Elections in the Philippines is a time of alliances, pundits, politicking within and across party lines. A range of candidates have put themselves forward for the upcoming 2022 elections, though their agendas and positions may still be too cloudy for voters to make a clear bet. Persistent problems around politics are present, although reform via the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) is slowly taking place. There’s still plenty of time ahead for unpredictability, by prospective candidates and the voting population.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in English on 28 October 2021 at th.boell.org. On 13 November several developments lead to the reshuffling of candidacy. Senator Christopher "Bong" Go, a Duterte loyalist, registered on Saturday to run for president after withdrawing from the vice-presidential race, pitting himself against rivals including Mr Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator. Ms.Sara Duterte-Carpio announced that she will register as a vice-presidential candidate. The current president Rodrigo Duterte had also announced that he would run for vice-president and one day later he changed his mind to run as senator instead.
What political parties?
On 17 July 2021, during the ruling party’s national assembly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reminded his party colleagues to “never lose sight of the founding principles upon which this party was built on. Let us never forget that our end goal is to improve the welfare of the Filipino people.” True to form, the president spoke in his usual folksy manner, rallying his party mates for the 2022 elections. At one point he promised, “I will campaign for you. And I will bring lots of money. In sacks if there are.”
The money politics that has characterized elections in the country, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, is a campaign finance issue that is recognized but never arrested and controlled
Elections in the Philippines involves money and political machines. The money politics that has characterized elections in the country, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, is a campaign finance issue that is recognized but never arrested and controlled. This is just one part of the problem. The bigger part of the problem is the low institutionalization of political parties in the Philippines. The lack of genuine programmatic political parties persists even as the language of party politics is constantly used. Notably absent in this national meeting of the PDP–Laban were some key party officials including its vice-chair Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, son of the party founder, and boxer-turned-Senator Manny Pacquiao, the party’s president. The split and creation of new factions within the party is just one more manifestation of the reorientation of Philippine politics before the 2022 national and local elections. And the undermining of a democratic institution under the ruling populist administration.
Meanwhile, a stalwart member of the Liberal Party, purportedly the opposition party, recently announced that he will support the candidacy of Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, should she decide to run for president. According to Cavite First District Rep. Francis Gerald Aguinaldo Abaya, “I do not know the President, nor do I know the Mayor from Davao City, and I am from the opposition… Still the assistance keeps on coming. There is just no way I can ignore the kindness and support of the President and his daughter.” The congressman was quick to point out that it was a personal decision and not a Liberal Party decision to support the administration’s candidate. According to Abaya, “We all have our own minds in the Liberal Party.”
While party switching is not new in the Philippines, the increasing ‘anarchy of political parties’ is.
When Liberal Party Chairman Leni Robredo filed her candidacy for the presidency, many cheered and as many were wondering why she filed as an independent candidate. In the last five years, multiple members of the Liberal Party have either allied with the administration or have switched to the ruling party. While party switching is not new in the Philippines, the increasing ‘anarchy of political parties’ is. The lack of coordinated party behavior, party discipline, and party finance transparency are persistent problems and typical in Philippine politics. Party candidate selection revolves around dynastic families and political clans. Alliances and coalitions crystalize as election day approaches and clientelistic promissory notes are written. The language of party politics is used, and expectations of party politics ensues even as there are no genuine programmatic political parties.
Candidates and a convenor’s group
An initial attempt to unify the opposition against the ruling party frayed and failed. A convenor’s group, 1Sambayan, was formed made up of former high-ranking government officials, including a former Ombudsman and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. In the political history of the Philippines, a convenor’s group in 1985 launched the candidacy of Corazon Aquino that eventually toppled the Marcos dictatorship. The difference then and now is that the current strongman rule of Rodrigo Duterte continues to remain popular. There is satisfaction and support for the violent war on drugs even as Duterte’s ratings on pandemic performance has slightly declined. The popularity among voters of candidates with authoritarian tendencies past and present is evident and in some cases, factored in by candidates as part of their election calculus. Presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson’s digital campaign includes pictures of him as a uniformed and bemedaled general – an image that he distanced himself from when he initially ran for the Senate.
Thanks to the rehabilitated image of the Marcos name through historical revisionism
that celebrates the years of dictatorship as years of development,
voter preference for the son of the former dictator remains high.
Bongbong Marcos, a strong ally of the Duterte family and promising to continue the war on drugs, has filed his candidacy for president riding on a strong base of support that includes youth voters. Thanks to the rehabilitated image of the Marcos name through historical revisionism that celebrates the years of dictatorship as years of development, voter preference for the son of the former dictator remains high. Sara Duterte also ranks high in voter preference surveys, and there is expectation that she will continue the brand of leadership of her father should she decide to run for president. Manny Pacquiao, also running for president, once said in an interview, “Too much democracy is bad for the Philippines.” Manila mayor and now presidential candidate Isko Moreno likes to talk tough and has been likened to the populist brand of Duterte. These public sentiments towards authoritarianism contribute to the ambiguous democracy of the Philippines.
Out of the violent populist woods?
