“What is your opinion of your President?” Blueboard by Jennifer Santiago Oreta

May 14, 2019
The Myanmar Colonel was smiling as he asked me this publicly - it was an earnest question.Majority of the Myanmar Tatmadaw (military and police) present in the gathering are supporters of President Duterte, or at least approves of what he’s doing as regards peace and order.  I answered, “I didn’t vote for him, but he was voted by our people.  So, he is my President.” The subtext of my answer is that democracy, imperfect as it is, is still my chosen political system for the Philippines. The officers nodded approvingly, including the Major General in front.  Myanmar is in its beginning journey towards democratization;they look at the Philippines for lessons. 
On Monday, the midterm election seals the fate of the remaining three years of the Duterte administration.  As of this writing, the election result is not known yet, but the outcome, whichever it goes, is generally predictable:   a Senate dominated by pro-administration members means that charter change and a shift to Federalism would be an inevitable reality by end of this year. Likewise, the major programs of the government will continue – the war on drugs, the foreign policy that seemingly favors China, the martial law in Mindanao, the Bangsamoro peace process, the Build-build-build infrastructure program. A divided Senate, or at least a Senate with 9 or 10 opposition members is expected to stop or delay the charter change train, as well as to pose critical challenge on the major programs of the government.

The mid-term national election, as has been in the past, is really a test on how much the electorate approves or rejects the programs of the current administration.  During the administration of President Arroyo, majority of the pro-administration Senate candidates failed to get the nod of the electorate in 2007, making the Senate dominated by the opposition. Note that the term of office of President Arroyo (2004-2010) was saddled with legitimacy issue due to the “Hello Garci” scandal that alleged of massive cheating in the 2004 Presidential elections.  On the other hand, the winning streak of the pro-administration Senate candidates in 2013, during the administration of President Benign Aquino III,signals approval for his administration. 

The 2019 midterm election under President Duterte has been one of the most divisive election of late.  Of course, past elections also divide communities and families, but not in the same toxic and hurtful environment as what was created under the current administration. Lines have been drawn, not justbased on support or rejection of government programs and personalities, but significantly, lines are drawn based on religious values and principles. The President himself knowingly created this situation – since assuming office, he has launched a consistent attack on the leaders of the Catholic church, its laity, its doctrines and values. He has forced a situation where people will choose between their support for him or their support for the church. This apparently is deliberate – the church has always been a major player in shaping the direction of the country. From the 1986 people power, the 2001 people power 2, and on issues of charter change, death penalty, and divorce, the church has alwaysflexed its muscle, asserting that these issues stand irreconcilable with the morality, values and doctrines of the Catholic faith.  Consistently, the church has proven to be a major force to reckon with. Given the clear divergence between the position of the church specially on the flagship ‘war on drugs’program of the administration, a stand-off is inevitable. The mid-term election is the stage. The interesting part is that while the Catholic church has and can pull its weight on certain issues, there has never been a ‘Catholic vote.’ Its members seemingly follow their own choices when it comes to politics, regardless of what the church leadership has to say.  This perhaps is what the President is banking on – knowing that the ‘Catholic vote’ has never been proven, his consistent attack on the church – its leaders and values – was meant to further wedge a divide between the ‘church’ and ‘state’ domains. In doing so, however, he has made the conflict personal. 
Conflict and disagreements based on resources and programs are easier to resolve because they mainly operate in the realm of ideas – and ideas can be tested, resources can be allocated and divided, and conflicts can find compromises.  However, once disagreements enter the realm of values and principles, it rips through the core of one’s identity and reason for being.  Unlike resources and programs, values are a zero-sum game – either you embrace the value, or you reject it.  The conflict becomes personal.  And personal conflicts are the most hurtful kind.
This is the subtext of the entire campaign season.  The outcome will demonstrate whether the strong participation of church leaders – not since been observed since the campaign of Cory Aquino in the 1986 snap elections - has affected the voting preference of its members.   But more importantly, the midterm election has wedged a divide between families, friends, colleagues, communities-  a divide that will affect relations long after the elections are over. 
Indeed, it is expected that not everyone will be happy with the election results. Protests will be filed, accusations exchanged. But as a democracy, it is imperative that we respect the results of the exercise, provided of course that the election was clean and honest. Imperfect as it is, this is our democracy journey. 
And hence, the same question, with slight modification, remains: what is your opinion of your elections?
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is an Assistant Professor of the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science, and Director of the Ateneo Initiative for Southeast Asian Studies.