Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte raises the hand of senator Christopher 'Bong' Go after he filed his candidacy for president in the 2022 elections. Two weeks later, Go announced he was withdrawing from the electoral race. (Photo: JAM STA ROSA / AFP)

A Game of Musical Thrones: Candidate Substitutions and Withdrawals in the 2022 Philippine Elections

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Last-minute substitutions of presidential and vice-presidential candidates have become the new norm in Philippine electoral politics, exposing an abuse of electoral laws and a lack of transparency in candidate selection.

On 22 September, President Rodrigo Duterte was nominated by his party, PDP-Laban, to be its vice-presidential candidate for the May 2022 elections. Duterte, constitutionally prevented from running again for the presidency, accepted the nomination of the party that he himself chairs.

But by 3 October, Duterte changed his mind and announced that he would retire from politics when his term ends on 30 June 2022. Duterte made this announcement on the same day he accompanied his loyal former assistant, Christopher “Bong” Go, in filing his own candidacy for vice-president, catching many by surprise. Equally surprising several days later, Duterte’s former national police chief, Ronaldo “Bato” Dela Rosa, filed his presidential candidacy. Both Go and Dela Rosa were elected to the Senate in 2019 for a six-year term. Both had little to lose and potentially much to gain as they need not relinquish their senatorial posts if they lost or withdrew their bid for another national position.

In mid-November, Duterte changed his mind yet again and filed his candidacy for senator instead. On the same day, his daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, filed her candidacy for vice-president. Duterte-Carpio had earlier filed her candidacy for reelection as mayor of Davao, a key city in Southern Philippines and a known Duterte bailiwick. Prior to running for the vice-presidency, Duterte-Carpio had repeatedly said she would not seek any national position in government as this was an agreement she had with her father.

Shortly after Duterte-Carpio filed her vice-presidential candidacy, Duterte once again pushed his former aide, Go, to withdraw his vice-presidential candidacy and instead seek the presidency itself with Dela Rosa withdrawing his presidential bid altogether. Two weeks later, however, Go announced his withdrawal from the presidential race although it was only on 14 December that he had made it official. Duterte also officially withdraws from the Senate race, just hours after Go’s official withdrawal.

Nowadays, candidate substitutions and withdrawals are occurring at such a sudden and bewildering pace that it is hard to keep track of which candidate is running for which position. Why have candidate substitutions and withdrawals suddenly become a fad at the national level, particularly among the Dutertes?

According to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), candidate substitutions are part and parcel of the electoral process in the country and has been going on for a long time. Under certain conditions, the Philippine Omnibus Election Code allows candidate substitutions for registered political parties after the period of the filing of the certificate of candidacy so as not to unduly disadvantage parties in the event of the withdrawal of one of its candidates due to death, disqualification, or volition. Candidates who withdraw are not required to give a reason, while substitute candidates only need to be members of the same party as the original withdrawing candidate. However, independent candidates cannot be substituted, neither can those whose candidacies have been nullified by COMELEC.

What is new is the preponderance of such substitutions among candidates for national posts, with some less-known individuals filing their candidacies as “placeholders” for other political personalities. Duterte-Carpio became a substitute (vice-presidential) candidate in November 2021, like her father Duterte in the 2016 elections. Back in September 2015, Duterte had also claimed to have given his “final answer” that he would not seek the presidency and that he was retiring from politics for good. This might be seen as a tactic to out-manoeuvre other candidates for the same position by concealing the final line-up of candidates until the last moment, since an early announcement would give opponents lead time to plan who and what they will be campaigning against. Misdirection appears to be the order of the day.

In any case, Bongbong Marcos has become one of the primary beneficiaries of these political musical chairs. Bongbong, son of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, is a presidential candidate and the declared tandem of Duterte-Carpio. Go’s withdrawal from the elections has sent a signal to Duterte supporters to fully support the Marcos and Duterte-Carpio campaigns.

The prevalence of these personal substitutions highlights the weakness of political parties in the Philippines, where political elites look upon parties as only marginally significant.

It is evident that there are loopholes in the substitution guidelines that favour the country’s political dynasties. There is no rule that prescribes a period for the substitute candidate to be a member of a party of a withdrawing candidate. In theory, the substitute can be certified as a member of the party on the same day that the original candidate withdraws. In 2019, COMELEC allowed “substitution by withdrawal” until midday of election day itself, as long as the substituted candidate shares the same surname as the original candidate. This means that a well-known and well-liked politician can withdraw and be substituted by their less-known, less-experienced, less-liked spouse, child, or anyone with the same surname even though they may not be related by blood. It is like purchasing a certain product only to find out later after payment that the original item has been switched to a different one.

For the Dutertes, the game plan for now is to ensure their political survival, especially with the International Criminal Court case against the president for his murderous anti-drug campaign looming on the horizon. Seeking to maintain a foothold in both local and national politics is the usual strategy of established political families. The Duterte clan is no exception. Given the current preponderant popular preference for Bongbong Marcos, the Dutertes aligning with the more established and well-resourced (albeit polarizing) Marcos family seems to be the prudent thing to do. President Duterte’s withdrawal from the 2022 elections can be seen as an indication of his confidence in a Marcos win as well as a source of political security in an anticipated Marcos presidency.

Candidate substitutions and withdrawals are reflections of the elite-negotiated nature of Philippine electoral politics. The frequent candidate substitutions now taking place are also indicative of the usual rampant party-switching expected to take place immediately after the elections in which the party of the president dominates the political landscape for the next six years. The prevalence of these personal substitutions highlights the weakness of political parties in the Philippines, where political elites look upon parties as only marginally significant.

Instances like these underscore the need to revisit the country’s election regulations with the aim of plugging the loopholes and remedying any weaknesses in the system. It seems to be the case that the election rules in place are being gamed to the detriment of the spirit and intent of making the electoral process free, honest, and credible.

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