By: Criselda Yabes

The Philippines’ May 13 midterm elections have given President Rodrigo Duterte a convincing mandate for his remaining years in office, with ballot results showing that none of the opposition slate qualified for Senate seats, an indication that the voters are satisfied with his murderous anti-drug campaign and his unorthodox approach to power.

The elections, in which hundreds of local seats were up for grabs among the usual cycle of violence and vote-buying, not only consolidated the president’s hold on power but once again peeled away the veneer of democracy in which parties and families cross lines of loyalties and principles to suit the current power game. The Commission on Elections reported that at least 20 people have been killed in election-related incidents since December. Four grenades were reported thrown in various areas of Mindanao and nine armed men attacked a precinct in Sulu during voting.

The outcome, particularly with his dominance of the Senate, should give Duterte the ability to push through a wide range of plans including his aspiration to change the constitution or alter the country’s government in whatever direction he wants to go. He has shown little regard for conventional democratic practices. He campaigned on a platform of federalism and has threatened to declare revolutionary government at times when he felt provoked or when he just felt like it.

The president’s approval rating has soared to about 80 percent, putting a finger on the pulse of the masses that analysts say seek discipline to taper off the country’s anarchic nature. Mostly he has been able to offer the most potent drug in Philippine politics: the entertainment of his language, which while prone to ridicule and gossip, nonetheless resonates with the electorate.

The election is a depressing reminder that the rebirth of democracy after the fall of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 is incomplete. Elections continue to be dominated by political dynasties at the expense of a poverty-stricken majority beguiled by promises of rough-cut law and order. 

Duterte’s term has so far brought fear by silencing his critics – jailing a senator questioning his human rights record, unseating a Supreme Court chief justice for not kowtowing to his anti-drug war and waging war on the press. What he might do for the next three years of his term could bring more danger to democracy, the kind that Filipinos have mixed with patronage for the past 30 years following the Marcos dictatorship, and more uncertainty in the near future.

It came as a shock to the opposition that none of the eight candidates fielded for the voting made it to the Senate. One who was cast out was Mar Roxas, an aristocratic former presidential candidate and scion of a longtime political dynasty who had garnered major votes in the past.

Political scientist Arjan Aguirre told online news site Rappler that the opposition’s strategy “should have been to attack that narrative of Duterte, that myth, that people cannot just rely on a strongman politician to get what they want in our country.”

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) didn’t release initial outcomes until hours after the polling booths closed, prompting suspicions of irregularities behind the count. It said about 600 of its counting machines broke down and hundreds of its computer cards were defective.

Nonetheless the results reflected much of what surveys indicated in the days leading up to the elections, with little hope for the opposition. As an indication of Duterte’s political clout, his personal assistant, Christopher Go, otherwise known as Bong Go, an unknown with no political record, rose to the near top of the 12 Senators needed to complete the upper chamber of Congress. He rode on Duterte’s popularity and was backed by government resources, his posters seen in nearly every corner of the country even before the start of the campaign.

Duterte’s former chief of police, Ronald de la Rosa, who oversaw the brutal crackdown on drugs in the first year of the presidency, also inched into the top five by largely supporting the president’s policies.

Among winners are Imee Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos’s daughter. Duterte has sought to replicate her father’s strongman legend, having built up a persona of political bullying throughout his 20 years as mayor in Davao city in the troubled south of the country.

“We easily forget the tragedy of this country, we don’t learn,” said the poet Jerry Gracio in Tagalog in his Facebook post. “Let’s go back to school, to the factories, to the communities. Let’s organize and be aware. It took us twenty years to get rid of a dictator. Let’s not have another 20 years of this tragedy.”

In the greater capital of Manila, there were cheers however of voting out key dynastic politicians, one of whom was the former actor turned president Joseph Estrada. He had been jailed for plunder and later won a seat as mayor of Manila after his release, now losing to a television entertainer who was vice mayor and seeing his politician children lose as well. Another is former vice president Jejomar Binay, who lost a seat in congress. His family has held power in the financial district of Makati for decades.

The real tragedy stemming from the post-dictatorship years was allowing the flourishing of dynasties in many of the provinces, which at one point represented 70 percent of the seats in Congress. They had turned governance into family enterprises rather than duty to service in many cases, reinforcing a culture of patronage handed down from a colonial past, and stifling the growth of young potential leaders.

“Sure, there were failures from the past, and we need to understand how we got here,” said philosophy professor Remmon Barbaza. “But analyses alone don’t bring down dictators and jail plunderers. All academics and commentators have done is to interpret what happened. The point, however, is to get rid of dictators, mass murderers, plunderers, and all manners of crooks and clowns. There is work to be done, and we will do it.”

In the southern city of Davao, all three of Duterte’s children have won elective posts, especially his only daughter Sara who was re-elected mayor. She is following in her father’s footsteps, creating a political fiefdom that, like others, could last for as long as it might. She is being mentioned as a possible successor when the president ends his term after six years in office – unless, as is feared, he amends the constitution to do away with term limits.