The senate race: A referendum on Duterte’s leadership

Will the May 13, 2019 general election in the Philippines serve as a referendum where the Filipino people get the chance to speak and have their voices heard regarding President Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership?  The Philippine midterm election takes place in the middle of Duterte’s term as president and may indeed serve as a referendum that can result in a vote of confidence or no confidence on his administration and leadership.

In the United States, midterm elections serve as referendums on the trust and confidence of the people on their sitting president.  Compared to the Philippines though, U.S. presidents only have four-year terms but they can run for reelection for a second term.  In the Philippines, presidents serve on six-year terms and there are no reelections or second terms.

For a U.S. president, the results of a midterm election can affect his decision and determination whether to run for a second term.  And since the sitting U.S. president is the standard bearer of his party, midterm election results often determine whether the sitting president will have his share of challengers among his party mates.

In the case of ex-president Barack Obama, his popularity during his first term extended to his reelection in 2012.  President Donald Trump looks determined to run for a second term despite the fact that his popularity is not that high and the result of the November 2018 midterm election was not in his favor.

In the Philippines, the May 13th general election might not serve as a true referendum on Duterte and on the trust of the Filipino people on his administration and leadership.

Why?  Except for the 12 seats in the senate, all contested positions are local which includes all seats in the Lower House, all provincial-level elected positions, all city-level and municipal elected positions, which also includes the elections in the Bangsamoro autonomous regions.

For Filipinos voting for their local officials, notice that the choices are the same as in the local elections before— a contest among traditional politicians and political clans.

The political patronage system is still thriving.  It may not be as violent and obvious as the years of the three Gs before— guns, goons, and gold— and warlordism, but the same old recycled politicians are dominating the races and the billboards.  Whether they are pro-Duterte or not, it appears that affiliation with Duterte does not have much bearing on the would be results as the old local loyalties and patronage will do the “trick.”

Thus, I say that in the local level, it may not be as defining as in the national level.  What about in the national level?   Why is the senate-level election a referendum on Duterte and the people’s confidence in his administration and leadership?

This 2019, political observers are keenly observing and watching if there will be a resounding electoral victory for Duterte’s chosen senatorial candidates.  The senate race is indeed the true referendum on the leadership and governance of Duterte.

If Duterte’s ruling party and allies grab the majority of the senate seats, it’s a vote of confidence for his unconventional ways.  The Senate will be filled with Duterte loyalists who will do and act as told and instructed by Duterte.  Duterte will have more mouthpieces than he has at present, thus control of the senate will be a natural consequence.

If his candidates lose in the senate election, it will be a resounding rejection and a slap to the criticisms about his unorthodox leadership, perceived excesses, particularly his war on drugs and the extrajudicial killings going in, the perceived selling out of the national interest and resources to China, not to mention his stand and tirades against religion and Christianity that divide the people and the nation.

For overseas Filipinos who provided a landslide win and endorsement in 2016 that resulted in Duterte’s election to the highest executive position in the government of the Philippines, a senate defeat for Duterte’s supported candidates it will also be a defining moment and realization that they made the wrong choice in endorsing and electing their country’s president.


Jojo Liangco is an attorney with the Law Offices of Amancio M. Liangco Jr. in San Francisco, California.  His practice is in the areas of immigration, family law, personal injury, civil litigation, business law, bankruptcy, DUI cases, criminal defense and traffic court cases.  Please send your comments to Jojo Liangco, c/o Law Offices of Amancio “Jojo” Liangco, 605 Market Street, Suite 605, San Francisco, CA 94105 or you can call him (415) 974-5336.  You can also visit Jojo Liangco’s website at