[OPINION] Resist de facto dictatorship: Don’t give up the Senate in 2019

As I write this piece, the opposition is gearing up for mass assemblies and gatherings on September 21 to protest the comeback of dictatorial governance. This is commendable given the increasing boldness of the Duterte government in cracking the whip on critics and non-supporters. 

Aside from protecting our right to protest in the streets, however, we also need to protect our political institutions. In this piece I argue that the political institution that we shouldn’t give up and hand over to the Duterte regime is the Senate.  

Why the Senate in 2019?  

The Senate is a crucial arena today and in the 2019 elections, most likely, it will be the only arena where genuine political competition can happen.   

Duterte’s level of control of the Senate is evidently weaker than his level of control of other political institutions.  

In the House of Representatives, Duterte has a supermajority to the extent that even the proclaimed (Suarez-led) minority is actually aligned with the supermajority. In the Supreme Court, he now has a friendly Chief Justice and has already appointed 4 associate justices; he is due to appoint 4 more SC justices in the remaining months of 2019. By the end of term, the President would have appointed 13 out of 15 Supreme Court justices.  

President Duterte has also evidently taken into his fold the hierarchy and the rank and file of the police and is obviously drawing in the military. Needless to say,  everyone in the Executive branch serves at the President’s pleasure.  

Only the Senate has retained some level of autonomy from President Duterte. While this autonomy is fragile, it is nonetheless present, as evidenced by the political issues and debates that the Senate has  chosen to take up. 

The Senate has been bold enough to examine controversies such as the alleged involvement of the President’s son and Presidential supporters in the $6-billion shabu shipment, extrajudicial killings, Secretary Bong Go’s business connections, etc. 

Moreover, the Senate did not concede to voting as one with the House just to expedite the constitutional change process.

It must be noted that to a great extent, the midterm election of 2019 will be a referendum on the federalism proposal of government. 

If the Duterte camp wins at least a majority of the open Senate seats, we can expect that this federalism agenda will be railroaded even more blatantly.  

Non-dynastic, non-celebrity, credible 

Given abovementioned context, the candidates we need in the Senate are those who will be bold enough to meet the pressure of succumbing to President Duterte’s control.

Being bold, however, will not be enough if these candidates are to challenge Duterte by making the Senate more operational and effective.

These candidates also need to be competent and genuinely passionate about policy – especially policies meant to promote economic growth, citizen welfare, and social inclusion. They must be able to articulate the social costs of certain policy preferences (e.g TRAIN) as well as the political requirements especially of welfare-oriented policies (e.g who will pay for the ‘free tuition fee’ program). They must also be able to debate the nuances of federalism.  

In other words, we need candidates who can go beyond ad hominems and anti-Duterte lines – candidates who have the capability to articulate reforms along the lines of growth, welfare and inclusion that the Duterte government should have been focusing on.    

Since social inclusion is a much-needed political message, the candidates should be non-dynastic and non-celebrity. Ever since the start of the post-Marcos era, we have been electing the same people with popular surnames and this has resulted in the dominance of dynasts and celebrities in our legislature.   

And where do we source these candidates? 

Beyond the Liberals

If we were to take the ‘inclusion’ message seriously, we cannot rely solely on the Liberal Party to provide us with the list of senatorial bets that the country needs at the moment. This is not to say that we should dismiss the LP list.   

No list should be dismissed at this point. Given the context of polarization between the “pro-and-anti Duterte” groups, it is probably best to think of candidates who cannot be easily cast into that “pro or anti” binary.

Furthermore, since elections are also about visibility and winnability, we cannot just field any Tom, Dick and Harry. The candidates must already be in the political radar even if they do not belong to the traditional opposition. The social movements,  for example, could field the best and most competent of their representatives.   

We can thus start with identifying the movements and then think of names from said movements. 

Offhand, here are some names: 

Alternatively,  we can start with identifying personalities and then think of the political discourse that they could bring to the Senate:

Said list is just top of mind. I am not insisting on the names. I just want to insist that such a list is possible.

I want to assert that there are visible, non-traditional political actors who are capable of contributing to the objective of preserving the autonomy of and/or transforming the institution of the Senate. 

In fact, I did not even ask permission from the personalities mentioned above (my apologies to them) just to drive home the point that the candidates we need in 2019 are those who are not simply anti-Duterte but are categorically anti-dictatorship. And not the "usual names," rather, the non-dynastic, non-celebrity, politically active citizens who already stand for particular advocacies and therefore can be expected to credibly shape the direction of debates in policy-making.  

President Duterte has active citizens. So should the opposition. Those who want to challenge him must be equally, if not more active and politically visible.  

For starters, please register as voters. – Rappler.com

The author teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University.