The Duterte administration won big in the midterm elections. Although the full tally still has to be completed, with 94.39% of voters already accounted for, the likelihood is that the opposition will suffer a shutout in the senatorial elections.
The lone opposition candidate who still has a slim chance of landing 12th to earn a Senate seat is Bam Aquino. But he is currently ranked 14th, and he trails Nancy Binay, who currently occupies the 12th position, by about 119,000 votes. In a better position to beat Binay is JV Ejercito who is slightly ahead of Aquino in the ranking.
What can be the reasons why the administration candidates won big and why the opposition lost heavily? Suffice it to say that Rodrigo Duterte and his administration enjoy high trust and performance ratings, based on the surveys of Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations (SWS).
Even on critical issues that one would have thought the administration is vulnerable — for example, on fighting inflation, foreign policy, and eradicating graft and corruption — it still received positive satisfaction. The SWS national survey in the first quarter of 2019 showed that the administration had a net score of +22 (with 53% satisfied against 31% dissatisfied) with regard to fighting inflation. With respect to defending Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, the administration had a net score of +40 ((with 60% satisfied and 20% dissatisfied). On eradicating graft and corruption, the administration’s score was +41.
The conditions simply do not favor the opposition. Optimism is high (+40 as of end 2018, according to SWS); economic fundamentals remain good, even resulting in a credit rating upgrade; economic and social reforms are being put in place (tax reform, removal of quantitative restrictions on rice leading to lower food inflation, universal heath care, ease of doing business, etc.); and poverty has been reduced by six percentage points between 2015 and 2018.
In this light, it would have been most difficult for the opposition parties and followers to take the stance of “extreme opposition.” It goes without saying that victory (or defeat) is a function not only of the victor’s strength but also of the loser’s weaknesses. It is high time the opposition reexamined strategy and tactics. A friend of mine in the opposition, a social democrat, has this to say: “Saul Alinksky’s Principle No. 1: Start where the people are.”
To illustrate, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front (CPP-NDF) raised demands during the peace talks that were impossible to attain — having a coalition government and releasing of all political prisoners. Come to think of it, Duterte appointed several personalities from the Left to Cabinet positions, and released the senior leaders of the CPP. Yet, the talks collapsed in the middle of the CPP-NDF’s aggressive posturing. A hostile military has taken advantage of the cancellation of the peace talks to launch a brutal attack that targets the Left’s legal and political infrastructure.
On the other hand, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has successfully negotiated peace with the Philippine government and has obtained the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). BARMM, from the Moros’ viewpoint, still falls short of their aspiration for independence, but for them, it is still a huge step forward. The MILF has achieved its goal by adopting a subdued strategy.
The so-called Yellow opposition, on the other hand, engaged the Duterte administration in a sharply polarized struggle. Thus, even in relation to a critical reform like the comprehensive tax reform (which on paper was part of the reform agenda of the previous Ninoy Aquino administration) the Liberal Party and its allies opted to block it. The ground for opposing tax reform was mainly partisan, not economic or technical. The opposition mistakenly thought that the controversial tax reform would spell political defeat for Duterte. As the SWS survey showed, even on controversial issues like fighting inflation (the opposition attributed the elevated inflation rate last year to tax reform, when in fact it was principally brought about by the rice crisis), the Duterte administration received a net positive rating.
A couple of lessons stand out here. First, reformists, even if they belong to the opposition, should take advantage of any opening (in this case, a popular administration) to obtain crucial and hard reforms. The struggle for reforms must be pursued relentlessly whatever the political circumstances, for ultimately the people benefit from such reforms. How to win the reforms will vary depending on concrete conditions, but the reform struggle cannot take a pause just because we hate those in power.
Pursuing reforms despite being in the opposition does not in any way suggest capitulation. The opposition should continue resisting policies like human rights violations that run counter to our values.
Second, politicians, who fear losing votes, should not worry either about sponsoring or championing politically difficult reforms. Senators Cynthia Villar and Sonny Angara have been reelected to the Senate in convincing fashion despite being the sponsors of rice tariffication and comprehensive tax reform, respectively. Although being endorsed by Duterte, both of them would have still won on the basis of their own attributes.
The myth that national politicians will be defeated in national elections by sponsoring taxes has been shattered. Senator Ralph Recto once lost in the Senate race, and this was blamed on his being the sponsor of the law that increased the value-added tax (VAT) during the questioned presidency of Gloria Arroyo. This is a mistaken view. Recto lost not because of his VAT sponsorship but because of his association with an unpopular, bad president. (Arroyo’s other candidates, not only Recto, were defeated in the midterm elections.)
This lesson is not lost on Angara and Villar. To be sure, Senator Angara has gained much confidence in light of his electoral victory, which will lead him to champion the pending bills to increase substantially the excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol. Senator Villar is expected to follow through the reform on rice tariffication. The challenge is to provide the credible support for the rice farmers and to modernize Philippine agriculture. She has shown “skin in the game,” a quality that makes a heavyweight politician.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.