Arroyo on the Line in Philippine Polls

Monday, May 14, millions of Filipinos will once again march off to their precincts to cast their ballots. At stake are 12 of 24 Senate seats, the entire House of Representatives and all elective local government positions.

But the real battle is for the political future of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who still has three years to run on her troubled term in office.

In a country where politics is a perpetual muddle and few things are ever settled one way or another, the poll has come down to a match between the “Genuine Opposition,” a coalition of Arroyo foes who would like to oust her from office, and her “Team Unity,” a pro-administration coalition. Issues seem even more absent than usual, with the subtext of the campaign being that if the opposition could grab hold of both houses they would impeach Arroyo for a variety of sins — including alleged past electoral fraud and many presumed irregularities related to a scandal-plagued administration.

In Arroyo’s favor is a relatively healthy economy expected to grow by as much as 6.7 percent through 2008, generating a certain amount of citizen well-being. Unemployment is down slightly, to 9.1 percent in January although underemployment is endemic, with one in every five employed Filipinos underemployed. Exports were up sharply in the first quarter, rising at a 13.1 percent annual pace, driven by electronics. Inward remittances from the 9 million-odd Filipinos overseas continue strong. Foreign direct investment was highlighted by the recent decision by Texas Instruments to choose the Clark industrial zone over China to build a US$1 billion electronics plant. The call center business is booming. The peso continues to appreciate steadily against the US dollar – or the weakening dollar continues to fall against the peso. Arroyo’s economics team has cut the Philippines fiscal deficit. Tax collections, an ever-present problem in a nation of serial tax evaders, are up strongly.

Nonetheless, “every midterm election is a referendum on the sitting administration,” says Manuel Quezon III, a respected political columnist. “What makes the present election different is that it comes on the heels of two failed impeachment attempts that are clearly on the public's mind.”

Arroyo’s legitimacy as the Philippines’ 14th president has never been accepted widely. She took office after the controversial ouster of President Joseph Estrada in 2001 by the military, business leaders and the Roman Catholic Church. Estrada was himself in the midst of an impeachment process that had not yet run its course and the ouster was regarded by his supporters as a de facto coup.

The 2004 presidential election was Arroyo’s chance to legitimize her claim to power, but it was marred by accusations of massive electoral fraud, including what are famously known as the “Hello Garci” audio tapes, which appear to catch her discussing vote-rigging with an election official whose nickname is Garci.

Since then, Arroyo has dodged two impeachment attempts and has been accused of trying to maintain herself in power by trying to amend the constitution, a ploy that was foiled by public opposition and, eventually, the Supreme Court. For these mid-terms, analysts say that Arroyo needs to have enough numbers in both legislative houses to make her last three years in office smooth. Otherwise, she could find herself facing charges yet again.

Meanwhile, the traditional election death toll continues to rise. According to the police, almost 100 people have been killed in politically-motivated incidents since the election campaign started in January.

As ever, there is also the edge of the bizarre about some of the comings and goings. The former army colonel and serial coup plotter, Gregorio Honasan, was granted bail from continuing charges related to his latest attempt to overthrow her government in 2006 so that he could run for the senate. One of Honasan’s allies, Navy Lieutenant Antonio Trillanes, who is in jail for a failed coup he led in 2003, is also running for a senate seat from prison. "There are no more reasons for her to stay," Trillanes told reporters who visited him in a military prison, according to Reuters. "If you want to really serve our people, she must be removed first. Genuine reforms could only be carried out under a fresh government."

There is also celebrity boxer Manny Pacquiao, who may yet decide that it is much safer in the boxing ring, where he is a champion, than in the political arena. He is running for a house seat in his Mindanao hometown, but he has since been accused of being a shill for Arroyo, whose husband has been a big backer of his career. Opposition politicians want him investigated and he says he is the victim of numerous death threats related to his political aspirations. “Pacquiao is being used to disable an opponent of the president,” Segundo Romero, an analyst at the Development Academy of the Philippines, told Bloomberg.

But every seat counts for Arroyo and Pacquiao, a national hero, seems like he cannot lose, assuming he doesn’t get shot.

“If the midterm election is viewed from the point of view of impeachment, and not just expressing approval or disapproval of the incumbent president, then two contests are in play: the need [for the opposition] to elect close to 80 opposition members of the House, and the election of opposition members of the Senate,” notes Quezon.

Based on pre-election surveys, it is likely that Arroyo will lose the battle for the Senate but retain control over Congress – which is hardly surprising.

Since its return in 1988, the Senate has been dominated by opposition lawmakers with high name recognition, since they are elected nationally. Six candidates from the new “Genuine Opposition” coalition party are expected to secure half of the Senate seats up for grabs, with the other half shared by four administration and two independent candidates. This would allow the anti-Arroyo crowd to maintain control of the upper house easily.

By most accounts, the opposition has presented a strong senate slate filled with popular and experienced politicians, led by the ambitious former broadcaster, senator and vice-presidential candidate Loren Legarda, Senate President Manuel Villar, former tough-guy police chief Panfilo Lacson; and former congressman and Estrada spokesperson Francis Escudero.

On the other hand, the House is a local game, where being allied to a good source of funds – like the administration – is an advantage. Also, the opposition has only 140 candidates for 220 available seats, and only a third of them are likely to win, according to opposition spokesperson Adel Tamano. Score the House for Arroyo.

If these results play out as foreseen, another impeachment attempt is unlikely because the current stalemate would continue. But Arroyo’s plans and policies could be blocked by an uncooperative senate. This scenario, explains Quezon, will make it harder for Arroyo to keep the government’s fiscal plans on track, as she needs to either sell off more government assets or raise taxes for needed revenue, both of which would likely founder in the senate.

But the seemingly endless cycle of jockeying for power in the Philippines will be the real agenda of a number of senators. It often seems as though every politician here believes that he or she is destined to be president one day and the current and future batch of senators – Legarda, Lacson, Villar and others – have long had presidential ambitions.

Senate reporter Aries Rufo expects the years to 2010 to be dominated by runs for the presidency. “The actions of the senators will be dictated by their presidential ambitions and by public opinion. They will not serve as a hindrance to Arroyo if it hurts the country and, consequently, their public image. They will also be careful not to alienate the administration because it controls local government, which is critical in a presidential race.”

In short, regardless of whether the public supports Arroyo, she may still be able to control the pace and tenor of politics over the next three years. She will hold the House and be able to manipulate Senators acting in their own self interest, assuming these polls are credible enough to avoid widespread charges of fraud.

“Traditionally, Filipinos rely on certain institutions and groups – the Catholic hierarchy and groups like the National Movement for Free Elections – to render a verdict on the credibility of every electoral exercise.” says Quezon. But these groups are also divided and unprepared this time around.

“Government institutions, like the Commission on Elections and the military, are perceived to be poised to break every rule. Therefore, media will bear the brunt of providing information, but no single group will be able to weigh in with enough credibility to render a verdict. This will only further entrench public disappointment and a negative public opinion concerning government,” explains Quezon.

“That public mood won't necessarily lead to protests on a large scale; but it may end up limiting the administration's options. The public will be far less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of constitutional change, additional taxes, or even allowing the President to step down gracefully in 2010: it might foster an atmosphere of public vengeance against the president when she steps down.”

In other words, the Philippine political situation remains, as ever, something of a mess.