Philippine Midterms: Referendum on Church Power

On May 13, Filipino voters will go to the polls to select 12 Senators and 229 members of the House of Representatives as well as hundreds of provincial governors, mayors and a host of other positions.

The election, a midterm test halfway through the six-year presidential term of Benigno S. Aquino, is expected to be pivotal for several reasons. The most important is that it is a major test of the power of the Catholic Church against the popularity of Aquino over the historic Reproductive Health Act signed into law in January after being stalled for 14 years by church opposition.

For decades, no politicians have challenged the church for fear of offending the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and losing their support. Their demise as a perceived center of political power, should it come, could have major consequences, finally revealing that few are listening to them.

Conversely, if the church holds sway and drives lawmakers from office, other legislation proposed by Aquino, including land reform and the regulation of the mining industry, which are also subject to church suspicion, could be affected negatively.

"We find it deplorable that the Catholic Church would seek to punish political leaders who supported the RH bill," said Carlos Conde, researcher for Human Rights Watch in Manila. "This objective does not advance politics in this country. On contrary, it sets our democracy back, when an entity as influential as the church would be so vindictive against those who take contrary positions that are proven to benefit the poor.

"It should be clear now that reproductive health is crucial to lift the Philippines out of poverty and, more importantly, empower families to make informed decisions about their health and welfare. The church's actions are a throwback to the dark ages and a threat to democracy and good governance."

The church before has delivered pastoral letters advising parishioners to vote for broad general principles supported by the Conference of Bishops. But this time the bishops have issued guidelines advising them to take on candidates who supported the reproductive rights bill, which allows for teaching sex education to children from grade five through high school, making contraceptives readily available, providing mobile health units for all constituencies to provide birth control information, and other provisions.

The birth control act itself has been stalled by the Supreme Court, which on March 19 voted to delay implementation until after oral arguments are held on June 14, while the church battles it out on a variety of fronts. Ten suits have been filed with the Supreme Court opposing the legislation, and the church has taken its fight to local levels against the officials tasked with putting the law into effect.

In February the Church's Bacolod Diocese posted a giant tarpaulin in front of the San Sebastian Cathedral, listing the names of lawmakers who had voted for the bill and calling them "Team Patay," or "Team Death." Lawmakers who voted against it were identified as "Team Buhay," or "Team Life."

The Team Buhay/Team Patay campaign has since spread to other parts of the Philippines including Quezon and Tarlac, among other regions, as the church has sought to oust pro-birth control lawmakers.

So far, however, it's questionable how much traction the church is getting on its campaign, and it may well be that it faces a dramatic defeat. Despite the fact that 86 percent of Filipinos describe themselves as Catholics, 75 percent of them support the birth control bill. Flaming denunciations from pulpits all over the country in the months leading up to the vote were largely ignored by the parishioners.

In addition, Aquino is phenomenally popular, with the last Pulse Asia poll giving the 53-year-old president a 72 percent approval rating. He is campaigning to put his own slate of lawmakers into the 24-member Senate, 12 of whose members each stand in alternate elections. Some political observers believe his electoral horsepower will put all 12 in office, an unprecedented feat that would allow him the ability to push through legislation on mining, relaxing curbs on foreign ownership to attract investment, and other issues.

The latest poll by Social Weather Stations shows "Team PNoy," as it's called, will probably win at least nine of the 12 seats. That gives him a real shot at pushing through his agenda in the three years remaining to him.

What's amazing is that the rival slate is being promoted by Aquino's own vice president, Jejomar Binay, and Joseph "Erap" Estrada, the former president who was driven from office in 2001 on corruption charges, who is now running for mayor of Manila against Alfredo Lim, a member of Aquino's Liberal Party. The slate is considered a threat to perhaps three of Aquino's 12 candidates.

The race is taking place amid the usual crackle of gunfire, with 3,000 people arrested so far on arms charges related to electoral violence. The Philippines may well be the only country on the planet where the International Red Cross regularly identifies political "hot spots:" and stashes first aid supplies for quick access in case there's trouble. There are also the usual worries about the voting process over power blackouts although electronic voting machines installed for the first time for the 2010 race worked perfectly.

The foreign investment provisions Aquino is expected to seek if he achieves his expanded power are particularly important. The country is too dependent on business process outsourcing and inward remittances from overseas workers. Despite its 6.6 annual percent gross domestic product growth, the unemployment rate continues at 7 percent. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies in a recent report indicated that the lack of a significant manufacturing sector is a major problem because of the multiplier effect of manufacturing jobs, which simply doesn't exist in either outsourcing or remittances. Foreign investment in the manufacturing sector is vital.

Despite that, Aquino was able to proclaim in March that the Fitch rating service gave the country its first investment-grade debt rating in decades, sending the Philippine Stock Exchange to an all-time high. While the World Bank indicated that the Philippines received US$1.5 billion in foreign direct investment in 2012 - a 15 percent jump over 2011, it still badly trails its Southeast Asian neighbors in volume, compared with US$8.4 billion to Vietnam, US$8.1 billion to Thailand, US$19.2 billion to Indonesia and US$54 billion to Singapore.

Aquino has energetically pounded the campaign trail, promising major infrastructure improvements in at least five states. After cancelling a raft of infrastructure projects put in place by his predecessor, he has begun moving forward with private-public partnerships as a method of putting replacements in place.

Long-standing political dynasties dominate much of the electoral process with nearly 250 candidates running unopposed in gubernatorial, mayoral and other races. While politics in the United States, for instance, becomes a process of parent handing down the candidacy to sibling or spouse, the Philippines has developed the process beyond reason. Despite term limits, for instance in the Congress lasting from 2007 through 2010, more than 75 percent of lawmakers were members of political families. That is expected to continue as sons, daughters, wives or husbands file for posts soon to be vacated. Aquino himself is a beneficiary of the tradition, having followed his mother, Corazon Aquino, into the presidency.

The Marcos family, the Estrada family, the family of Juan Ponce Enrile and dozens more all have relatives in office. And despite allegations of the harvesting of vast wealth by unconventional means, they are all likely to be returned to office. The International Committee of Investigative Journalists recently released details of offshore accounts by Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos, the daughter of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, San Juan Rep. Jose Victor Ejercito and outgoing Sen. Manuel Villar Jr, whose wife, Cynthia, is running for the Senate as a part of the Aquino coalition. It is doubtful that any of the cases will go any further in the Philippines.