2022 Philippine Elections

[Newsstand] Substitution is deception

John Nery
[Newsstand] Substitution is deception
Substitution is a cynical gaming of the rules. And the President's political allies looked lost, frustrated, desperate. Duterte is to blame for both.

The rule on substitution in election law is common-sensical. If a party candidate dies, withdraws, or is disqualified, the political party should be able to field a replacement if time permits. But President Rodrigo Duterte has turned that benign rule into a malignant loophole.

In the same way that an infrequent legal remedy was used by the Duterte administration to engineer the backdoor ouster of a Supreme Court chief justice, the administration is using the substitution rule to smuggle a presidential candidate through the backdoor. Under Duterte, substitution is the quo warranto of election law.

Duterte’s long rollout of his presidential candidacy in 2015 used the substitution rule to heighten the dramatic suspense of his eventual public announcement. The Duterte-serye, as the rollout was sometimes called, seized the extra time allowed under the law to generate more interest in, more media attention to, the reluctant candidate. The tactic worked; the multi-term Davao city mayor became the first substitute candidate to win the presidency, in 2016.

The Duterte administration’s resort to the substitution rule in 2021 is predicated on that success and follows the same playbook: another Davao City mayor, another reluctant candidate, another long and attention-hogging rollout, another Duterte drama series. So why, at the end of the official period for the filing of certificates of candidacy last Friday, October 8, did the President’s political allies look lost, frustrated, desperate?

A novelty in 2015

The first time Duterte took advantage of the substitution rule, to dramatize his on-again, off-again candidacy, he had two things going for him. First was the novelty of it all; in the weeks between filing his certificate of candidacy for mayor on October 15, 2015 and replacing that with a certificate of candidacy for president on November 27, and then between that and the Commission on Elections’ decision to accept him as a substitute presidential candidate on December 17, genuine public curiosity about his political fate surrounded Duterte. Second, he was backed by a real draft; there was a genuine outpouring of public goodwill for him, reflected in his survey numbers and in organic, spontaneous demonstrations of support.

This time around, the novelty has worn off, and even substitutable candidates like Senator Bato dela Rosa and spokespersons for parties like PDP-Laban and Lakas-CMD readily admit the new reality of “placeholders.” And there is no comparable organic draft behind Sara Duterte’s on-again, off-again presidential candidacy, just expensive government infrastructure. The only thing left, the only part of the 2015 rollout that remains, is drama. 

That is the real campaign platform of the Duterte continuity ticket or legacy slate. We can rely on them for more of the same political drama from now until the May 9, 2022 elections: the President indulging his anger at his enemies, then appealing to pity from his base; the President’s daughter distancing herself from her father; the substitutable candidates admitting their part in the script but professing innocence of heart or purity of intention; the supporters, like the bedraggled ones who trooped to the national COC filing venue on October 8 wearing green and chanting campaign slogans for Sara, continuing to line the streets; the lawyerly maneuvering behind the scenes, carefully left open for the public to see.

In this sense, using the substitution rule to sharpen the sense of drama surrounding a candidacy is a misuse of election law. It is exactly what Senator dela Rosa angrily rejected, that his “decision” to run as an obvious placeholder was making a mockery of the elections. On Monday, October 11, he admitted that he was told by the Cusi wing of the PDP-Laban party to run for president only at 3 pm on the last day of filing.

Act of deception

Sara Duterte, the real candidate the Cusi wing wanted to nominate for president, was nowhere to be found – but Dela Rosa cheerfully confessed that if Sara ran for president he would gladly give way to her. But withdrawal of a candidate should be for reasons as serious as the two other conditions for substitution: death or disqualification. Place-holding, to heighten interest in a candidacy or to wait for someone who hasn’t made up her mind, trivializes the rule; it should not be allowed. 

But playing the substitution game according to the Duterte playbook is also and ultimately an act of deception. It is based on hiding the truth about a candidacy until an opportune moment; it requires party officials to lie to both the Comelec and the public, and sometimes to their own party members, about placeholder candidates while negotiating with the real ones. Like the quo warranto proceeding that Solicitor General Jose Calida used to force Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s exit, it depends on a strategy of cooptation: Many party and government officials must buy in to the substitution playbook for it to succeed.  In this sense, using the substitution rule to buy time for political maneuvering behind a screen of pretense is an outright abuse, a malignancy; it carries risks for the democratic project itself.

For that we can thank President Duterte, who rode the substitution rule all the way to Malacañang. 

But his political allies had no choice; as we say it in Filipino English, they were “forced to good.” They need to use the substitution rule now because, for lack of personal and political discipline, a supposedly strategic President reduced their options dramatically. The mere fact that we are even talking of a Cusi wing, instead of the entire PDP-Laban, is proof that the President committed a blunder in attacking the otherwise docile Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

The fact that Sara seems a genuinely reluctant prospect, and that even ex-senator Bongbong Marcos declined to run with Senator Bong Go, is proof that the President’s unhealthy co-dependency on his longtime aide has only encouraged factionalism, rather than unity, among his allies. Without the President, Go is a political nothing, and the different factions know it. – Rappler.com

Veteran journalist John Nery is a columnist and editorial consultant of Rappler.