2013 midterm elections: Continuity and change

Posted at 05/16/2013 2:02 AM

While the canvassing has yet to conclude, a look at the partial and unofficial results of the 2013 midterm elections for the local, congressional and senatorial elections indicates that the biggest winners will be the political dynasties and their patronage-based coalitions.

In truth, the canvassing of votes, when finalized, will likely affirm the prowess and resilience of these dominant political families. This is not surprising and was, in fact, expected. For some observers, the final results will only affirm the paradoxical features of our democracy- weak electoral institutions and processes dominated by political clans and weak and unstable political parties. For them, the 2013 midterm elections was inconsequential as most Filipino voters viewed the elections as more about patronage and political machines, and less about empowerment. Indeed, for them, it was easy to dismiss the 2013 midterm elections, like other elections before it, as a predictable exercise in continuity.

I have no argument that clientelism and coercion (at least in some areas) are still mainstream and significant currents in Philippine elections and politics. While I also agree, that the “guns, goons, gold and glitter” view of mass mobilization has likely tarnished the results of the 2013 midterm election, I believe its dominance as an image (or explanation) of elections and politics in general is contested.

I also disagree that the just-concluded midterm elections was only about continuity. Indeed, a reflection on the local campaigns, the May 13 vote and its outcomes, points to palpable narratives of change.

While the canvassing is still ongoing and the proclamations as of this writing are yet to be formalized, there are already numerous upsets at the local level. From Camarines Sur to Cebu, from Naga to Olongapo, from Taguig to General Santos, significant electoral upsets were realized.

While all these cases merit a discussion, for brevity I will discuss very briefly two narratives of change that struck me as strong counter-arguments to mainstream and conventional views of Philippine elections.

The first is the case of Mrs. Leni Robredo running for the congressional seat in Naga City's 2nd district, in the province of Camarines Sur.

She ran and convincingly won the fight against a well-entrenched political dynasty, guided by a good governance platform and a cash strapped campaign machine peopled by young, idealistic and hard working volunteers mostly from civil society. Her electoral victory ended the 35 year reign of the Villafuertes in Naga City.

In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer after her historic win, Mrs. Lenny reflected: “In my view, it (victory) is a big message that the people rejected political dynasty. In the beginning, it was a very difficult fight because I am against a well-entrenched family who had been in power since 1978. I know many people have a debt of gratitude to them while the majority of barangay officials are with them. But the people have decided,”

The second case is of Mr. Rolen Paulino, who ran and convincingly won against Anne Marie Gordon for the post of mayor of Olongapo City. Paulino’s party, Sulong Zambales also ran with strong civil society support and a good governance platform and scored one of the biggest upsets in the 2013 midterm elections. His victory ended the quarter-century grip of the Gordon Political dynasty on Olongapo City politics.

In both cases, the candidates were non-traditional elites (professional, not landed or rich) contesting the dominant political clans in power. They both utilized a political platform that focused on the rejection of political clans and patronage politics and the promise of good governance. Both cases also utilized strong support from civil society.

I understand the dangers of over-reading the aforementioned, especially as there is a dearth of data and much research still needs to be done. Furthermore, I also realize that these cases are so few and on the fringe of the electoral discourse.

Finally, I also realize that I will be branded by some as a blind idealist for looking at the world this way.

Be that as it may, I cannot help but see these narratives of local politics as signals of some progress. In my view, both cases signal a larger triumph over “guns, goons, gold and glitter” which have been the long standing and contested image of Philippine elections. In my view, these are emerging narratives of empowerment, which over time and with significant institutional reform (electoral and political party), will become the mainstream view of elections and politics in the country.

While I still don’t have the data, my opinion is that the people of Naga and Olongapo cities, like many of our citizens, viewed the last election as a political opportunity to challenge and make dominant political dynasties accountable. It is also my opinion that the people of Naga and Olongapo, like many of our citizens, viewed voting, as act of citizenship and leadership. Lastly, I believe, that the people of Naga and Olongapo like the maturing electorate of this country, acknowledge that elections, despite its flaws and shortcomings, are still a viable and a legitimate tool for broadening and deepening democracy in our country.

(Ranjit Singh Rye is currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines in Diliman where he also obtained his MA in Public Administration at the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG). He is currently enrolled in the Doctoral program of the UP NCPAG.)