By Andreo Calonzo
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ability to deliver on his promise of spreading wealth and upgrading the nation’s rickety infrastructure depends on how firmly his allies take control of the Senate after the May 2019 vote.
There are currently 17 senators who are mostly supportive of Duterte’s agenda, but nine will see their terms lapse next year. The President’s allies need to win at least five of the 12 seats up for grabs in the midterm elections to maintain a majority.
In an unprecedented move, the 73-year-old leader accompanied his longtime aide Christopher “Bong” Go on Monday to formalize his bid for one of those seats. The five-day filing for the midterm polls ended on Wednesday but substitution, which is how Duterte entered the 2016 presidential race, is allowed until Nov. 29.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte’s popularity will benefit the candidates he supports. Other allies including former police chief General “Bato” dela Rosa, the daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Imee Marcos, and the head of his PDP-Laban political party Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel are also seeking Senate seats.
While Duterte still has the support of the majority of Filipinos, his popularity has waned in recent months, hurt by a public uproar on the fastest inflation in almost a decade. The 2019 elections will test whether Duterte’s popularity is intact and can sufficiently sway votes, according to Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director with Teneo Strategy.
Pulse Asia Research Inc.’s poll released on Sept. 25 showed a 13 percentage-point drop in Duterte’s approval rating to 75 percent.
Most senators identify themselves as allies of Duterte’s party but that’s not enough for the chamber to pass his bill on a U.S.-style federal structure for the country or the succeeding rounds of tax reform to help fund a $167 billion infrastructure plan – both of which were endorsed by the House of Representatives. All legislation needs the approval of both chambers and the chief executive.
“The upper house is able to determine the pace and shape of key policies, particularly tax reform and the federalism charter, and a victory for Duterte allies would certainly ease the path forward for these proposals,” said Eufracia Taylor, senior Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Some 18,000 national and local posts, including half the 24 Senate seats and all 297 House of Representatives slots, are up for grabs next year. Only the senators are voted nationally.
The opposition Liberal Party is also determined to challenge Duterte’s senatorial candidates, although its hopefuls are trailing in popularity surveys. Its line-up is led by former Senator Mar Roxas, who Duterte defeated in the 2016 presidential race.
“If the elections show that Duterte’s endorsement support is not that strong, then we might see Congress tempering support for him,” Teneo’s Herrera-Lim said.
© 2018 Bloomberg L.P