Duterte magic to be tested in 2019 Senate race

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A newly released Pulse Asia survey on the 2019 senatorial race showed old names dominating the midterm elections, suggesting that the voters are not keen on changing the composition of the powerful legislative chamber. 

This is a challenge for President Rodrigo Duterte's political party, PDP-Laban, as it packs its senatorial slate with relatively unknown allies and neophyte candidates from among its own members. Next year's elections will test if Duterte's endorsement is the magic that can give his allies a fighting chance. 

"President Duterte's endorsement power will be tested," said Pulse Asia chief research fellow Ana Tabunda. 

What is on the line? He needs allies in the Senate to push for his legislative agenda in the remaining 3 years of his administration. (READ: PDP-Laban 2019 bets must be pro-federalism – Pimentel)

The powerful endorsement power of a sitting president was shown in 1987 – the first elections after a long period of Martial Law – when President Corazon Aquino's candidates practically swept the Senate race.

Lakas ng Bayan won 22 out of the total 24 seats, thus the term "Cory magic" or "kilikili (armpit) power" because it was believed that photos of her raising the hands of the candidates made them win. It explained the sharp rise of her candidates, many of them trailing behind in surveys, to win seats in the Senate.

History of midterm polls in the Philippines

Administration slates have generally won majority seats in midterm elections, except in the case of 2007 elections, when the slate of then unpopular President Gloria Arroyo won only 3 seats. 

But PDP-Laban is attempting to do what has not been done in midterm elections before, not even by Cory in 1987. There are moves within the party to complete a slate exclusively from its members. 

In a country where political parties are weak, slates are often made of rainbow coalitions of the most "winnable" candidates from different political parties. This was also the case for the opposition during the 2007 elections, when it walloped Arroyo's party.

Duterte's popularity failed to rub off on his partymates in the 2016 race, when he was himself busy campaigning. But PDP-Laban is poised to test the magic next year, when he can campaign for his candidates. Pimentel said the party will count on Duterte's endorsement power for their candidates to win.  

But 2019 is going to be a tight race.

Tight race in 2019: 7 slots open?

Nine out of the 12 names in the winning circle are reelectionists and returning senators, based on a Pulse Asia poll conducted from March 23 to 28. Only one of them – Pimentel – belongs to the administration Party PDP-Laban.

The opposition Liberal Party is not doing better. Reelectionist Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV is a cliff-hanger, ranking 10-19 in the Pulse survey. (READ: Liberal Party to form 'The Resistance' slate for 2019 elections)

Most LDP-Laban party members performed poorly in the polls. The 3 administration allies who have a winning shot – Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, media personality Erwin Tulfo, and former police chief Ronald Dela Rosa – are not even on the shortlist that Pimentel presented. (READ: Erwin Tulfo pulls a surprise; Sara Duterte, Dela Rosa join 'Magic 12' in survey)

The administration candidates have a lot of catching up to do. A year into the polls, Tabunda said the candidates in the Top 6 have most likely secured their victory.

These are candidates whom almost all voters know (almost 100% awareness ratings) and who have won over at least 40% of these voters. Survey leader Senator Grace Poe is known to 97% of voters and 70.8% said they will vote for her.  

The others in the Top 6 are Cynthia Villar, Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, former Senator Representative Pia Cayetano, and Sara Duterte. 

If Sara is not running as she once claimed, there are 7 seats they could fight for among themselves.

Poor numbers for admin allies so far

Aside from Sara Duterte, Tulfo, and Dela Rosa, the rest in the "Magic 12" are returning senators. They are Sergio Osmeña III, Lito Lapid, and Jinggoy Estrada. They have almost 100% awareness ratings and have won over at least 30% of the voters. 

Pimentel listed 20 contenders in the administration slate for next year. Six out of the 20 are in the Magic 12 but all of them are reelectionists like Pimentel or a returning senator like Pia Cayetano.

The other possible administration candidates have a lot of catching up to do. Only two of them have double-digit numbers – political adviser Francis Tolentino and Party-list Representative Karlo Nograles. 

Tolentino has a 14.6% voter preference while Nograles has 10.6%.

The others trail behind. Those who have at least 50% awareness rating and at least 5% voter preference are Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque and Special Assistant to the President Christopher "Bong" Go.

The rest have less than 5% voter preference, or were not captured in the survey. 

(See the Pulse Asia survey results in the chart below. Names in bold are administration allies with double-digit numbers in the survey.)

Pimentel vs Alvarez

Who will make the final cut in the administration slate next year? The dilemma is characterized by the apparent feud between PDP-Laban's key leaders. 

Pimentel is pushing for a rainbow coalition with reelectionist senators, who vowed to continue supporting the Duterte administration in exchange for his endorsement. (READ: Pimentel vows to 'fight' for re-electionist allies in PDP-Laban slate)

But Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez wants the government's closest allies there.

It will likely be Duterte's decision in the end. Will he play it safe and endorse the re-electionists and count on them to support him? Or will he throw his support behind relatively unknown allies and count on his own magic to deliver?

PDP-Laban has less than 6 months to sort it out before the filing of candidacies in October. – Rappler.com