attacking the administration on human rights also hit a snag, since majority of Filipinos approve of Mr. Duterte’s drug war, though not his methods.

The liberal opposition has been relegated to the dustbin of history, but did the elections turn the former Davao mayor into a de facto king? Not necessarily.

The reality is that traditional politicians and tactical allies of the administration,
not core loyalists, won the vast majority of seats in the 2019 elections. Thus, what
awaits us is a grand clash of self-interests
between conservative politicians and an overzealous populist.

The trapos, not Mr. Duterte, will decide the future of our republic. And they are, far more than the insensate President, susceptible to public pressure well beyond the ballot box.

rheydarian@inquirer.com.ph

See the bigger picture with the Inquirer's live in-depth coverage of the election here https://inq.ph/Election2019

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TAGS: 2019 elections, 2019 senatorial candidates, Horizons, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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