Photo of the Philippine Senate Mace, ABS-CBN News; Senate Session Hall by Skylab iss via Wikipedia
Culture Spotlight

Will election results uphold the Senate’s relevance—or signal its end?

Historically speaking—and not counting particularly woeful presidential approval ratings—many senators owe their seats by riding on the administration ticket. But this year’s elections is proving to be curious and potentially ironic; if the majority slate will have their way, it might mean the end of the upper chamber altogether.
Felipe F. Salvosa II | May 13 2019

The stakes are high—perhaps the highest since the restoration of Philippine democracy in 1986—as some 60 million Filipinos head to the polls to elect 12 senators and a new set of local officials today.

 

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The odds are also high in favor of the pro-administration senatorial slate, which is leading the surveys. Filipino voters have also historically rewarded sitting presidents with big Senate majorities. A year after being swept to power by the 1986 EDSA People Power revolt, Corazon “Cory” Aquino weaved her magic to nearly sweep the 1987 elections that restored the Philippine Senate. Her Laban coalition won 22 out of 24 Senate seats up for grabs, routing the opposition Grand Alliance for Democracy that managed to squeeze in only two of its bets—action star and San Juan mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada and Cory’s ex-defense chief Juan Ponce Enrile.

The 1995 midterm elections saw the Lakas-Laban unity ticket of President Fidel Ramos and Sen. Edgardo Angara taking nine out of 12 seats; the Nationalist People’s Coalition of businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco won just three.

In 2001, the People Power Coalition of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had just been installed by EDSA People Power 2 uprising against Joseph Estrada, won eight seats versus four for Pwersa ng Masa, the opposition coalition composed of allies of the the deposed Estrada government. Arroyo’s “Team Unity” however lost badly to the “Genuine Opposition” in 2007, two to eight, with two independents. She had become so unpopular that the leader of the 2003 Oakwood mutiny against her, lieutenant senior grade Antonio Trillanes IV, won a Senate seat despite campaigning from jail.

The most recent midterm Senate polls in 2013 pitted the slate of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, branded “Team PNoy,” versus the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) of Vice President Jejomar Binay. Riding on Aquino’s popularity, Team PNoy grabbed nine seats while UNA won only three.

On Monday’s elections, 11 candidates of the pro-administration Hugpong ng Pagbabago have a statistical chance of delivering the Senate to the wildly popular President Rodrigo Duterte, according to the final Pulse Asia survey.

With administration bets also poised to keep control of the House of Representatives, Duterte will have free rein to implement radical changes to government and society. Duterte and his allies have long been eyeing the passage of major and potentially divisive legislation, among them same-sex marriage, divorce, and death penalty for heinous crimes.

The Senate, composed of two dozen potential presidential contenders prone to political maneuvering and compromises, is more infamous for doing the sitting president’s bidding than for asserting its independence and power to check the Executive Branch.

Historians hark back to September 16, 1991, when the Senate, led by Jovito Salonga, voted 12-11 to reject an extension of the treaty allowing the continued presence of American bases in the country, despite massive lobbying by the Cory Aquino government. “I love my country more than I love my president,” the foreign press quoted Sen. Agapito “Butz” Aquino, the president’s brother in law, as saying. Salonga himself owed his Senate seat to Cory’s vaunted magic in the 1987 polls, but felt the heavy weight of history. The date of the historic treaty vote is regarded by nationalists as the true date of Philippine independence.

The design of the four-tower new Senate building in Taguig City, which broke ground last March. Photo from the Philippine Senate's official Twitter account

Cha-cha, federalism

Moreover, the next Senate will have to confront an issue it had tried very hard to put off—the proposal to overhaul the 1987 Constitution to change the system of government and perhaps institute other reforms, such as lifting ownership restrictions to draw more foreign investments.

Duterte and his allies want to fulfill their 2016 election promise to shift to a federal form of government and disperse power and resources from Metro Manila to the regions. A consultative committee appointed by Malacañan Palace to draft a new charter, and Duterte’s House allies, offer conflicting proposals, however. The Palace-backed committee wants to carve 18 federal states out of the map, modify term limits, and implement a strict ban on political dynasties.

Resolution of Both Houses No. 15, drafted under the now Speaker Gloria Arroyo, wants no term limits and no ban on dynasties. It would have removed any transition role for the vice presidency, currently occupied by the titular head of the opposition, Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, if not for the public outcry that ensued.

Duterte will have to deal with opposition to federalism from within. His economic managers, led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, have raised serious questions on the budget implications of shifting to a new form of government, and doubt the cost floated about by proponents in the media: P13 billion. The federalism plans are long on grandiose government redesign, but short on the more crucial question of how the federal and state governments will finance themselves.

If some Palace allies had their way, the Senate would also be abolished, arguing that a unicameral, instead of bicameral, legislature would speed up the passage of laws and ensure that “reforms” would be in place before Duterte steps down in 2022.

There are plenty of successful examples of one-chamber parliaments—neighboring autocratic states Malaysia and Singapore come to mind—but what is unclear is how such drastic change will sit with Filipino voters who have long placed the Senate of the Philippines on a pedestal. Among the institutions of government, the Senate has consistently enjoyed the highest public approval; the latest SWS poll gave it a satisfaction rating of 72 percent, at least 10 points ahead of the House, the Supreme Court, and the Duterte Cabinet.

The Senate is determined to survive the charter change drive however. In March, senators broke ground on the site of their future, and futuristic, headquarters at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig. It will cost taxpayers more than P8 billion and open, a year before Duterte’s term ends, as the new “illustrious home for true servants of the people,” according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III.

Depending on the outcome of Monday’s vote, the new Senate headquarters will either become a concrete symbol of the survival and independence of a revered institution of democracy, or of political subservience and worse, irrelevance.