Musical chair politics
The May 2022 elections are less than a year away, and things are beginning to percolate. The political acrobatics in the administration party have started. Sen. Manny Pacquiao does not like fixing matches behind scenes, so he can be expected to continue acting like a wounded bull. He has openly attacked PDP-Laban vice chair Alfonso Cusi for calling the PDP-Laban national convention in Cebu without his approval. It is plain that Cusi was only doing President Rodrigo Duterte’s bidding. Pacquiao plays naïve, appealing to the President to chastise Cusi. Pacquiao needs the PDP-
Laban as his “jet ski” to the Presidency, but Mr. Duterte wants it for himself. It is now clear they are not going to ride in tandem.
The landscape is full of emerging signals. One would think the impeachment of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen was necessary to keep Duterte’s sway on the Supreme Court, the Congress, the media, the military and the police, local government officials, and the general public. Otherwise, why start the process at all? The failed impeachment paints Duterte as a lame duck.
The more uncertain the scenario, the more we should zoom out to see the big picture. One startling big picture I have seen is a Global Footprint Network graph showing that the Philippines has run on an ecological deficit for the past half century, with our ecological footprint outstripping our biocapacity around 1963. Some countries in the Philippines’ league reached the same point of deficit later (Indonesia around 2005, Malaysia 1991, and Thailand 1985). Countries with greater resources and foresight like Australia and Canada have remained in the black.
That picture shows that unless there is more strategic and efficacious government and collective societal decision-making, the quality of national and individual wellbeing will increasingly deteriorate. Every president will start with a spark of hope, but end up being a disappointment to the people.
People worry the Duterte administration may be an exception. Mr. Duterte remains highly popular despite the objective deterioration of the people’s quality of life as poverty and hunger stalk the land. This “teflon” quality of Mr. Duterte has been explained as due to the manufactured public illusion of progress sustained through fake news and the troll infestation of social media. Does this portend the outcome of the May 2022 elections?
There is another view. The pattern of public sentiment we see is but the tip of the iceberg. What holds up that exposed tip are hidden drivers and forces. Among the submerged factors is what may be called the “pillarization” of Philippine society. These “pillars” are the ad hoc patron-client coalitions that win elections and then distribute the spoils to members to the exclusion of the rest. Think of the Davao Group as the coalition that won in the 2016 elections, while the Ilocos Group was when Marcos held sway from 1965 to 1986. The Pampango Group has had four Presidents—Diosdado Macapagal and Gloria Arroyo, Corazon Aquino and Noynoy Aquino.
Some coalitions are more tight and narrow than others. Coalitions want to be broad enough to win the vote, but not too broad as to trivialize the shareable dividends. Which is why the Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao split in the presidential and vice presidential pairing remains a sound rule of thumb. Politicos at the top feed their own retinues of sectoral, ethnolinguistic, and local vassals down to the barangay level.
The system works because every election creates a new coalition around a President that is, relatively speaking, more system-dominant and powerful than the American president. Presidential politics in the Philippines is musical chair politics. Everybody is happy so long as everybody has a chance to attach to the winning bidder or consortium every six years.
The pillarization hypothesis tells us it does not make sense that the Davao Group will manage to get another turn at the trough, even if Duterte’s performance were exemplary. The expectant other political and economic elites will seek to replace the Davao Group and be in control of the distribution of spoils in Congress, the Cabinet, the judiciary, major infra projects, and major investment deals.
But this is just a theory. The big picture can still be enlarged to include the People’s Republic of China and the United States. That makes the May 2022 elections even more inscrutable.
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