'Political calculations,' Duterte popularity seen to determine Senate independence

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 16 2019 12:59 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte raises the hands of PDP-Laban senatorial candidates (from left) Dong Mangudadatu, Ronald dela Rosa, Bong Go, Koko Pimentel, and Francis Tolentino during their mating de advance at the Philippine Sports Arena in Pasig City, May 11, 2019. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA - “Political calculations” and the President’s popularity will determine how independent senators of the incoming 18th Congress will be on crucial matters, analysts have said. 

This amid concerns over the upper chamber becoming a rubber stamp for President Rodrigo Duterte given the dominance of his allies in the midterm polls.

At least 9 of the 12 slots up for grabs in this year’s Senate race are expected to go to allies of the President and his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, providing the administration an avenue to consolidate its power and push for its legislative priorities with little to no hurdle.

Among those at stake is Duterte’s push for federalism, which could alter the country’s political landscape and test the loyalty of those who promised to support the President’s legislative agenda during the campaign.

The current Congress has failed to pass a measure which could usher in such a shift, as senators questioned whether the country is indeed ready to take in wide-ranging reforms.

University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay said the upcoming Senate composition is more likely to support the shift to federalism, but this would ultimately depend on the individual interests of senators come voting time.

“Because federalism entails undermining the present powers and status of the Senate as a co-equal branch in the legislature, then maybe the senators will act together [against it],” Arugay told ABS-CBN News Wednesday night. 

Arugay said senators might agree to shift to a federal form of government if they would be willing to give up their seats before Duterte steps down in 2022, three years before the respective terms of those elected in the recent midterm polls end.

“That can only change if their political calculations change, meaning their eyes are no longer on being a member of a 24-member body but being governor or a little president of a state or a region in the country,” he said.

The revival of the death penalty, another legislative priority of the administration, also has a better chance of hurdling Congress, Arugay said, with former police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa seen leading the push.

“Bato dela Rosa was quite clear about that policy. The hurdles are less. The only obstacle then about death penalty was the strong lobby of the Catholic Church and the religious. But even them did not really cause a dent in this elections,” Arugay said.

LOYALISTS, ALLIES

As results of the polls came in, some of those who won the race have already vowed to maintain the Senate’s independence.

Dela Rosa said he won’t be dictated to by Malacañang, while former presidential assistant Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go said he would put the interests of Filipinos above all else once he joins the Senate.

But Arugay said judging by how these two Duterte allies ran their campaign, they are likely to stick it out with the President until the end.

“They never distanced themselves from Duterte, so why would they behave any differently?” he said.

UP political science department head Ela Atienza, meanwhile, said the case is different for those elected senators whose bond with the President is not as strong as Dela Rosa’s and Go’s.

“Some of those who won are considered loyalists of the President. However, most of those who won are traditional and popular politicians who also are just allies of the President, not personally loyal to him,” Atienza told ABS-CBN News.

“Thus, people will be more watchful and can pressure the senators to be more independent. It is easier to put pressure on a nationally elected Senate with fewer numbers compared with the House of Representatives.”

The ever-volatile nature of Philippine politics also means some senators allied with the President may eventually take other sides if circumstances change, as seen in the past administrations, said University of Santo Tomas political science professor Edmund Tayao.

“All legislators, whether in the House or Senate, they tend to play with the popularity level of the president at any given time,” Tayao said.

But as long as Duterte remains popular, a Senate that is truly independent will be hard to achieve, said Socorro Reyes of the Center for Legislative Government.

“It is true that there will be some individual legislator who will disagree or oppose the President, but unless it’s organized, sustained, and systematic… that kind of opposition is likely to whittle down fast,” she said.

“A democracy without opposition is in serious trouble.”