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From the Philippines: Elections Changed, Politics Didn’t

May 19, 2010

On Tuesday, May 18, the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) proclaimed the last three (of 12) nationwide winning candidates for Senate. Doing so just eight days after polls closed for the May 10 election is in astonishing contrast to previous elections, which have taken closer to eight weeks to proclaim the last winning candidate.

Philippine Elections

Lines form at a local precinct for the first automated elections in the Philippines.

As I noted in last week’s In Asia post, the speed of results that emerged in the nation’s first automated election stunned the Philippines. A large number of races were decided extremely quickly, and the vast majority of the 17,000 electoral positions at stake have now been decided. Many candidates conceded defeat as the results became clear, including Senator Manny Villar who lost in the presidential race to Senator Noynoy Aquino, although the losing candidate running for mayor of Manila claimed to have been the victim of “hocus-PCOS” (a reference to the Precinct Count Optical Scan machines used during the election).

The automated elections did not come off flawlessly, and, after a week, the percentage of precincts reporting remained at roughly 90 percent. This means that the contest for the separately-elected vice president, which is a close race between Mar Roxas, Mr. Aquino’s running mate and Makati Mayor, Jejomar Binay, remains undecided. Still, the swift completion of so much of the process means that this election has truly changed some things in the Philippines. Even the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), consistently skeptical during the run-up to the election, concluded, “In sum, the country has had successful elections.”

On the other hand, much of Philippines politics has remained the same. A first hint of continuities can be gleaned from the senatorial results – of the 12 winners, 10 are former senators, and two are children of senators – including Bongbong Marcos, the son of the late president and former senator, Ferdinand Marcos.

The much-remarked-upon return to prominence of the Marcos family (Imelda Marcos, Ferdinand’s widow, won a congressional seat, while her daughter Imee won a governorship – both in Marcos’ home province of Ilocos Norte in the north) is but one example of the enduring reality of what historian Alfred W. McCoy aptly calls “An Anarchy of Families” – where instead of political parties we see political families, with the family name being the focus of loyalty.

All across the Philippines family dynamics played out, just as they did in Ilocos Norte. On the southern Zamboanga peninsula, Zamboanga Norte provincial kingpin (and convicted rapist) Romeo Jalosjos, Sr. extended his influence into the neighboring province of Zamboanga Sibugay as his sons won against Rep. Ann Hofer (for governor) and George Hofer II (for representative). Zamboanga Sibugay founding governor, former Rep. George Hofer, Sr., also lost to a Jalosjos ally to become mayor of the capital town of Ipil – completing the rout of one clan by another. In the central Philippines, the Garcia clan remains ensconced with patriarch Rep. Pablo “Pabling” Garcia winning one congressional seat, while his son Pablo John won another, his daughter Gwen won as governor, and his son Nelson as mayor of Dumanjug. His grandson-in-law Duke Frasco (married to Gwen’s daughter) won again as mayor of Lilo-an.

Given the intense localism demonstrated here, considerable doubt remains about how these separate races will aggregate up to national politics. In the House of Representatives, the speakership race is shaping up to be outgoing Quezon City Mayor Belmonte representing Noynoy Aquino’s Liberal Party versus outgoing President Arroyo of the current ruling party (which has the largest bloc at the moment, with 107 of the 265 seats in the Congress). Historically, however, members of the House of Representatives defect to join the winning party; even the Garcia clan, erstwhile Arroyo allies, are refusing to commit to supporting her candidacy for Speaker. So an Arroyo Speakership would be flying in the face of history.

A local race with genuine national implications was in Maguindanao province, scene of the horrific massacre of journalists and supporters of Datu Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu last November as they were attempting to file papers for Mangudadatu’s candidacy for governor. Toto Mangudadatu went on to run, and won his race for governor, while the patriarch of the clan accused of the crime, Datu Andal Ampatuan, lost in his bid to be elected vice-governor to a scion of another political clan, Datu Ismael “Dustin” Mastura. However, the Ampatuan clan was not as decisively defeated as was the Hofer clan in Zamboanga Sibugay. Eight of the 12 clan members who are currently under detention for the crime won in their electoral bids, as did many other members of the clan.

It’s not just in Maguindanao that forces of change seem to have made little headway. Two provincial governors in Luzon, Ed Panlilio of Pampanga and Grace Padaca of Isabela, both Liberal Party members, lost their bids for re-election. Many advocacy groups had touted them as examples of new leadership in good governance, and are dismayed at their loss. In fact, Panlilio’s 2007 victory was only secured because two other political families divided the vote between Mark Lapid (son of Senator Lapid, an action movie star) and Lilia Pineda. This time only one candidate faced Panlilio, and Lilia Pineda won handily with 66 percent of the vote. Padaca’s loss to Rep. Faustino Dy, III (of the province’s strongest political clan) was narrower – and attributed to her drive against illegal logging. In the nine municipalities where she had tried to preserve mountain forests, the unpopularity of this environmental protection among small loggers meant that she lost their votes, and the provincial election.

Thus, as the euphoria over fast results, candidate concession speeches, and the resulting diminution of electoral uncertainty begins to fade, the Philippines continues to face its litany of developmental challenges, hindered with much the same political system it has known all too well for so long.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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