Mid-term elections in the Philippines were held May 13, 2019. Voter turnout is estimated at 72 percent of the 63.6 million eligible voters in the country. Final results have yet to be announced. Initial results show four of the 12 Senate seats going to candidates from the President’s Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) party, but others affiliated with the President may mean majority support of the Senate for the President. The stakes are high: the lack of democratic checks and balances in the country may mean further setbacks to human rights, civil liberties, and political developments in the country. I discuss the elections and what the results may mean for the Philippines in the following.
The election season officially kicked off with campaigning for senate seats and party-list representatives on February 12, 2019. Presidential elections are held every six years in the country; midterm elections, then, see half of the 24-member Senate seats contested every three years in nation-wide elections, while the entire House of Representatives is up for elections. In 2018, 291 total Congressional members are listed in the House of Representatives, so that the 2019 elections will see 243 directly elected seats and 59 party-list seats. All 81 provinces will elect their respective governors, vice-governors, and provincial board members, as will the 1634 cities and municipalities, where mayors, vice-mayors, and 13,540 city and municipality councillors will be put into office following election day. While mid-term elections generally see lower turnouts, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) expected a record turnout of 63 million voters, a 5 percent increase from the 58 million in the 2016 general elections, based on voter registration, and this has come to pass. President Duterte entered office pledging to implement several controversial policies, including reimposing the death penalty, a literal drug-war, and constitutional change. It is, therefore, useful to consider key issues at stake with the President’s agenda, namely, human rights and civil liberties, and democratic checks and balances.
President Duterte’s Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) successfully elected only three representatives into the House of Representatives in general elections 2016. However, in the weeks following elections, Congressional members either jumped ship to join the President-elect’s PDP-Laban, or aligned themselves with the President, so that the President has enjoyed a super-majority in Congress since the beginning of his tenure. With a supermajority in Congress and high approval ratings, only the Senate and the judiciary may stand in the way of the President’s agenda. Thus far, the House has been true to form in advocating the President’s agenda: for instance, the House passed a legislation to bring back the death penalty in March, 2017; it even developed a draft of constitutional changes to push forward the President’s constitutional agenda that passed a second reading in December 2018. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has failed to check against the president: for instance, despite four separate petitions challenging the constitutionality of the extension of military rule in Mindanao, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the President’s imposition of martial law on the island. Perhaps more egregiously, Supreme Court Justices voted in May 2018 to oust its Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a vocal critic of the President, following the President’s campaign against the Chief Justice; by an 8-6 vote, Chief Justice Sereno’s appointment was invalidated.
This leaves the Senate as the remaining institution to check the President’s agenda and how his use of executive powers to pursue it, including his push for constitutional changes. Thus far, the Senate has done so: it has not passed legislation relating to the death penalty, and has also refused to consider the House’s version of constitutional changes. Indeed, the Senate launched an investigation into the President’s war on drugs. However, senate critics of the President – like other critics of the President – have been persecuted. For instance, President Duterte charged Senator Leila de Lima – who was then chairing an investigation into vigilante drug killings – with links to drug lords; the senator has been detained since February 2017. In September 2018, another staunch critic of the President’s drug war, Senator Antonio Trillanes, was arrested following the President’s order and revocation of an amnesty that the senator received in 2011. The senator remains free on bail but the perils of being a critic of President Duterte are unambiguous.
Much, then, is at stake, not the least of which seems to be the remaining vestige of democratic accountability in the country. The Presidency in the Philippines is term-limited to one six-year term; if constitutional change progresses in line with President Duterte’s agenda, he may be able to extend his stay in office. The President has repeatedly disavowed any intention to do so, to motivate support for the constitutional change. Still, the different drafts of the constitutional changes contain provisions that are considered highly controversial, which would expand Duterte’s powers even if he did not inhabit the office of the President.[i]
Results are expected for city and municipal elective offices within three days of elections, between May 13 to May 16, 2019, while the results for the higher offices are expected to be announced between May 17-19, 2019. Undoubtedly, many will be watching these results intently.