Philippines: Take a handful of political dynasties and stir in plenty of celebrities, political chameleons and anti-heroes. Sprinkle with firearms, then garnish with rallies more about entertainment than policies and serve it hot.
The recipe for Philippine politics is always a volatile, violent brew, with two “people power” revolts since 1986 fostering a sense of instability and coup attempts separated only by constant coup rumors.
Midterm elections that are round the corner are being touted as a referendum on President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s governance and could lead to her last three years in office getting cut short by the opposition, with help from fringe parties.
Filipinos will elect 12 out of 24 senators, all 236 House of Representatives members and nearly 17,500 governors, mayors and other local officials.
But real issues often take a back seat to personalities in the Philippines, in the tradition of Oscar Wilde’s line: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
A former military officer, charged in a coup attempt, is running for Senate from jail while on trial, as is another officer linked with several takeover plots who is out on bail. The election system guarantees 20% of the House seats to underrepresented sectors such as farmers, fishermen and laborers. So a retired general, accused of instigating extrajudicial killings could end up rubbing shoulders with left-wing lawmakers who have burned his effigy in the streets.
Besides those trading on controversy, others are trading on stardom. Boxer Manny Pacquiao, whose string of victories has made him a national icon, is cashing in with tons of commercials and a run for a House seat. One party list group is composed of basketball stars and other athletes. Movie stars dot the ballots, too.
Vehicles covered with campaign stickers cruise down the streets, blaring candidates’ theme songs over tinny speakers. The rallies themselves are often pure Hollywood, with singers, actors and scantily clad dancers offering free food and drinks to draw in the poor.
“Many of the candidates are forcing the electorate to make a decision on the basis of qualifications like popularity, dynasties, whether you’re pro-Gloria or not, not on the basis of platforms or programmes,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the independent Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “In midterm local elections those tendencies are strong. It’s personality versus personality.”
A shift in the balance of power could lead to endorsement of another attempt, which would send the case to the opposition-dominated Senate for trial. Even if the opposition can’t take control of the House, any gains would likely embolden the coup plotters who always are looking for any opportunity to try to grab power.
“Money and personalities, instead of issues and principles, will still prevail,” said Ateneo University’s John H. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.
Prolonging the drama, counting will be done by hand after a deal to automate the process was struck down by the Supreme Court. It likely will take more than a month to get final results.