Circus Time in the Filipino Legislature

There have now been two and a half years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloodthirsty rule in the name of fighting drugs – two and half profanity-filled years of insults of foreign leaders, contempt for legal procedures, patently ridiculous statements and wholehearted embrace of a China that has invaded Philippine seas and islands.

Can it get worse?

Given the rogues’ gallery those lining up to contest forthcoming Senate, House and mayoral elections, the answer seems to be, yes it may. The roll-call of crooks, charlatans, dynasts and show-biz celebrities is remarkable. The only relief is that they can’t all win.

Competition for the Senate is especially fierce. Most conspicuous of the candidates are no less than three former senators who were indicted in the so-called pork-barrel scam, siphoning off billions of pesos intended for development into their own political pockets. It became public in 2014 and led to the indictment on plunder charges of the three senators and several congressmen.

So far unconvicted, all three are running again for the senate. One, Bong Revilla, is currently in jail as his trial grinds very slowly forward. The other two are Jinggoy Estrada, the son of onetime President Joseph Estrada, who himself was ousted by outraged citizens from the presidency in 2001 and convicted of plunder, and Juan Ponce Enrile, the 94-year-old who was strongman Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law enforcer before becoming a turncoat to save his own political skin in 1986. Enrile was jailed at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City for his part in the scam but was released in 2015 for humanitarian reasons, with the Supreme Court citing his poor health in turning him loose after being detained for more than a year. Critics charge that if he’s agile enough to run for office, he’s agile enough to go back to jail.

That is the same Camp Crame where Leila de Lima, the former Justice Secretary under President Benigno S. Aquino III, has been detained on drug charges that international human rights campaigners say are trumped up. A fierce foe of Duterte’s drug war, she was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International after being locked up on the drug charges.

Also standing for Senate re-election is Jinggoy Estrada’s half-brother, J.V. Ejercito, who was accused of misuse of public funds as mayor of San Juan, part of metropolitan Manila, but was acquitted in 2017.

Among the candidates from political dynasties are Senator Sonny Angara, son of Edgardo Angara, a senator for four terms between 1987 and 2013. Sergio Osmena III, scion of Cebu’s most prominent family, is vying for a third term after having lost out in the previous election.

Newcomers to the senate race now include Freddie Aguilar, 65, following a long tradition of showbiz folk, beauty queens and athletes. He is the best-known singer in the Philippines, who wrote and sang the all-time chart-topper Anak. Aguilar was active in the revolt against the Marcos regime but is now aligned with Duterte. Others with Duterte’s backing include former Interior secretary Rafael Alunan and Francis Tolentino, until recently Duterte’s political advisor.

Duterte plus the weight of notoriety and money of many of the above are expected to make it a tough election for opposition candidates. For tactical reasons, the opposition is fielding only eight candidates for the 12 seats, of whom only two, former interior secretary Mar Roxas, who stepped aside for Aquino’s presidential run in 2010, and Bam Aquino, the former president’s cousin. Others include human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, son of former Senator Jose Diokno who was jailed under Marcos, and Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada, grandson of another Marcos opponent. The one outsider is Samira Gutoc, a Muslim from Mindanao and women’s rights advocate.

Dynasts are at least in evidence in competition of House and mayoral seats. In Davao, three of President Duterte’s children are running, the eldest, Sara, for re-election as mayor, one son as a congressman and the other as vice-mayor. Sara now has her own party and gathering allies in the region. She is backing Antonio “Tony Boy” Floirendo, heir to vast banana estates assembled by his Marcos crony father, against Pantaleon Alvarez, until recently Speaker of the House until she engineered his ousting. The Floirendo family have long occupied various Davao seats.

Various Estradas continue to dominate San Juan, Arroyo relatives are everywhere. One is even a party list representative for security guards. Indeed, the takeover of the party list representatives, who are supposed to reflect occupation and other nation-wide interests, by moneymen and dynasts is a further blot on the system. The representative of overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, is Amieto Bertiz, owner of a big recruitment agency, a business with a reputation for exploiting the OFWs he is supposed to represent.