2022 on the horizon: leadership race in the coming 18th Congress

By: Edmund S. Tayao

“He wasn’t negotiating, he was almost imposing. How would I commit, when my party mates (friends/allies) have yet to be given their committees…?”

Not sure of the accuracy, but that’s how an incident in the Senate was shared to me. There were several senators who are interested in the same committee and apparently, someone is favoring someone, and this was seen by some as ‘anticipating’ 2022.

Given the nature of the chamber, with only 24 members, there could have been a process of selection that is approved by the majority before committees can be assigned. This could have at least mitigated any feeling of bias on the part of anyone; after all, the leader in the chamber is only first among equals. If only there could be a better appreciation of procedures, of rules of the game and not just depend on personalities.

The scenario in the House of Representatives is a bit different. 2022 is of course also a consideration but it is not as apparent as in the upper chamber. Perhaps because the Speakership is not seen as a good jumping board to Malacanang compared to the Senate.

On the other hand, with the election of the President in 2016, coming in as a Mayor from a premier City, it is now difficult to say which position will be a better take-off point. As the saying goes, the Presidency is destiny. We have seen so many who would be President before; one was even already concerned with the transition one year before the elections can even take place, so confident of winning until a black swan took place and in a snap changed the whole political equation.

This should not be taken to mean the Speakership is less important than the Senate Presidency. Completing the President’s legislative agenda requires a friendly Speaker as is a friendly House of Representatives, which means, it is a position that is as critical as the Senate President albeit indirectly.

The success of any President is always seen as a plus for an administration candidate. The popularity of this President is unprecedented, and so it cannot be avoided for many to assume that his anointed, absent another black swan, would definitely have an advantage. With the notable achievements of this administration, there is no denying that the name Duterte has become a brand.

Lest some are made to think that because both chambers are now controlled by the administration, it could only mean that the die is cast and all is certain come 2022, I have to say there is much more that could happen between now and then. This is the reason why I find the argument during the campaign that if no opposition candidate for Senator wins, the President will then be able to get what he wants and that it means it’s the end of democracy. How simplistic, even ludicrous; either there was no effort to refer to the Senate’s track record, and yes, even that of the House of Representatives, or it was a deliberate attempt at scaring the people from voting administration candidates.

Even if our reference is limited only to congresses after the end of the dictatorship, we can find so many instances where supposedly administration-dominated chambers voted against the wishes of a sitting President, even paved the way for the exit of an administration abruptly. The support that a President gets from Congress is always dependent on his popularity, which is mainly determined by performance. We had a President who was popular only because he was popular but eventually the public realized he is just popular and therefore should not be popular.

We only have to look back and note that Presidential elections are anything but predictable. How many administration candidates for President won in all 5 Presidential elections held so far? Only one, former President Fidel V. Ramos who garnered only 23% of the total votes cast. The reason is rather simple: there were 11 candidates then and so it was easier to get the most number of votes and win.

2004 was, of course, an entirely different story and cannot be compared with all the other presidential elections; former President Gloria Arroyo was not only the administration candidate, she was also a sitting President then, and she won by a very thin margin, one that remains controversial. All other Presidential elections led to the opposition winning, former Presidents Erap Estrada in 1998, Noynoy Aquino in 2010 and now President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.

There is but one thing common in all these Presidential elections: the National Capital Region (NCR), the place with the most registered voters, always votes for the opposition. There is also a possibility of an unforeseen event that can suddenly turn the tide in favor of a candidate, the proverbial black swan, like the death of former President Cory Aquino, erasing the advantage and popularity of all other would-be candidates then.

Nothing is certain in politics, not in our kind of politics; this is simply what we are saying. You may have the Senate Presidency or the Speakership now but come next year or nearing 2022, the entire equation may have already changed. It need not be a black swan, it can just be a simple undoing or the emergence of one who can offer a better alternative, then the pendulum of politics swings to the other side once again; and this is exactly what the other political groups are waiting for. All these simply mean that it’s still anybody’s game.

It is no surprise that the moves in either house of Congress are seen as related to 2022. There is a need to prepare this early if only to have some sense of handle or certainty. Of course, this is something that is difficult, even impossible to have under the current system, but it is a risk everyone must be willing to take.

When the opportunity comes, and you’re not ready, it becomes of no use; such opportunity cannot even be transferred, and so it’s just a waste. Preparing is not only about getting ready, it could also be about getting ready and able to ‘create’ instead of wait for opportunities to come and translate into one’s advantage.

This will however entail a real, functioning political organization. Judging from the history of Philippine politics, it is difficult to identify such an organization as all organizations we’ve had were all organizations only of a particular personality or political family.

That is all that can be done by anyone planning to run and succeed in any election, in particular, in the coming 2022 Presidential election. Even candidates for Senator are now starting to organize, but sadly as individual candidates, even if many of them belong to a party. And so, nothing much, politically at least, is bound to change. So the pattern, which is no pattern that we have just outlined in the foregoing, will likely remain. Politics will remain a lottery and the one who can make better or more bets, the one that has most of the resources, will always have a better chance.

Any new name in politics, especially in national politics, especially if he or she can do a lot and push for changes in the rules of the game, should do so now. If it is not yet obvious, what the foregoing says is that we’ll still have more of the same if we don’t change the rules of the game. Our choices will still be limited to those whose claim to leadership is only or at least mainly, the ability to fund and run a campaign.

We have always been complaining why we elect people who are not qualified or are simply popular but we also assume that the system is working well and that we have a real functioning democracy. We raise hell and cry that we have ended democracy in the country because the kind of candidates we assume to be respectable don’t make it in the elections, but we fail to acknowledge our politics is subject only to perception by the public, that simply it is about how the electorate have been experimenting with the little information they have every elections. Politics is hardly predictable, even if we have surveys that tell us every now and then who is popular and why.

We have to change the rules of the game so that the public’s perception is made to be more of discernment and therefore becomes real and meaningful involvement and participation.

We have to change the rules of the game so that real political parties can be organized and developed, which in turn can develop better and more qualified leaders.

We have to change the rules of the game so that better candidates can really emerge, and remain better people as they run for office and win, as they will hardly be compromised by particular interests.

Then again, how many of our leaders and would-be leaders are now able to understand the need to change the rules of the game?

(The author is a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government)