Weekly Insights and Analysis

Philippines in 2016: Looking in a Glass Darkly

January 6, 2016

By Steven Rood

After a period of relative stability (at least by Philippine standards), 2016 is extremely hard to assess. Turns out, as Yogi Berra famously said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

To begin with, the run-up to the May 2016 general elections is in full-swing even though the formal campaign period only begins in early February. The Philippines has a very president-centric system: the president appoints a very large number of positions in the executive branch, and members of the House of Representatives invariably switch to the president’s party (no matter what party affiliation they had when elected), giving him or her control. At the moment, the race for president is essentially a four-way heat.


Neophyte Senator Grace Poe, first elected in 2013, is the adopted daughter of unsuccessful 2004 presidential candidate and “King of Philippine movies,” Fernando Poe, Jr. Vice President Jejomar Binay, elected in 2010, has been battered by corruption allegations arising from his 20+ years as mayor of Makati, the financial hub of the Philippines. Former Senator Mar Roxas lost the vice presidential race in 2010 to Binay, served in two cabinet positions under President Aquino, and Aquino’s choice as successor. Late entrant Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City (the country’s third largest, in Mindanao) revels in his role as a tough-talking “Dirty Harry” crime-fighter. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who ran unsuccessfully for President in 1992, fares well with campus audiences but is at single digits in nationwide polls.

Based on the polling, any one of the four still has a shot at winning – the campaign has yet to formally start – but already there is tension as Senator Poe has been disqualified on citizenship issues by the Commission on Elections. She obtained a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court, which has scheduled a hearing for January 19 – just when the ballots are supposed to be printed! So, even the uncertainty has uncertainty.

Luckily, some things are more predictable for 2016. For instance, the economy looks to improve this year, even beyond the current robust growth that has been enjoyed during the Aquino administration. The Philippine economy is consumption-driven, and each election year spending increases because of all the campaign hoopla – advertising, paraphernalia including t-shirts, travel, paid staff, and (it must be said) direct payments to voters.

Another certainty is that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will issue a ruling on the South China (West Philippine) Sea case brought by the Philippines, having decided that the court does indeed have jurisdiction, despite China’s refusal to take part in the proceedings. The Philippines asserts: “China’s claims to sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and to ‘historic rights’, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ are contrary to the convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under UNCLOS.”

In general, the current administration has taken a vigorous position vis-à-vis China, allying with Japan and the U.S. to build a “minimal credible defense.” Even so, in December 2015 the Philippines signed up for China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which demonstrates the importance of China in the economic life of the region – and we can predict other efforts to try to warm relations with China. In presidential politics, Vice President Binay in particular has indicated that he thinks the Philippines should be more willing to do business with China, including joint development of resources in the West Philippine (South China) Sea.

Somewhat more imponderable is the outcome of the peace process with Muslim separatist organizations. It had been envisioned that a new law for an autonomous region, to be called “Bangsamoro” (“Moro” being the label used by Spain for Philippine Muslims) would be in force by the end of President Aquino’s term, but this is not to be. The bill is still being considered by Congress, and even the most optimistic scenario has the next president appointing the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (to prepare for regular elections in that region). It is a safe prediction that the next president will have less enthusiasm for and willingness to spend political capital in the peace process. Aquino’s anointed candidate, Mar Roxas, was in 2008 a vocal opponent of the earlier Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. Mayor Duterte is in favor of peace processes, but has expressed that a shift to federalism is a better solution than a single autonomous region in the south. Vice President Binay has criticized the fact that negotiations were with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front without the formal participation of the Moro National Liberation Front, particularly MNLF founding chair Nur Misuari (with whom Binay has good relations). Senator Poe chaired a committee that issued a strong criticism of the MILF and the administration over the Mamasapano tragedy – but she has said that she’d like to continue the good relations her father had with the Muslim community.

Swinging back to elections, in Congress we can predict that the incoming president will have a majority in the lower house by the time it convenes, no matter what the party configuration is on election day. The Senate is a different matter entirely – since senators are elected nationwide they have less need of presidential patronage, and are more ambitions for higher office (five of the six candidates for vice president are senators – so a sure-fire prediction is that the incoming vice president will come from the Senate!)

Actually, of the 12 senators elected in May, the majority will be incumbent or former senators. Only three outsiders seem to have a chance: recently-resigned Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, former Congresswomen Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel (who came close to the “Magic 12” in 2010 and 2013), and boxing great Congressman Manny Pacquiao (who is almost a shoo-in).

Yes, Manny Pacquiao has another boxing match scheduled for April 2016. It may be his last fight, though, once he is elected Senator (after he wins the boxing match). And it might be a good idea to leave off boxing, since as a member of the House of Representatives he was present on the floor only seven of the 70 days in 2015. An improvement in attendance seems to be in the cards.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets as @StevenRoodPH, and he can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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