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Philippine Legislature: Democratic Facsimile
Regional dynasts, celebrities, Duterte acolytes dominate both houses in wake of election
The overwhelming victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in the Philippine presidential election, thanks at least in part to the re-writing through social media of the oppression and pillage that characterized his father’s rule in the 1970s and 1980s, is not the only reason to worry about the direction of Philippine democratic politics.
As expected, the House of Representatives is full of regional dynasts who mostly joined Marcos-aligned parties and anyway will likely vote for most of what the executive wants in return for rewards for their districts or themselves.
But it is the Senate election result which may be a larger cause for concern given that in the past senators, being elected on a national basis, have had a tendency to individualism and a degree of independence even from the parties of which they are nominal members.
The most striking feature this time is that top of the senate poll was a newcomer, Robin Padilla, 52, whose popularity stems from a Philippine tendency to elect actors, news readers and sports figures in the mistaken belief that will empower them as lawmakers. Padilla’s chief claim to fame is as a movie and TV actor best known for “bad guy” roles, the gangster as anti-hero, just as former President Estrada had risen to the top via heroic roles on behalf of justice.
Padilla was also a favorite of President Duterte who in 2016 had given him an absolute pardon in respect of a 1994 conviction for illegal firearms. Padilla had been sentenced to eight years and served four before being released by President Ramos from New Bilibid prison, where he promptly made a movie set at the jail.
Padilla’s religious leanings went from being a Jehovah’s Witness, a minor US-based Christian sect that has a considerable following in the Philippines, to conversion to Islam when he married a Muslim and took the name Abdul Aziz. He subsequently divorced and married a Christian at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. His father and relatives have political clout in Camarines Norte but Padilla’s sudden ascension to Senate candidate was impelled by Duterte, whose drug war killings were praised by the actor.
His one distinction is that he is one of the very few new faces among the senators just elected. Another is journalist and TV personality Raffy Tulfo. The third new one is not really new at all – Mark Villar follows his mother who followed his father into the Senate. Other inheritors and/or re-electionists include two sons (by different mothers) of the disgraced former President Estrada – Jinggoy Estrada and J.V. Ejercito and Joel Villanueva, son of wealthy evangelist and founder of the Jesus is Lord sect "Eddie" Villanueva, who has been elected to the House as a party-list member.
Alan Peter Cayetano follows a sister and father into the Senate, returnee senator Francis Escudero is the son of a minister under Marcos in the 1980s, re-electionist Win Gatchalian’s family dominates the politics of Valenzuela, Juan Zubiri is the son of the governor of Bukidnon, Loren Legarda was also returned. Risa Hontiveros is the only Robredo supporter to win election. Hontiveros has been the most outspoken liberal voice in the Senate against drug killings, other extra-judicial killings and “red-tagging” of leftists. Meanwhile the Liberal party has no successors to retiring senators Franklin Drilon and Francis Pangilinan.
Notable losers in the Duterte-driven avalanche were his critics Leila de Lima, still confined in “preventive detention” at the military’s Camp Crame headquarters on almost certainly trumped-up drug charges, Antonio Trillanes and Richard Gordon. Left-leaning candidates Neri Colmenares and Chel Diokno also fared poorly.
The party list system, which was established in the constitution to formally involve political parties in the electoral process for the house of representatives to facilitate multi-winner elections,. has been largely taken over by dynasts and representatives of pro-Duterte and pro-Marcos groups, making an even bigger mockery of its original intent to give representation to marginalized groups.