Challenging Populist Politics

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The election spirit is in the air!

Aside from the regular holidays that many Filipinos hold dear, elections have always been a passion for the general population. With more than 18,000 local posts that are up for grabs, local participation is expected to be massive. Sadly, we can also expect the occurrence of more election-related violence as local elections are by nature more personal.

On a general scale, the upcoming May 13 elections represent three fundamental challenges that the present electoral and political landscape offer.

The first challenge refers to disputing the populist politics that has gained momentum under the Duterte administration. As elections may be associated with the popularity and clout of the incumbent president and his administration, it is important to note that Duterte continues to be popular and has retained a 74% satisfaction rating based on recent surveys. Such positive rating constitutes the political capital upon which supporters and followers could bank during the elections.

After more than two years in office, however, Duterte’s populist promises by and large proved to be mere political rhetoric.

True, there was the increase in the salaries of uniformed personnel and the upgrading of military logistics equipment and some measures that seemed impossible in the past decade, such as Free Tertiary Education, Free Irrigation Service, and the Universal Health Care Bill.

But many experts are apprehensive on the sustainability of these measures, as they require huge amount of funding. Many also question whether these populist initiatives are timely since the government has also embarked on an ambitious P8-trillion infrastructure program until 2022.

Nevertheless, populist issues dominate the campaign platform of majority of the candidates. These issues strongly appeal to the emotions of voters, but the solution may not be rational and sustainable. In most cases, national candidates prioritize gut issues such as food, health, and education.

In the face of such populist politics, a viable alternative is to promote a program- or platform-based leadership and politics. Two things come to mind—while focusing more on the top national concerns of the Filipinos, i.e., controlling inflation, increasing/improving workers’ pay, reducing poverty, and creating jobs, the top personal concerns relating to health, education, victimization of crime, and access to jobs should as well be prioritized. And while offering an enduring solution to these problems instead of purely relying on palliative means, the programs and solutions should be realistic as well.

In neutralizing populist politics, the value of citizenship comes into the fore. Anchored on critical participation, the electorate should be educated and they should know the character of the candidates. Further, the population should embody the democratic principle behind the electoral process—to empower responsible leaders and ensure democracy.

Third, the act of making elections viable, participatory, and inclusive begs to question the predominance of political dynasties in Philippine politics. According to Dean Donald Mendoza, “the elimination of fat dynasties will free up to 25% of local government positions for the young and upcoming leaders.” The elimination of fat dynasties thus makes democracy inclusive. This will counter the worrying trend that he observed between 2007 and 2016, in which the “dynastic share or the number of powerful clans per position rose from 75% to 78% among district representatives; 70% to 81% among governors; and 58% to 70% among mayors.”

As the battle against political dynasties and traditional politics is a long and winding struggle, the promotion of a program and platform based politics is the necessary first step. It is also a deterrent against the proliferation of strongman politics and populist leaders. It also addresses the crisis in the political leadership aggravated by the weak character of Philippine political parties.

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