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Views from afar

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 25, 2021 - 12:00am

A year away from crucial elections in the Philippines, two especially well-informed experts offered their initial views on the politics that shape the lives of the more than 100 million people who live there.

Sheila Coronel and Patricio Abinales both live overseas, as do I, so I may appreciate their perspective, from a distance, more than people who actually live in the Philippines. Up close, the color and noise of campaign competition can obscure the big picture. Events that happen in the course of the lead-up to campaign may take on a disproportionate importance; voters may make their choices based on the moment rather than the times.

Coronel and Abinales were speaking at a webinar organized by the Southeast Asia Forum and the Philippines Roundtable at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. Introducing the event, the chair, William Wise, spoke to the fact that it was taking place outside the place we were talking about thus: “We understand that presidential elections in the Philippines and elsewhere are about power: who gets it and how the winners use it to reward family clan, clique, region and domestic political allies and to punish political opponents. We know we must take care not to project onto the Philippines what we know about politics and elections in other countries.”

At this very early stage in the electoral process, the discussion was only meant to be a survey of the political landscape in the Philippines, but the questions raised were still big and important. What will be President Duterte’s legacy, and is it transferable? What’s on the minds of Philippine voters a year ahead of the election? What is motivating partisans of all stripes? And is the 2022 presidential election in the Philippines likely to have consequences beyond the narrow interests of the candidates and their followers?

For our academic and research community, this is a core question: Does the state of politics and the 2022 presidential election really matter? For example, how might the 2022 presidential election affect the development of the Philippine state of society or the economy? Will it have an impact on the nation’s security? What might the consequences for the region including Asian, Japan and Japan and China be? Will there be implications for US-Philippine relations?

Up first was Professor Patricio Abinales, from Osamis originally, he now teaches in the Asian Studies program at the University of Hawaii. His expertise encompasses lived experience in Mindanao as well as academic rigor. Co-written with Donna Amoroso, their book “State and Society in the Philippines” draws the line between how politics is experienced in the series of moments that we all read in the news and some witness as journalists, and how political scientists and historians might consider the incremental significance of these moments in building (or collapsing) institutions and movements around us. Broadly speaking, he considers deeply where power lies and why and includes how informal and illegal activities and groups interplay with formal institutions, including warlords and drug lords.

Abinales predicts the next president will probably be still a local strongman or strongwoman with the potential to match President Duterte’s popularity. Second, money politics will rule. “In fact, it’s much more expensive to run campaigns,” he said. “Family alliances are crucial in bringing in the votes, but the most critical region in terms of really changing and deciding the game is Muslim Mindanao.”

Thirdly, he says the so-called (my adjective) drug war may be an issue, but it is a variation. It depends on where it is. In regions where there is less killing, Abinales thinks how local elites deliver health services may be an important factor in the wake of the pandemic. His view being that it changes the way elites relate to people.

Economic growth will continue to be sustained. “Filipinos will still emigrate, leave the country and in greater numbers,” according to Abinales. “BPO and call centers will also grow and this is where much of the employment will come from and that has political implications.”

On security, Abinales’ point of view is that China is not a security issue and that Chinese Filipinos and the Philippine government are working together well. The threat is internal, from the Communist Party of the Philippines, even if it is in the doldrums at the moment. Meanwhile, “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the South is a strange animal,” he says, “because it overlaps with the illicit sector and clan power.”

“The 2022 elections will be a moment of reckoning for democracy in the Philippines,” said Sheila Coronel, professor of professional practice in investigative journalism at Columbia University in New York.

“Since 2016, we’ve seen the erosion of our freedoms, the anti-terror law is only the latest in a series of attempts to really clamp down on civil liberties, on the media and on civil society. We’ve also seen how the courts have been weaponized to neutralize any opposition to the government. We’ve also seen the weakening and politicization of the institutions of accountability, the courts, the Office of the Ombudsman. Congress is no longer a check on executive power. There is no real opposition. The opposition is either out of office or in jail.”

The most worrying aspect for Coronel has been the empowerment of the police and the military because of the drug war and the current heightened campaign against the insurgency. For her, the last 5-6 years have been an autocratic breakthrough in the Philippines. The question for this election is how the balance of power will shift in the Senate and Congress, potentially consolidating the authoritarian power.

Moreover, Coronel thinks the opposition is weaker than it has been since 1986 and the playing field is really uneven. “Not only does the incumbent have three branches of government under its control,” she said, “it also has immense resources under its control. The weakness of the opposition is not just because of its showing in 2019, but because as of today it hasn’t been able to coalesce around a single candidate. It is losing precious time in terms of coming up with an alternative to the incumbent.”

Coronel compares the current situation with Marcos-era rule, insofar as a national network of surveillance at the barangay level is being used to surveil citizens, At first because of the so-called drug war, but now includes tagging insurgent dissidents, even community pantries. The barangay system has, in Coronel’s view, again become a weapon for state control as it was during the Marcos era.

Election integrity is likely to be a big issue. The independence of the Commission on Elections is really now very much in doubt. “The police and the military are very partisan, everybody fist bumps with Duterte,” notes Coronel. “There’s no more any illusion of non-partisanship on the institutions that are supposed to guard the integrity of the elections.”

ELECTION POLITICS
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