By Laurence Go

The 2022 elections are less than a year away, so it is not at all surprising that we are constantly bombarded with news of presidentiables, and to a lesser extent, the vice-presidentiables. Different parties and individuals are gearing up as the filing of candidacy and the ensuing campaign season are fast approaching.

Come October 1st, another batch of aspiring politicians — new and old — will set their sights on the different political positions up for grabs. Although the media have so far focused on national positions, the importance (and sheer magnitude) of local positions cannot be understated.

Local politicians design and execute local policies, and directly interact with their constituents. The impending implementation of the Mandanas ruling in the coming year can only serve to speed up the devolution process, further strengthening the role of local government in providing goods and services to the public. This seemingly fated (and fateful!) combination — of the 2022 Elections and the Mandanas ruling — underscores the importance of the upcoming local elections, which is why we need to understand politician behavior, and how voters can play a role not just in electing our leaders, but also in selecting the candidates who aspire for political office.

I’ve spent almost a decade trying to understand Philippine elections (my PhD dissertation was entirely dedicated to this) — which, for economists like me, means that I’ve processed and analyzed various datasets to uncover interesting patterns and unravel underlying politician and voter behaviors. Based on a recently published article*, D. Dulay and L. Go (2021) share three stylized facts from analyzing all local elections from 1988 to the present.

First: Elections for local legislatures (sanggunian) all exhibit a phenomenon we coin the “first place effect.” That is, councilors who end up in first place — those who garner the highest number of votes — are significantly more likely to run for and win higher office in the next elections. One may argue that it is not fair to compare first and second placers, as the former garnered more votes because of better access to resources, personality or charisma, social networks, etc. To address this, we focus on close elections — where the gap between the first and second placers is infinitesimal, even as small as one vote (!). This provides some level of randomness to who becomes first vs. second. Interestingly, the result is universal: it is present across time (considering elections from 1988-2016), across space (considering all regions), across levels of government (provincial, city/municipal and barangay councils).

Second: There is a caveat to the first-place effect, however. This effect is only present in the immediate higher office — the barangay chair, vice-mayor, or vice-governor. Although we do see potential “jumps” from municipal/city councilors to mayor, this is not very likely (it happens for around 0.7% of candidates, or the likes of Vico Sotto, but not more generally). Even more so, jumps from provincial board members to governor almost never happen (in the data, almost all have been unsuccessful). Basically, local politics follows a strict hierarchy: First placers get promoted to vice-mayor or vice-governor, and only after serving in the “vice” capacity would they consider running for local chief executive.

Third: The first-place effect is “unique” in the sense that no other rank comes close. Coming in second or any other rank does not make one aspire for higher office. What we see in the data is that while first place councilors run for higher office, second placers run for re-election. While ending up first increases your chances for political promotion, coming in second makes you more likely to run for the same position. This is not surprising, and is also quite expected. When the higher ranked politician (who has proven to be more winnable) is seeking higher office where there can only be one winner, the lower ranked politician must try again until he/she reaches first place. Indeed, this appears to be the electoral analogy for “try and try until you succeed.”

These three facts exhibit interesting patterns of politician behavior in Philippine elections. In our research, we’ve proven how rank is such an important factor for a politician’s decision to run for higher office. The question of why it matters remains an open path for future work. Regardless of the cause, understanding the importance of rank on political selection, i.e., those who aspire for political office, is a critical piece of information for politicians and voters alike. In our study, we find that rank remains powerful even in close elections where the vote difference between candidates is tiny. This corroborates the saying “every vote counts,” not just for determining who wins in the current election, but also in deciding the fate of our local politicians.

* Dulay, D., Go, L., 2021. “First Among Equals: The First Place Effect and Political Promotion in Multi-Member Plurality Elections.” Journal of Public Economics 200 (104455)

Laurence Go is a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. He finished his economics PhD at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.