Election preview: Philippines

Philippine voters go to the polls on Monday to elect a successor to incumbent president Benigno Aquino III, in office since 2010 but constitutionally limited to a single six-year term.

There’s been plenty of discussion recently, and will no doubt be much more, on what a deeply unsatisfactory method the United States has developed for electing its president. But there’s food for thought in the fact that if it were to change, the US would be quite likely to adopt the system used in the Philippines – which in some respects is even worse.

There are five candidates for president, but one of them, Miriam Defensor Santiago, is consistently polling in the low single figures. The other four, however, all have comparable levels of support; some polls have had them all placed between 20% and 30% of the vote.

So, you might be thinking, this is another example of the foibles of two-round voting, and the key thing is not who leads on Monday but who makes it into the second round, and which of them will win the endorsement of the candidates that miss out.

But you’d be wrong. There is no second round, and of course no preferences. Just a single ballot with just a plurality required, even if – as seems quite likely – two-thirds of the electorate vote for someone else.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1986, no president has won more than 40% of the vote. One, Fidel Ramos in 1992, managed to win with just 23.6%. That’s no way to run a country.

For the last month or so the clear front-runner has been Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City, from the vaguely left-wing populist party PDP–Laban. That scares a lot of people, since Duterte’s “tough on crime” approach seems to extend to vigilante justice and targeted assassinations, and some have seen in him the precursors of a Philippine fascism.

His opponents are Grace Poe, an independent whose father was runner-up in the 2004 election; Mar Roxas, representing the Liberal Party of president Aquino; and incumbent vice-president Jejomar Binay, who led in early polls but is now running a poor fourth. Wikipedia, as usual, tracks the opinion polls.

Each presidential candidate has a running mate, but the vice-president is elected on a separate ballot so there is no guarantee that they will be from the same ticket. Indeed, on the majority of occasions they’re not, as last time, when Binay narrowly edged out Roxas.

This time, polls for vice-president put Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the late dictator, in a tight race with Liberal candidate Leni Robredo. Duterte’s running mate, Alan Peter Cayetano, is well back in the field.

But the thing about a first-past-the-post race like this is that voting intentions can shift very rapidly as people evaluate the opportunities for tactical voting. What you’ll tell a pollster, presumably, is which candidate you would most like to win. But if, by the time you get to the voting booth, you know your preferred choice isn’t going to make it, you’re quite likely to switch to whichever you prefer among the top two.

So while you’d have to bet on Duterte at this point, it’s by no means a done deal.

Voters will also elect a new House of Representatives and half the Senate. (Having been an American colony, the Philippines has a very American-style constitution.) Four-fifths of the House of Representatives comes from single-member first-past-the-post districts, while the remaining fifth is on a party list system weighted towards minor parties. There are 297 seats in total, with the government usually being able to put together a majority.

The Senate has the most undemocratic system of the lot, with twelve senators elected every three years for six year terms on a single, nationwide first-past-the-post block vote. So a plurality ticket with disciplined voters would win all the seats, even if it was well short of majority support.

In fact, because the Senate is so small, name recognition is high and personal votes are very important. The current administration currently enjoys a substantial majority, but it depends on a broad and rather unwieldy coalition.

The Philippines doesn’t get as much coverage in Australia as it probably deserves, but there’s a very good survey of the election by Ronald Holmes at Inside Story. The Manila Times is probably the best place to go for local news and commentary.


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