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Aspiring for National Office in the Philippines: Don’t Start Local

April 4, 2012

By Steven Rood

Having discussed the reality of decentralized politics in the Philippines, and the fate of political families at the local level, the question might well be asked, “How is political power at the national level acquired?” Under the 1987 Constitution, presidents are elected for single, 6-year terms (with no re-election). Twenty-four senators, sitting in the upper house of a bicameral legislature, are elected nationally, with the top 12 winning each three years. They can be re-elected once (and in fact can return after sitting out at least one 3-year session). Unsurprisingly, senators (having won already at the national level) see themselves as natural candidates for president. Indeed, in 1998, 2004, and 2010 those elected had served as senators (Estrada, Arroyo, and Aquino, respectively – with Estrada and Arroyo being elected nationally as vice presidents before their presidencies).

District representatives in the lower house of Congress, along with mayors, governors, and local councilors, represent local geographies and are the basis for clans and political families. It is very difficult for these locally based politicos to move into national office. As the late Haydee Yorac, formerly of the Commission on Elections and herself an unsuccessful candidate for senator, once acerbically responded to complaints at how hard it was for little-known candidates to win national elections, “How do you expect to win a national election if you are not nationally known?”

The results are stark. As I noted in 2010, all 12 who were elected to the Senate were either former senators themselves, or the children of senators. For the upcoming 2013 elections, a recent Pulse Asia survey predicted “Children of political heavyweights … as the likely winners: Cagayan Rep. Juan Ponce “Jack” Enrile Jr. (son of current Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile), Representatives Ma. Lourdes Nancy Binay of Makati (daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay), and Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito of San Juan (son of former President Joseph Estrada), Senator Aquilino Pimentel III (son of former Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr.), and presidential sister and talk show host Kris Aquino.”

So, what possible connection might there be between local level politics and achieving national office?  One description comes from political scientist Paul Hutchcroft: the current national election “forces each candidate to cut his or her own deals (typically involving the delivery of pork in exchange for the delivery of votes) with local power holders throughout the archipelago.” This echoes descriptions of pre-martial law politics where pyramids of patron-client relations were built based on particularistic considerations.

However, in today’s media-saturated environment there is reason to doubt this retail, backroom model. For example, it seems that the 2010 Senatorial election campaign was over before it began. A Social Weather Station survey taken in early December 2009, before the start of the campaign period, correctly predicted all 12 of the winners. All the campaigning, advertising, and deal-making over the next five months seem only to have validated pre-existing levels of fame and approval when votes were cast in May 2010.

If you don’t come from a successful national clan (or have had a career on TV, in the movies, or as a sport star) how might one acquire fame and trust?  One method is to acquire show business credentials in other ways. Lawyer and Liberal Party stalwart Francis Pangilinan and economics expert Ralph Recto both married movie stars (Sharon Cuneta and Vilma Santos, respectively) while Jamby Madrigal was endorsed by one (Judy Ann Santos). Both Recto and Madrigal are grandchildren of senators – as is TV star Senator Tito Sotto – but ancestry needs celebrity these days. An attractive TV presence is very useful – the longest climb from the December 2009 SWS poll to the May 2010 results was achieved by former TV journalist Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel who climbed from 7 to 24 percent – just 3 percent behind 12th place

Other, less certain, routes are possible. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was catapulted into national fame as a crusading judge and later Commissioner on Immigration. Juan Flavier was an NGO worker in the health field of international stature who was appointed Health Secretary by President Ramos and parlayed his impish humor (poking fun at the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control) into a senate seat. Mar Roxas, grandson of a president (and unsuccessful candidate for vice president in 2010) was twice Secretary of Trade and Industry (under both Presidents Estrada and Arroyo) after having been a member of Congress. Richard Gordon, successful chair of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (after the U.S. bases were removed) became Tourism Secretary (and was chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, active in emergencies) before his election to the Senate in 2004 (and unsuccessful presidential bid in 2010). National office does not always produce the necessary result, with several successful cabinet secretaries being unsuccessful senatorial candidates (such as Department of Finance’s Roberto de Ocampo and Department of Education’s Ricardo Gloria in 1998).

What is strikingly absent from this list of ways to win national election is to “be a local government official.”  True, Joseph “Erap” Estrada had been mayor of San Juan municipality before being elected to the Senate in 1987, but his mayoralty and senatorship were both predicated on his movie stardom. (Similarly, Vilma Santos has been a successful mayor and governor as well as a movie star.)  Richard Gordon had been mayor of Olongapo City, but before his move into the cabinet and Senate played a somewhat larger role at SBMA. Manila Mayor Albert S. Lim was elected Senator in 2004, but this was after decades on the national scene (including a failed attempt at the presidency in 1998). The closest any local chief executive has come to directly entering the Senate is Bulacan Governor Roberto “Obet” Pagdanganan, who came in 13th in 1998 (despite the advantage of having been the president of the League of Provinces of the Philippines).

The one exception that might actually prove the rule is the rise of Jejomar Binay directly from being mayor of Makati City to election in 2010 as vice president (which makes him one of the front runners for election in 2016). This surprise victory (in late March he still trailed 3rd in the opinion polls) was described as one of the two very unlikely events of 2010 (the other being the elevation of President Noynoy Aquino in the wake of the death of his mother, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino). Notwithstanding his considerable charm and political skills, long-time mayor Binay was in an extremely unusual situation. Since Makati is the financial center of the country, he could use tax revenues to finance social services (such as health and education) for the poor – resulting in TV advertisements where ordinary people recounted what they had received, with the tagline:  “This is how it is here in Makati; hopefully it could be this way for the entire country.”  Secondly, Makati had established “sisterhood” relations with municipalities and cities all over the country, and was able to use city resources to help out during natural disasters and other emergencies. Third, a long series of anti-Arroyo demonstrations were held in Makati (a traditional site for anti-administration events going back to the days of President Marcos) during the nadir of her unpopularity toward the end of her term. Mayor Binay’s resistance to pressure to prevent the demonstrations afforded him valuable exposure in national media.

The campaign for the May 2013 mid-term election has already started. Jejomar Binay’s success, and prospects in 2016, undoubtedly are encouraging other local politicians to dream loftily of national office. But the cards are definitely stacked against them.

This is the eleventh posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Philippines, Washington DC
Related programs: Elections, Good Governance


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