Aquino secures second-wind mandate
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Recently concluded by-elections in the Philippines were viewed before the vote as a de facto referendum on President Benigno Aquino's three-year-old reform agenda. If preliminary results of the May 13 polls are indicative of popular perceptions, his administration has received a ringing endorsement to stay its current course.
An estimated 70% of registered voters turned out for the election of about 18,000 officials, including 12 members of the upper house (senate) and more than 250 members of the lower house (congress). Based on projected results and initial figures released
by the Commission on Elections, the administration handily outperformed the opposition.
The administration's senatorial candidates are expected to win nine out of 12 seats up for grabs, giving Aquino control of the 24-seat senate. Aquino's congressional allies are also set to retain their dominance in the lower house. With that tighter grip, the administration will have sufficient representation within the legislature to sustain the momentum behind its wide-sweeping reforms.
"It seems clear that our countrymen have spoken overwhelmingly to confirm and expand the mandate for reform and change that they first granted in 2010 to President Aquino," presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda triumphantly told the local media. "The victory of [President Aquino's candidates] is a renewed mandate for a [straight path] and a vote of confidence for good governance, the continuity of reforms, and a brighter future to come."
The 53-year-old Aquino, who recently joined the ranks of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, is enjoying public satisfaction rates hovering around 70%, according to recent surveys. Yet he still needed a solid electoral showing to overcome the challenge posed by an increasingly energized opposition, led by Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is expected to contest the 2016 presidential elections. Aquino is constitutionally limited to one six-year term.
To the surprise of many observers, Aquino has been able to rally legislative support for various crucial, but controversial, measures, including last December's narrow passage of the Reproductive Health (RH) and Sin Tax bills. Both bills faced strong opposition respectively from the powerful Catholic church and big business. The actual implementation of those new laws is expected to receive a boost with Aquino's renewed electoral mandate.
It could also push the passage of the long sought Freedom of Information Act (FOI), which proponents claim will bring the country closer to international standards in transparency and accountability. The president also needs support in the legislature and especially among local government officials to expand and successfully launch various large infrastructure projects.
Those projects will be crucial to attracting the new foreign direct investment needed to buoy and sustain the current economic boom. The economy is expected to grow around 6% this year, making the Philippines one of the world's few economic bright spots. Aquino's shored up mandate will also likely let him keep in place various new poverty alleviation schemes, despite them coming under fire by opposition leaders as corrupt and inefficient.
In a sign of the opposition's resilience, administration candidates were routed in certain key provinces, including Cavite, Pampanga, and Pangasinan in the industrialized northern island of Luzon. Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, despite being under hospital arrest and unable to campaign, won her re-election bid to congress, defeating the administration candidate comfortably.
Nonetheless, the administration appears to have gained enough popular steam to push through various national-level measures aimed at sustaining fast economic growth, deepening good governance initiatives, and setting the stage for a favored candidate, most likely Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas, to contest the 2016 presidential elections on the wave of Aquino's reform agenda.
Despite the apparent popular desire for political change, many election observers were disappointed by the continued electoral success of political family dynasties, which by some estimates now collectively control 73 out of 80 national provinces. These powerful clans have decided the destiny of the Philippines over the past century and often given precedence to family over national interests.
While some believe their electoral success is at odds with Aquino's reform message, the president himself hails from one of the country's most prominent and powerful political clans. Based on various projections, as much as 70% of congress now hails from prominent political families. The senate's figure is projected to climb to 80% with the recent polls.
Vice President Binay's daughter, Nancy Binay-Angeles, was among the big winners at the elections, a reflection of her father's fast ascent in recent opinion surveys. She won despite criticism of her lack of political experience, unwillingness to engage in public debates and policy discussions, and other broad concerns about her qualifications.
Another big winner was Aquino's cousin, Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aguirre Aquino, who will be among the youngest senators in the country's history - he turned 36 this month - despite similarly lacking any major experience in holding political office. Winning an unopposed re-election bid in the southern Philippine province of Sarangani, boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao (during his professional career, a holder of 10 world titles across four different weight classes), is set to join the ranks of established political dynasties with his wife, Jinkee, who was voted in as new vice governor of the impoverished province.
The polls were also about forgiveness and forgetfulness. Former president Joseph Estrada, previously ousted from power and convicted on economic plunder charges, won a star-studded mayoral election in Manila, unseating the incumbent Alfredo Lim. Two of Estrada's sons, Jingoy and JV, are set to join each other in the senate with the latter's projected election win.
The clan of deceased former dictator Ferdinand Marcos has made steady electoral inroads in recent years, and this week's elections seems to have cemented their re-emergence as a major force on the political scene. Ferdinand Marcos' 83-year-old wife, Imelda, comfortably won her congressional re-election bid, while a relative, Angelo Barba, ran an unopposed campaign as the vice governor of Ilocos Norte to serve as the deputy of Ferdinand's incumbent daughter, Imee.
The bigger drama surrounds Ferdinand Marcos' son, Bongbong, who holds a senate seat and is expected to contest the 2016 presidential election. The Imelda, Imee, and Bongbong trio have been a major force behind a controversial revisionist trend in Philippine historiography, whereby Marcos's authoritarian rule is recast as an era of prosperity and stability rather than corruption and oppression.
Beyond the return of controversial political clans and the deepened influence of political dynasties, analysts also weighed the role of election-related violence. According to Filipino officials, at least 46 individuals were killed during the campaign season, with the number of violent incidents reaching 72. That, however, was considerably lower than the 176 incidents tallied in 2010 and 229 recorded in 2007.
Critics also highlighted vote-buying and other election irregularities to take the luster off the administration's resounding win. The government has downplayed such concerns, arguing that a new automated election system has made tallying poll results faster and more reliable.
Out of 78,000 Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, only 200 encountered technical glitches on election day, election officials said, citing a weak wireless Internet signal. That smooth process, administration supporters claim, underscored the legitimacy of Aquino's rule and mandate.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's (ADMU) Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2014. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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