Next year’s elections will be the most hotly contested since the snap presidential elections of January 1986.
Three decades after the stolen polls triggered the EDSA People Power Revolution, the stakes are even higher: not just the most powerful position in the land, boosted by record budgets topping P3 trillion, but also the power of the Liberal Party-led coalition, desperate to stay in charge and continue evading accountability for pork barrel, smuggling and spending anomalies.
Having bribed Congress, browbeaten the Supreme Court and posted close associates atop the defense, police and election agencies, President Benigno Aquino 3rd brought the presidency closer than ever to Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law prowess.
With the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), Malacañang usurped Congress’ appropriations power, which the Liberal-dominated legislature quite happily handed over. Lawmakers even threatened the High Court with investigation for unanimously declaring DAP unconstitutional, along with the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the pork barrel created under Aquino’s mother Corazon.
Aquino also enjoys Marcos’ media sway, with top newspapers and broadcast programs singing praises, while downplaying excesses and villifying opponents. And like the late strongman, Aquino has constantly defended anomalous cronies, from shooting buddy Rico Puno, accused of jueteng payolas, to ex-bodyguard Alan Purisima, the resigned Philippine National Police chief.
That is the far more powerful presidency being contested eleven months from now. Hence, Aquino even tried to repeat Marcos’ act of ruling beyond the constitutional term. Thankfully, a Pulse Asia survey last year showed that Filipinos overwhelmingly oppose lifting term limits.
Liberals battle to escape jail
An even bigger stake in the 2016 polls, especially for the administration, is the government control now holding back corruption probers and prosecutors. Like Marcos’s regime, Aquino’s is loathe to give up power for fear of being held accountable for abuse and graft.
Unprecedented anomalies under Aquino include: the five-fold surge in smuggling to an estimated $19 billion a year, based on International Monetary Fund trade data; the trebling of pork barrel to over P20 billion a year; the P150-billion malversation-ridden DAP; and multi-billion-peso irregularities in city train, military helicopter and police firearms bidding that have endangered commuters and soldiers.
Add to that the tens of billions of pesos wasted by the Agriculture and Agrarian Reform departments, as reported by state auditors; and the Ombudsman’s failure to charge Aquino allies implicated in the P400-million fertilizer scam, for which hard evidence has been compiled years ago.
Liberals and their allies now fear the “selective prosecution”–as labeled by Catholic bishops and amply demonstrated by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima–which they have inflicted on political rivals in the guise of fighting corruption.
Hence, the Aquino camp wants its man or woman to win next May and keep hiding the anomalous PDAF papers, Customs records on 2,000-plus lost cargo containers, DAP fund releases and other incriminating pieces of evidence.
Recently, Aquino seemed ready to pick fast-rising “presidentiable” Sen. Grace Poe as standard- bearer. But he and his party now look unsure, and may still field survey laggard Secretary Mar Roxas. Evidently, they don’t trust anyone to hide their dirt, but someone already in the thick of it.
So expect administration politicos to battle more fiercely than ever before in the coming polls. They’re fighting to stay out of jail.
A tight race spurs cheats and goons
Besides enhanced presidential clout and administration desperation, two other factors make the coming elections even more contentious and probably more anomalous: the lack of a dominant candidate, and the vested interests of America, China, Malaysia and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Unless a clear frontrunner emerges, contending parties would likely think that cheating, intimidation, propaganda and other election tricks could make a difference in the race.
If a survey topnotcher leads by, say, 10 percentage points, rivals know it would take unconcealable levels of vote-buying, violence and fraud to win. But a statistically insignificant three-point difference–equivalent to just 1.5 million votes among 50 million-plus eligible voters–could tempt backers of trailing candidates to use more guns, goons and gold.
Plus “Hocus PCOS”, if the Commission on Elections again uses the Precinct Count Optical Scan system despite past polls marred by disabled safeguards, suspicous results and lack of citizen validation.
So expect more blood, cheats and fibs in the campaign and the polls.
America, China and Malaysia are watching
As if grabbing power, avoiding prison and overcoming slim margins weren’t reasons enough to contest May 2016 more intensely, outside powers are also watching closely and, almost surely, placing hefty bets.
The United States’ main interest is its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Aquino, now challenged in the Supreme Court for failing to go through the Senate, among other issues.
Under EDCA, American forces can increase deployment in the archipelago and use Philippine military bases–crucial to Washington’s Pivot To Asia policy shifting 60 percent of naval power to the region, amid China’s growing might.
Judging from public statements, however, no leading “presidentiable” shares Aquino’s aggressive stance toward China and staunch advocacy of the US defense presence, at home and in Asean.
Survey frontrunner Vice President Jejomar Binay favors maritime cooperation with China, not confrontation. He noted that the US alliance does not stipulate automatic military action in case of attack, unlike Washington’s defense treaty with Europe. Last week, popular Sen. Francis Escudero urged bilateral talks with Beijing.
As for Malaysia, it wants the next leader to implement the Bangsamoro agreement it mediated between the government and the MILF. That would sideline the Tausug-dominated Moro National Liberation Front, which backs the Philippine claim to Malaysia’s Sabah state.
Never much of a force in past elections, the MILF may well use its armed might and grassroots clout for the administration ticket, whose victory would help establish the rebels’ envisioned Bangsamoro.
So come 2016, bigger players than ever will be wooing, paying and pressuring the Filipino voter to elect leaders who will advance their interests. God help us.