FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 1, 2019 - 12:00am

Welcome to 2019.

It will help to remember that this is an election year. Therefore, the figures inhabiting the political stage will be expected to behave a little differently.

As soon as the haze of the holidays clears, we will be treated forthwith with a lot of politicking. Every policy issue, every utterance and every official gesture will be run through the prism of partisan interest.

Through the length of December, we saw a spate of murders that seem to be politically motivated. That could be a foretaste of more to come. Our local politics tends to be contested with much passion – and with much force.

Without a well-organized dominant party, local political players are pretty much on their own. They will have to contend with an unfamiliar condition where national leaders are well removed from the political factions seeking control of localities. This creates a propensity for election-related violence.

We will rely on our security forces to maintain order in localities prone to violent electoral contests. We hope they play their role effectively and mitigate casualties.

President Rodrigo Duterte is, at the risk of understating it, an unconventional national leader.

Unlike his predecessors, he has not bothered to set up a nationwide electoral infrastructure to ensure his continued hegemony and secure his legacy. That disposition seems to be encouraged by the weakness of what might pass off as the conventional opposition. His sustained popularity ratings encourage him to be politically aloof, refusing the chore of picking one local faction over the other.

The President appears confident that whoever wins in the local factional contests will end up in his political fold anyway. There may be no dominant party, but there is an overwhelmingly dominant political personality.

There is nothing on the horizon that threatens Duterte’s dominant place in Filipino politics. This is the reason anti-Duterte forces are looking to natural causes to alter the logic of political outcomes.

Even if health issues or the normal course of aging may keep Duterte less that totally active in political affairs, he will continue to rule ex cathedra. His immense capacity to speak bluntly and troll mercilessly is his most potent political weapon. As long as his mouth is active, his political will prevails.

Notice how, unrehearsed, he declared the time has come to abrogate the Road Board because it is infested with corruption. Both chambers of Congress scrambled through the holidays to produce the law that will put that into effect.

There is one advantage the President stands to gain from standing above the factional fray. He will not incur political debts.  He could freely move on to the second half of his term unhampered by any sense he owes anyone any favor.

Recall Duterte was an outsider barging into the 2016 presidential contest and overwhelming all his rivals. He blindsided the oligarchy. As President, he refused to play by their rules. He exercised the powers of his office imperiously.

With even less political baggage, expect him to be even more imperious in the latter half of his term. He is not out to make friends. He is out to bring about the change he promised his voters.


This is the first time in our political history that the supposedly dominant political party will not be fielding a senatorial slate.

The President simply does not care. His interest in the senatorial election appears limited to helping his two protégés – Bong Go and Bato de la Rosa – win seats in the upper chamber. Beyond that, he will lose allies and gain nothing by picking out 12 administration candidates.

The President’s daughter appears more adept at building alliances on the strength of local political lords. She has been moving around the country forging alliances between a “regional party” Hugpong sa Pagbabago and local leaders.

Sara Duterte completely understands the principle that all politics is local. The standing national parties have proven themselves a farce. Because of the alliances she has forged, she now has the only truly organized force prepared to dominate the 2022 contest.

Like her father, Sara seems to recognize the uselessness of having a single pro-administration senatorial slate. Senatorial aspirants, after all, wander off as political independents as soon as they win seats in the upper chamber.

To date, Hugpong is reported to have endorsed the candidacies of 14 aspirants. Voters will select only 12. Some might see this as carelessness; others as politically smart. She loses no friends by endorsing all who come and offer alliances.

Those who see themselves as the “opposition” will not be contending with a definable political party. They will be contending with a single dominant political personality. The most recent surveys showing strong support for the President does not make the opposition’s prospects very bright.

The opposition will be caught wrong-footed if they insist the midterm elections should be a referendum on the President’s performance. Seventy percent of respondents approved of the way Duterte is doing his job. That is the referendum.

The forthcoming election leaves each candidate to his own devices. We have overtly become the party-less electoral democracy we have always been in fact.

The opposition hopes against the fact that Duterte’s mouth will finally do him in. That has not happened yet.

Before the 2016 elections everybody thought Duterte was finished when he cursed the Pope. He won overwhelmingly.

Now he is on a verbal rampage against the Catholic establishment. No previous political personality ever challenged the presumed power of the clergy. But the unconventional has now become the norm.

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