Philippine Elections: More of the Same

Photo by Hersley Ven-Casero

A career in show business used to be a sure ticket to landing a job as an elected servant of the people in the Philippines. Judging from the results of the recent mid-term elections, surer preparation for office might be involvement in the armed overthrow of the government. “Coup plotter,” in local parlance, appears to be the new must-have credential.

Popular actors Richard Gomez and Cesar Montano, two of 57 celebrities running in the elections, failed to win Senate seats despite their large fan base. Only 42 percent of celebrity aspirants made it first across the finishing line, according to the ABS-CBN television network.

But former Navy Lieutenant Antonio Trillanes IV – running from the detention cell where he is awaiting trial for a failed coup attempt – won his Senate race. Trillanes grabbed the spotlight in 2003 when he led a band of soldiers to take over part of a Makati shopping mall in a bid to oust the government. He was one of 12 senators elected in the May polls.

Despite having to conduct his campaign from prison, Trillanes garnered more than 11 million votes, becoming the seventh opposition candidate to squeeze into the Senate this time after the traditionally long manual count of votes. He joins former Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, who has been leading coup attempts since he helped push Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986. Honasan, who was implicated in several coup attempts against former President Corazon Aquino in the 1980s, was arrested, pardoned in 1992 and served in the Senate from 1995 to 2004.

He is currently facing charges for involvement in the 2003 shopping mall putsch and has also been accused of trying to overthrow President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo in 2006. He recently gave himself up, was granted bail and successfully ran for the Senate again.

Trillanes’ new status does not affect the charges against him and he will remain in prison since he is not eligible for bail. The courts have yet to decide how he will serve from behind bars, but in the permissive legal environment of the Philippines he is likely to receive permission to attend Senate sessions until a verdict is reached in his case. If found guilty, he will cease to become a senator. Of course, it could take years for a verdict to be delivered in courts that proceed at glacial speed.

Trillanes’ unexpected victory in nationwide voting for Senate is one of the few surprises from the May 14 balloting, in which half of the Senate's 24 seats, all 256 House of Representatives seats and all local elective positions were up for grabs. Overall results turned out pretty much as predicted by several surveys, political analysts, and even the administration and opposition camps themselves: with the opposition winning big in the Senate, and the administration dominating the House of Representatives.

The 12th and last Senate spot is still being fought over between Aquilino Pimentel III, an opposition figure, and Juan Miguel Zubiri on the Arroyo ticket. The seat hinges on the results from the remote southern province of Maguindanao, a Muslim area where widespread fraud has been reported.

Fraud, of course, is also not a new development in an electoral system where money changes hands frequently, armed goons dominate the countryside and it takes weeks or months for the manual vote count to deliver a final result. Foreign election observers at these polls described a “climate of cheating, violence, fraud, manipulation, and inefficiency” during the polls. But by Philippine standards, with the result roughly as expected, the elections are deemed largely credible.

With the Philippine economy having grown at 6.9 percent in the first quarter of 2007, the fastest rate in 17 years, the peso strong against the dollar and remittances from the 10 percent of Filipinos who work abroad at record levels, Arroyo might be expected to reap the political benefits, but that has not turned out to be the case.

“The results of the senatorial elections do not necessarily mean the public voted against President Gloria Arroyo,” says political analyst Earl Parreno. “This is a verdict of the voters against the whole system. Since 1986, after EDSA I (the People Power revolt), the people have been waiting for their lives to improve, but nothing has happened. So in the recent elections, they chose people who they think they could trust. It just so happened that more candidates in the opposition slate have that image, especially Trillanes.”

Indeed, the country’s young electorate voted for many candidates with a relatively youthful image of public service, including TV personality and tireless self-promoter Loren Legarda, former tough-guy police chief Panfilo Lacson – a classmate of Honasan’s – and Benigno Aquino III, Cory Aquino’s son, all of whom are in the opposition.

The two most popular administration candidates, Edgardo Angara and Joker Arroyo (no relation to the president), on the other hand, are seasoned legislators who both have solid track records and are not seen as slavishly pro-Arroyo.

“The administration lost because they failed to field fresh faces,” adds Glenda Gloria, Newsbreak magazine managing editor. “But you cannot discount the fact that the candidates who were closely associated with the president, like Michael Defensor and Prospero Pichay, performed poorly.”

Local elections were a different story. “Local politics is patronage politics,” explains Parreno. This perhaps explains why popular pro-Arroyo boxer Manny Pacquiao got knocked out in South Cotabato’s congressional race by incumbent Darlene Antonino-Custodio, who comes from a political clan. Arroyo’s political machine delivered in most places, however, and the fractured opposition did not have the money or the talent to field candidates for all House seats.

What does this all mean for the president? Senator-elect Trillanes was quoted in news reports earlier this month as saying: “The only way for this country to move forward is to get Gloria out of the way.” He insists that only means reopening the investigation into a 2004 scandal in which Arroyo was supposedly caught on tape talking about fixing that year’s elections in her favor.

But with the political landscape little changed – an opposition Senate, an administration House – the status quo will likely remain. The Senate can block legislation, hold hearings – most of which the administration refuses to attend – and rail against the president, but any bill of impeachment has to originate from the House of Representative and with the administration holding about 200 of 256 seat this is unlikely to happen.

Most observers do not see any impeachment or ouster of Arroyo in the next three years. “There will be noise and threats, but nothing will happen,” says Parreno. “The only way they could oust her is through another EDSA, which needs army support. But the army doesn’t seem to be interested in getting involved again.”

Besides, by mid-2008, politicians will already set their sights on the 2010 presidential elections. The Senate may be hostile to her at the start, but senators, nearly all of whom think they can be president, will not want to appear to be obstructive. Thus, if the president pushes for legislation deemed beneficial to the country, legislators will support it. “Arroyo will no longer be the issue; it will be individual performance,” says Parreno.

Arroyo, for her part, is looking at revamping her image so that history will be kind to her after she steps down in 2010. If the results of the Senate elections are to be considered as a reflection on her popularity, she has much work to do. There is already talk of her reorganizing her Cabinet, and she may seek way to shed her brittle and ethically challenged image.

“Arroyo is looking for a graceful exit. She will spend the remaining three years trying to build a legacy. But frankly, you don’t do that in your last three years; you do that over your entire term. So yes, she will try to do that, but it might be too late,” says Glenda Gloria.