Misreading the wisdom of the electorate
What exactly is the electorate telling us in the midterm elections, taken as a referendum on the performance of the Duterte administration?
Many of us are wont to misread the results, lamenting them as the handiwork of the “bobotantes” (ignorant voters). A decade from now, with hindsight, it might still be the case that the midterm election results, as the opposition has warned, were the critical opportunity to preempt the slide toward authoritarianism, foreign debt, and loss of civility. But let’s take a moment of empathy to attempt to glean the meaning of the results.
It helps to consider that there are two referendums on the Duterte administration—the midterm and the end-term
In the just concluded midterm referendum, the “general governance contractor” the electorate hired in May 2016 tells the client that he needs more people to get the work done. He has three years to go, and
so far, the client is apparently delighted (“excellent” satisfaction rating per SWS, Q1, 2019) with his performance.
The contending general governance contractor (Liberal Party) which lost the bidding in 2016 now says the Duterte performance has been dismal in many areas (EJK-oriented war on drugs, human rights abuses, sell-out of West Philippine Sea, slow rehabilitation of Marawi, corruption) and warns against further erosion of checks and balances and democracy in the next three years. They put up an opposition crew (Otso Diretso) as an alternative to Mr. Duterte’s proposed crew (PDP-Laban, Hugpong ng Pagbabago). By many standards, this opposition crew is composed of more qualified carpenters, plumbers and masons than Mr. Duterte has in his crew.
The client, as we know, picked the Duterte crew. The client seems to be telling us, the strategic thing to do is pick the right team even with wrong people, not pick even the right people on the wrong team. Why undermine the contractor at midterm? To them, the Otso Diretso crew, in fact, is an A-Team poised to sabotage the designs of Mr. Duterte.
The end-term referendum in May 2022 is different. It will be a more balanced contest. Mr. Duterte’s narrative of blaming the “yellows” will no longer hold after the new Senate convenes in July. From here on, the blame or credit is all his.
Most likely, he will need all the help he can get in fulfilling all of his preelection promises. Knowing the political trends of the country, it is not farfetched to think that Mr. Duterte’s chances of success are about 50 percent—half of the time is gone, half of his original team is gone, and half of his political will is gone as well.
In view of this, the opposition strategy of taking on Mr. Duterte head on was apparently better suited for the end-term referendum in May 2022. At that point, the final Duterte output is submitted for final grading, and people will definitely be
either happy or disappointed with Mr. Duterte enough to decide on a continuity or change of administration.
If this is the meaning the electorate conveys about the midterm elections, there is wisdom in it. It is rather ironic, that while we have derided the Filipino electorate as being personality-oriented in the midterm elections, in a sense they were actually more programmatic and strategic than portrayed. They elected a President in May 2016 whom they now affirm and strengthen at midterm.
The midterm election results were so lopsided in the array of forces, resources, and public sentiment that there was no way the Otso Diretso had a chance to win any Senate seat.
The unintended consequence of mistaking the midterm referendum for the end-term referendum is unnecessary self-flagellation on the part of the opposition. The resignation of Kiko Pangilinan and Kit Belmonte in taking command responsibility for the debacle suggests a premature frustration with the overall war, on the basis of the first deadly skirmish. The opposition should prepare and rehearse the strategies and teamwork needed to win in the May 2022 elections. The midterm elections were simply the debut of opposition candidates on the electoral stage. It represents a critical crossover into politics, from various nonpolitical fields—academe, nongovernmental organizations, and private enterprise.
Meantime, the lessons seem to be, the way to go is to take on Mr. Duterte issue by issue, presenting alternative policy proposals that resonate with public opinion, rather than opposing the general idea of a Duterte regime.
In sailing, it is not possible to sail straight into the wind. But one can sail against the direction of the wind, through tacking.
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