Allies of Rodrigo Duterte are likely to ride a wave of public support for the Philippine president, allowing them to take control of the Senate at next week’s midterm elections.
But this does not open a clear legislative path for the Duterte administration — the Senate will continue to maintain its reputation for independence from the executive branch, even if it is filled with the president’s supporters.
Polls point to the May 13 elections giving Mr Duterte’s supporters up to 15 of the 24 seats in the upper house, grouped under Hugpong ng Pagbabago, an alliance of seven political parties led by Mr Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte.
They could include Ronald Dela Rosa, a former police chief who is nicknamed “The Rock” and who led Mr Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. Polls also suggest Christopher “Bong” Go, a former aide of the president, will be elected. Both candidates have campaigned on their close ties to Mr Duterte, pledging to help push his platform for change once in office.
Half of the Senate’s 24 seats are among the roughly 18,000 local and national places that are up for grabs in the midterm elections. In the Senate race, where 62 candidates are running, local polling group Pulse Asia predicts up to 10 candidates from Hugpong ng Pagbabago will win six-year terms.
Once the dust settles, there could be just four opposition senators left in the chamber — renowned Duterte critic Leila de Lima has been imprisoned — suggesting that Mr Duterte’s grip on the government is only increasing midway through his term in office.
The president’s resilient popularity with voters is shown in an FT Confidential Research survey of 1,000 voting-age Filipinos, in which 53 per cent of respondents said they were inclined to elect senatorial candidates allied with Mr Duterte, compared with just 28.3 per cent who said they would vote for those opposed to him.
Elections in the Philippines tend to be personality driven. Our survey shows that Mr Duterte continues to enjoy strong public support, despite last year’s inflationary spike. With price pressures easing, 58 per cent of respondents said they approved of Mr Duterte’s performance, while only a quarter disapproved.
Voters brought Mr Duterte to office in 2016 on a promise of dismantling political and business oligarchies that he claimed stopped the poor from benefiting from government policy. This platform still appears to resonate, with our forward-looking political and economic indices for the Philippines at their strongest levels for the past three quarters.
Investors were comforted by pro-business changes seen in the first half of Mr Duterte’s six-year term, including reforms of the tax code and the liberalisation of rice imports, which belied the president’s populist rhetoric. Higher pension premiums for private-sector workers were also approved, despite a presidential campaign promise not to do so.
Business groups have already begun lobbying for post-election changes to corporate income-tax treatment and the
However, while Mr Duterte’s allies may take two-thirds of the Senate, this may not mean an easy legislative ride for the president in his final three years in office.
The Philippine Senate has a history of staking out its independence from the executive branch. In 2013, after rebel attacks killed hundreds, the Senate temporarily blocked a bill giving more autonomy to a Muslim area in the south of the country, even though this was a priority for then-president Benigno Aquino.
The opposition may worry about a Senate leaning heavily in Mr Duterte’s favour, but the next Congress’s likely senators have a record of restraining the president’s more contentious policies, such as the drugs war and his administration’s pivot to China. Last year’s tax law was watered down, and the 2019 budget delayed, following Senate opposition.
Cynthia Villar and Juan Edgardo Angara Jr are both campaigning for re-election and are allied to Mr Duterte, but both also oppose his planned changes to corporate tax benefits on concerns about their impact on investment and jobs. Mrs Villar and Mr Angara have also expressed reservations about the proposed shift to a federal system of government, which is the centrepiece policy of the Duterte administration.
Business groups have so far been relieved that at least some of Mr Duterte’s populist tendencies have been reined in, and that real legislative change has been achieved during his first three years in office. But they will need to count on an independent-minded Senate to push forward market-friendly reforms such as the sugar import reform, while acting as a brake on more sweeping changes, such as the push to a federal model of government.
“The Senate has a national constituency and has been a pillar of independence as an institution,” Rizalina Mantaring, president of the Management Association of the Philippines, told FT Confidential Research.
— Prinz Magtulis, Philippines Researcher, FT Confidential Research
FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and south-east Asia. Our team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from our proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.