The 2013 Philippine Midterm Elections: Turning a Democratic Corner

The Philippines’ recent political history has been one of clan violence, endemic corruption, and deep political rivalries that have led to turbulent and bloody elections. The last polls in 2010 were marred by killings, vote buying, and other abuses of power by politicians and their followers.

The same concerns exist as Filipinos prepare to head to the polls on May 13 for midterm elections. Ensuring cleaner and more peaceful elections is imperative if the Philippines is to consolidate a democracy that remains deeply flawed a quarter century after its birth. And the upcoming polls will prove doubly important for the impact they will have on the remaining term of reformist president Benigno Aquino.

The elections will seat 12 senators, 229 members of the House of Representatives, 80 governors, and roughly 15,000 local officials. As in the United States, the races for the Philippine Senate will be the bellwether for current political winds. Thirty-three candidates are contesting, dominated by the Liberal Party and the United Nationalist Alliance. The former, widely known as “Team PNoy,” is led by President Benigno Aquino, while the latter is associated with the parties of former president Joseph Estrada and current vice president Jejomar Binay.

A significant win for Team PNoy would strengthen the president’s hand as he enters the second half of his term, which ends in 2016. Philippine presidents are constitutionally limited to a single six-year term, so the long-term success of Aquino’s reforms rests with his ability to rally a large, sustainable political constituency around them.

Former presidents have seen their programs wither when they leave office, especially if the work is left undone. This is in no small part due to the highly personalistic nature of Philippine political parties, which rely more on strong leaders than strong platforms. But Aquino rode to office with an unprecedented mandate from the electorate, and that, combined with the popularity of his political and economic reforms and his clean reputation, could allow him to build the political capital necessary to see that his agenda is carried on once he leaves office.

The Philippines holds a notorious reputation for bloody and corrupt elections, despite having the legal framework for relatively free polls. Politicians are known to hire private militias to threaten their rivals and intimidate voters. The scale of electoral violence was made painfully clear by the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which 58 people including the family of gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudadatu were gunned down at the order of incumbent Andal Ampatuan Sr.

The government has enforced some initiatives to address election violence this time around. A ban on firearms was set in motion from January 13 to June 13 to address the rampant issue of gun violence during the campaign season. The ban prohibits the carrying of firearms in public places, the hiring of armed bodyguards by candidates, and the transporting of arms, explosives, raw materials, or parts.

The Commission on Elections, or COMELEC, has also bolstered enforcement at historically violent polls. It announced on April 2 that it will mobilize all 14 Army battalions in restive Mindanao, where the Maguindanao massacre occurred, and the rank and file of the provincial police command to ensure safe and fair elections. COMELEC, along with the Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Department of Interior and Local Government, also signed a compact with the government of Basilan Province, which saw violence and massive fraud during the 2010 elections, to ensure the upcoming polls are peaceful, free, and fair.

Stringent enforcement of these and other existing laws will prove key to implementing safer and fairer elections in the Philippines. There is already evidence that the May polls will be a significant improvement on past elections. There have been 45 election-related incidents of violence and 30 deaths so far this year, with just under a month to go to the polls. That is still too high, but compares very favorably with the more than 200 election-related cases of violence in 2010.

The Philippines has the framework and capacity needed to promote fair and peaceful elections. COMELEC and the administration of President Aquino are proving that they mean to put them to work to do exactly that. If they succeed, it will mark a critical step in the country’s progress from flawed to full democracy.

It will also ensure that tens of thousands of officials will enter office with greater legitimacy, trust, and political capital than their predecessors. How many of those election winners belong to Team PNoy could help determine whether Aquino’s extremely successful political and economic reform agenda continues apace and becomes a permanent feature of the political landscape, or proves to be an aberration before a return to politics as usual in 2016.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the April 18, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)

Gregory Poling is a research associate and Phoebe De Padua is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Phoebe De Padua