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Midterm exodus: When political butterflies switch party alliances

First of 2 parts

MANILA, Philippines – The 2019 national and local elections are just around the corner, and many politicians have jockeyed to increase their chances of winning.

One technique in their playbook: jumping over to the President's party.

The membership of PDP-Laban, the party of President Rodrigo Duterte, has exploded in the last 3 years.

From only one senator, 3 congressmen, and no governor winning under the PDP-Laban banner in the May 2016 polls, the ruling party has at least two senators, over 100 House members, and at least 4 out of 10 incumbent governors in their ranks to date.

This "turncoatism" has always been observed in past elections. Politicians who regularly jump ship to other parties are even derisively called balimbing, after the starfruit that looks no different whichever angle you view it from.

Jump, jump, jump

Data from the last 3 elections and from the upcoming 2019 polls show a pattern of party-switching.

In the midterms, with a new administration running the country, many incumbents abandon the parties that brought them to the dance, and hop aboard the new ruling party.

As of this writing, many congressmen and governors have already signed up with PDP-Laban. Out of 192 House representatives running for reelection or gunning for another position in 2019, 127 have switched parties. Among them, 77 went to PDP-Laban, with 47 coming from the Liberal Party (LP).

Meanwhile, of 73 governors running for a new term or seeking a new post, 50 switched political parties. A total of 32 governors jumped to PDP-Laban, with 17 of them running under LP in 2016.

This was also evident in the 2013 midterms, with a huge LP wave, 3 years after the election of President Benigno Aquino III, who was from the party. Most of them were from Lakas-Kampi (later named Lakas-CMD) party, which won big in 2010. Lakas-Kampi was the party of then-outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

On the other hand, during presidential election years, local candidates usually stick it out with the outgoing ruling party. In 2010, that was the Lakas-Kampi party of Arroyo; in 2016, it was Aquino's LP.

Meanwhile, a few local politicians even changed political parties in every election since 2010. For example:

  • Dale Gonzalo Malapitan of Caloocan City: Nacionalista Party (NP) in 2010 as 1st district councilor, United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) in 2013 in his losing bid as 1st district representative, LP in 2016 when he won as representative, then PDP-Laban in his 2019 reelection bid.
  • Ramon Nolasco of Cagayan: Lakas-Kampi in 2010 as mayor of Gattaran, UNA in 2013 as 1st district board member, LP in 2016 as 1st district representative, then PDP-Laban in his 2019 reelection bid.
  • Roger Mercado of Southern Leyte: Lakas-Kampi in 2010 as representative, National Unity Party (NUP) in 2013 as governor, LP in 2013 as representative, then PDP-Laban in his 2019 reelection bid.
  • Mohammad Khalid Dimaporo of Lanao del Norte: Lakas-Kampi in 2010 and Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC) in 2013 as governor, LP in 2016 as 1st district representative, then PDP-Laban in his 2019 reelection bid.

Senate dynamics

In the Senate, however, party politics is different.

Only a few senators have switched parties, with those who have served more than two terms being more prone to jumping ship.

For instance, Senator Franklin Drilon ran under the Lakas-CMD banner when he was first elected in 1995. In 1998, he jumped to the Lapian ng Makabayang Masang Pilipino (LAMMP) coalition of then-president Joseph Estrada, but later left it following the controversies that hounded Estrada. He ran as an Independent with the People Power Coalition in his 2001 reelection bid.

By 2004, Drilon was part of LP where he remains a member.

Senator Ralph Recto was also originally from another party when he entered the Senate. He was part of Lakas in 2001, then shifted to NP around 2004, before joining LP for the 2010 polls. In late 2018, he returned to NP.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III was also originally from the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) when he made his political debut, but became a member of NPC when he mounted his Senate comeback.

In addition, it does not always follow that the ruling party would have a majority in the Senate.

As of this posting, PDP-Laban has only two members: former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III and Manny Pacquiao. The biggest contingent is from LP, largely considered the opposition party, with 6 members.

This may change in the 2019 polls, if all 5 PDP-Laban bets would win.

In any case, regardless of parties, senators usually form blocs or coalitions that cross party lines. During the Estrada presidency, senators from different parties formed the LAMMP coalition to support the president.

In the current administration, Duterte has only two PDP-Laban partymates, but there are "loose" alliances from different parties that tend to support some of the President's programs.

Practicality, survival

For most local politicians, jumping to the ruling party assures them access to government funds.

"If you're in Congress, you get access to the pork barrel. If you're in local government, you get faster access to the internal revenue allotment" or their share of national taxes, said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at De La Salle University. Teehankee headed a Constitutional Commission (Con-Com) subcommittee that introduced electoral reforms in the proposed federal constitution.

"In the House, being a part of the administration party is actually more important, because it's district-based. [As such], it's resource-intensive. You really need to be close to the powers that be in order to access the resources to serve in your district," he added. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Julio Teehankee on what to watch out for in 2019 elections)

For his part, Dean Ronald Mendoza of the Ateneo School of Government said that these politicians "jump" to survive.

If you're a local politician, for instance, "The plan is to join the ruling party, because they might field a competitor against you," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

In addition, Mendoza observed that in places where turncoatism is prevalent, "fat dynasties" – political families that hold multiple posts at the same time – are in power. So instead of courting the electorate, political parties are wooing the clans, said Mendoza.

"So they go around in the different provinces, and they look at the fattest dynasties, and these are usually the clans that deliver so much groundwork and connectivity with the people on the ground, the boots on the ground, for a ground campaign," he continued.

Senators as 'little presidents'

In the Senate, different factors are at play.

"They are all nationally elected, and they're all 'little presidents' so they have a kingdom of their own," said Teehankee.

Mendoza also argued that unlike one-on-one local races, senatorial elections are done nationwide, with the top 12 vote-getters from a pool of candidates making the cut. He added that it's the senators' personal "branding" that gets them elected, not so much their party affiliation.

This is evident in the recent SWS survey on 2019 senatorial preferences, where reelectionists, former senators, and popular personalities make the Magic 12. (READ: Survey says: How 2019 senatorial bets are faring so far)

Teehankee also pointed to another tactic in the Senate races: being guest candidates of both the administration and opposition parties. "You are trying to present a platform of governance, a political program to the electorate, and then you are a candidate of both administration and opposition. Then, the focus there is not really on the platform, but on the personality, [it becomes a] popularity contest."

The reliance of parties on winnable Senate bets hurt promising young leaders, argued Mendoza.

"For instance, you believe that you are a good leader and you feel strongly about [enacting] reforms, and you've been advocating it since you were a teen. But the ruling party won't pick you because you'll be 'expensive' to campaign. No one knows you, you have the wrong last name, you're from the wrong province, in some small province out there, not a million votes," he said.

"You won't get the investment of a party to take care of you as a political leader," he added.

"That kind of ruthless pragmatism, it doesn't build strong parties." (To be concluded) – Rappler.com

Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.

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