Manila Standard - Election game changer

1 February 2021

By Jude Acidre | Manila Standard

"The COVID-19 pandemic will make the 2022 polls starkly different from the ones we have known before."

In less than a year and a half, Filipinos are expected to vote for a new president.

As early as now, one can be certain that the upcoming elections in May 2022 will be like no other in history.

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly disrupted the way we live. None is immune to the adverse impact of this public health emergency – politics and elections included.

Politicians and candidates are starting to realize they are about to sail through uncharted political waters.

Having no clear end in sight to the crisis appears to fuel the growing unpredictability on what is going to happen before, during, and immediately after the election.

The chances of having the elections postponed is almost nil. Such would require a constitutional amendment, and forcing the issue of extending the terms of incumbent elected officials would be courting a constitutional crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic will certainly change the direction and ways of our politics, particularly in the way we campaign and in the choices that we make.

Due to existing health precautions, the usual campaign strategies that would require personal interaction and crowded political rallies would be off the table. Instead, there would certainly be an increase in political engagement through traditional and social media.

Incumbent officials are expected to be made accountable for their political leadership during this crisis. On the other hand, without the usual campaign crowds, new politicians might find it a huge challenge even to just boost awareness.

With business in the red, financing the elections through political contributions might be even more challenging than the usual.

The World Bank has projected that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in 2.7 million more Filipinos becoming poor – a near-certainty given the record slide in the country’s gross economic output, the worst drop in its gross domestic product since the Second World War.

There is always the possibility of an economic recovery toward the end of the year, if quarantine restrictions are eventually eased further and if COVID-19 vaccinations are conducted in time to meet the target of the 60 percent needed to build herd immunity.

If the current administration is unable to reverse the downward economic trend just in time to fully re-open our economy, or fails to effectively implement its vaccination plan, there could be a likely change in the country’s choice for its next leadership.

Drawing from the inefficiencies in carrying out its COVID-19 amelioration programs, the government’s delay could risk a sharp increase in unemployment and steep collapse in household incomes.

There is no doubt that this coronavirus pandemic might just be the unforeseen political game-changer.

The other side of the story may likewise be true. If this administration meets its vaccination targets before the year ends, it would leave us with enough time to re-start the economy. This might just assure the present political dispensation another lease on our nation’s executive power.

But while future forecasts on the upcoming election appear to be straightforward, the options may actually be more complicated than it seems.

For one, jumpstarting the economy on our own may be difficult to do considering the impact of the continued economic regression of an increasingly interconnected global economy. Likewise, securing the sufficient supply of vaccines, as well as ensuring the efficient implementation of the vaccination plan may be easier said than done.

Questions will surely be asked on issues relevant to the country’s COVID-19 response such as the availability of an affordable and accessibility of a quality healthcare system.

There are so many what ifs on what might happen.

It could be that current political issues, such as constitutional reform, political dynasties or even corruption may be relegated to the backseat, as the voters demand clarity on more commonplace concerns such as healthcare, education, and employment.

As the situation worsens, motherhood statements might fail to satisfy the voters.

The same might even be certain for those in local government positions – for whom the bar of accountability might even be higher. Local governments may have responded to the pandemic differently given their actual financial capacities, but their constituents will have relatively similar expectations. It might then be extremely difficult for local governments with limited resources to deliver the same amount of services that more thriving cities and municipalities can afford – but the people would care more about having their demands met and not by excuses otherwise.

One will have to also take into consideration the fact that more Filipinos continue to hold President Duterte in higher regard, with his Duterte’s approval ratings are higher than they have ever been. Whether it is indicative of his administration’s performance or a clear setback resulting from populism and theatrics will definitely be a matter for political observers to consider.

There are however bright spots in how COVID-19 could affect the 2022 elections.

First, the growing demand for government accountability could actually encourage voters to vote for politicians who actually performed well during the pandemic. It may sound wishful thinking, but political patronage may finally have to give way to good performance, allowing the emergence of a more transformational political leadership.

Second, the strain on the economy and the lack of political funding may actually limit the chances of undeserving politicians who depend on vote-buying for their electoral success. With limited election resources, the prohibitive cost of vote-buying might deter candidates from buying their way to office.

Third, more relevant election issues, such as the quality of public health or improvements in the transportation system might finally get the limelight and attention that they need. The pandemic has bared not only the ideological but even the more systemic gaps in our society such as health, education and transportation. This could result to the election of more candidates offering better and workable solutions to these issues.

Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic would also highlight the need for greater transparency and the importance of policy coordination, especially during emergencies. Such transparency would surely inspire public confidence and motivate even ordinary citizens to participate in addressing these challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic is more than just a public health crisis. It has significant political consequences and economic implications that has gradually exposed the inherent tensions and fractures in our society – to an extent that it has showed us more of what has gone wrong in the past, than what we can be hopeful about in the future.

Because of this, we can be certain that not only has this pandemic shifted the shape and direction of politics and power in the coming year but also that a new political landscape is surely in the offing.

So much about the 2022 elections – whether on how the campaigns would done or what would influence the choices of the voters – remains uncertain for now. But what is most important is that people realize that the choices they will make during the 2022 election will determine whether the country’s situation will turn better or worse.