In the last five years, executive powers went unchecked. Institutions that can extract accountability, such as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), Office of the Ombudsman, and mass media, have been threatened and weakened. What should have been independent branches of government was neutralized by the Duterte administration by targeting top female officials in each: the Supreme Court lost female Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto; Senator Leila de Lima was left to perform her duties as a legislator while incarcerated without formal charges; and the office of Vice-President Leni Robredo was disabled with limited resources, a budget constantly reduced, almost ridiculed. 
In the coming months, all eyes will be on another democratic institution, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). This constitutional commission tasked with election administration has a history that at times favored the incumbent. Over the years, the commission has tried to modernize and increase its capacity, but there are lingering issues of credibility. Even as COMELEC has addressed issues of reform, much can still be done. Hobbled by resource and capacity issues, part of the trepidation if the COMELEC will perform its mandate with independence is the composition of the commissioners. By 2022, all are appointees of Duterte and with ties to Mindanao. To the credit of COMELEC, so far there are no indications that it will be partisan, nor its autonomy breached. But COMELEC can also be more proactive in shaping electoral politics – it can issue official statements to show that it is the authority on all electoral matters. The sudden revival of small, inactive political parties during election season to serve as vehicles by politicians who were eased out of intra-party competition and the substitution of candidates at the last minute has become a common strategy. It makes the electoral arena seem bereft of a referee to keep the integrity of the game. This can leave some voters and candidates having less confidence that it will be a fair election.
The sudden revival of small, inactive political parties during election season
to serve as vehicles by politicians who were eased out of intra-party competition
and the substitution of candidates at the last minute has become a common strategy.
There are some pockets of democratic resilience and some authoritarian reversals that can give hope to both candidates and voters in the 2022 elections. Impeachment proceedings in the House against Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Marvic Leonen by Duterte allies did not flourish. The Commission on Audit raised red flags on irregular procurement deals that implicate officials in the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Department of Health (DOH) with close ties to the president. Two libel cases against journalist Maria Ressa  have been dropped. And a survey from Social Weather Stations (SWS) on the public’s support for the term limit of the president has been consistent for more than a decade – a strong signal from the public that should thwart any thoughts of clinging to power, even for a popular president. Will the Philippines be out of the violent populist woods by 2022?
The constellation of candidates and coalitions, including the seemingly unwilling Sara Duterte, can still realign until 15 November 2021, the last day substitution of candidates allowed by COMELEC. It is an election sleight of hand Duterte used in 2016 when he played reluctant candidate. This proved to be a good delaying strategy that left his opponents with less time for strategic maneuvering. For 2022, Duterte and allies seem to have the same strategy: at the final hour of filing the certificate of candidacy, Senator Bato dela Rosa, former Philippine National Police Chief and enforcer of the war on drugs, arrived to announce that he will be filing as the official presidential candidate of the ruling party. When asked multiple times what made him suddenly run for president, he was quick to answer that it was the party that asked him. When asked if he will eventually give way for the president’s daughter if she decides to run for president, the senator replied, “Wouldn’t that be better?” This delayed-candidacy strategy exploits the electoral system and undermines another democratic institution under this populist rule.
When Leni Robredo finally announced her candidacy on 7 October, the hesitancy was more realpolitik than politicking. Her survey numbers were less than impressive, and she knows incumbency advantage is a formidable opponent. Her local politics experience has taught her that. It is likely that Robredo has always seen herself more of a unifier than a candidate for the 2022 elections. Her choice to run as an independent, according to her, is to signal inclusivity. Leni Robredo joining the race nonetheless generated a lot of positive reaction in social media. Buildings turned on pink lights to show support and social media was abuzz. Whether that will cascade to votes, generate support from key political clans, or create a coalition is another issue. She and her campaign team need to keep the positive messaging of inclusivity throughout her campaign to attract coalition-building from a larger base of support.
The nature of elections with the constant live interviews, the closely covered campaigns, will also expose those who have gained traction mostly through social media with their carefully curated and staged performances.
It is still a long way to May 2022. Candidates running against Duterte’s anointed successor will need to strategize and coordinate to get the votes. It is important not to lose sight of the elusive ‘united opposition’. To ensure a non-administration win, each camp will have to run their campaign in a way that can leave an opening for alliances. Power-money-clan coordinates will crystalize closer to election day. But there is also a percentage of market votes that are undecided. The nature of elections with the constant live interviews, the closely covered campaigns, will also expose those who have gained traction mostly through social media with their carefully curated and staged performances. Voters who have not made up their minds will be keenly watching how each will run their campaign and the issues that they will champion. Campaigns can still pick up momentum, while there’s time for some to implode. The 2022 election is a critical juncture for the Philippines.
Dr. Cleo Calimbahin is an Associate Professor at Department of Political Science, De La Salle University, Philippines. Her research interests include Comparative Politics, Democracy, Elections, Election Administration, Corruption and Bureaucratic Capacity.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
 The same tactic was used by the administration in 2018 when the Commission on Human Rights was threatened with a PHP 1,000 (USD 20) budget. See https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/930106/house-budget-deliberations-chr-p1000-budget-speaker-alvarez
 Maria Ressa received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in journalism and speaking truth to power
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