Tag Archives: mid-term elections

The Philippines – The Stakes for Mid-term Elections 2019

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.

[i] Yap, O. Fiona. November 9, 2018. “The Philippines – The Road (Blocks) to Constitutional Changes”

United States – Barack Obama and the Political Stalemate of a Second Term

While the U.S. congressional midterm elections are just a few weeks away, the outcome is not likely to change anything about the current political stalemate in Washington. The Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives, and while the Senate is currently too close to call (based on recent polling), a one- or two-seat advantage for either the Republicans or Democrats won’t matter much in regards to President Barack Obama’s remaining two years in office. Despite Candidate Obama’s promise to restore faith in the political system and govern from a bipartisan stance in 2008, the reality for President Obama has been mostly gridlock since the 2010 midterm elections in which his Democratic Party lost control of the House as well as a handful of seats in the Senate.

In looking ahead to Obama’s last two years in office, there is little hope for legislative success on any major domestic issues. Despite much-needed immigration reform, and a current policy which both parties agree is broken, Obama has postponed taking even limited executive action until 2015. A battle is now looming in the Senate over confirmation of Attorney General Eric Holder’s replacement. And, with Obama’s approval rating stuck at or near 40 percent, and the liberal Democratic base unhappy with Obama’s recent foreign policy decisions regarding military strikes against ISIS, not to mention longer-term disapproval of his administration’s use of drone strikes, Obama seems to be running empty on political capital.

Lately, Americans seem destined to suffer through a mostly lame-duck presidency for the entire four years of a second term. Despite talk of enduring legacies in the afterglow of a president’s reelection victory, by the second inauguration, the political fortunes of the newly-minted second term president seem to shift dramatically. Immediately following his reelection in 2004, George W. Bush proclaimed that voters had given him political capital and he intended to use it. However, 2005 and 2006 turned out to be perhaps his worst years in office, which included plummeting approval ratings in the aftermath of the federal government’s ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the revelation by the New York Times of the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program. By the end of 2006, and with the help of a few congressional scandals, Bush and the Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress, which left little opportunity for Bush to accomplish much during his final two years in office.

Bill Clinton didn’t fare much better during his second term, though his approval ratings were helped out by a period of strong economic growth. Still, despite the promise of productive bipartisanship with the Republican-controlled Congress after reaching a balanced-budget deal in 1997, the next year was dominated by personal scandal that culminated in Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in late 1998. Despite his acquittal by the Senate in early 1999, the momentum for any Clinton policy initiatives had been lost.

While each of the last three presidents has faced unique political circumstances and challenges, many other factors contribute to this trend of political stalemate during a second-term presidency.

First, it is common for a president’s party to lose congressional seats during midterm elections. This can be particularly problematic for Democrats as Republicans routinely enjoy higher voter turnout in non-presidential elections.

Second, the American political environment is dominated by a never-ending presidential campaign cycle. Media speculation about who will run, and who might win, in the next presidential election can begin as early as a few weeks before a current campaign even ends, which can leave many within the political process looking past the current president as they consider how the next election might impact their own political fortunes.

Third, the presidential term limits imposed by the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution automatically make a second-term president a lame duck. First introduced by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1947 as a response to FDR’s election to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, and ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states in 1951, the two-term limit removes any possibility that a popular president might seek a third term (and thus maintain accountability among the electorate). Of the two-term presidents since the 1950s, only Clinton might have considered a third term. The age and health of both Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan would have prevented each from running again, and George W. Bush’s unpopularity by 2008 would have created a major electoral hurdle. For Obama, it is hard to imagine him wanting to run again, especially with his lingering low approval rating, but his skill as a candidate, and his relative youth for an outgoing president (he will be 55 when he leaves office), would keep the possibility open.

In the final analysis, presidents tend to have their best chance of doing big things during their first two years in office. While many questioned Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform during his first year, in hindsight, there was never going to be a better time than when he had his highest approval ratings and the largest majority of Democrats in the Congress. Presidents and their advisors probably recognize that reality, and are best served by a strategy that Political Scientist Jim Pfiffner calls “hitting the ground running” when they first take office. In addition, perhaps Americans should adjust their expectations for a second-term presidency, as the window for major domestic policy change seems to be permanently closed by the tough political environment that a lame-duck president must face. Despite the seemingly rational logic that a president who will never again have to face voters can make tough political decisions about important public policies (such as reforming Social Security), members of the president’s party in Congress do not have that same luxury. Foreign policy seems to be the one area in which second-term presidents can still make relevant decisions, which probably provides little comfort to President Obama, who campaigned on a platform to end U.S. involvement in the Middle East and who promised to provide broad domestic policy changes. Instead, for the next two years, his presidency seems destined to be relevant mainly within the foreign policy arena.