(Part 1 of 2) The Curse of Incumbency

There is no shortage of curses on which may have caused grievous injuries and deaths. The curse of King Tut’s was blamed for the deaths of the team who unsealed his tomb; James Dean’s car– a Porsche 550 Spyder which he called “Little Bastard”– supposedly killed not only the actor but also injured four other people; and perhaps most humorously, a Billy Goat was blamed for the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year championship drought.

We Filipinos also have our native “curses.” They are called “Kulam”, and they are cast by a variety of supernatural beings: witches primarily, but also aswang and “nuno sa punso.” Are you experiencing a sudden illness, a spate of bad luck, a substantial loss of fortune? Pin the tail on supernatural being.  

To this list of jinxes and hexes, we should add “The Curse of Incumbency”. This refers not to some super-natural phenomenon, but to the seeming inability of administration-backed candidates to win the Presidency.

For context: under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the President is limited to a single six-year term. And so, unlike the U.S. President who can run for re-election, the Philippine President can only ensure the continuity of his policies by backing a surrogate- an “administration candidate”. The chosen candidate typically receives three kinds of assistance:  endorsement of the incumbent, the support of the ruling party, and the quiet utilization of government resources for campaign purposes.

You’d think that all that leverage would make campaigning for the Presidency a cakewalk for the administration candidate, especially in our costly campaigns where every ally and centavo matters. However, administration candidates have a terrible batting average in post-1986 elections. Excluding Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s suis generis re-election campaign in 2004, there have been four administration candidates: Fidel Ramos in 1992, Jose de Venecia in 1998, Gibo Teodoro in 2010, and Mar Roxas in 2016. Only Ramos won, and he only garnered a measly 23.58% of the votes cast. This gives administration candidates a cumulative winning percentage of 25%. 

Why is this the case? Blame it on the law of diminishing political returns, which ensures that the President’s popularity- and that of his chosen candidate- will be an unmarketable commodity by end of his term. See, the President typically arrives Malacañang on a wave of euphoria. Political analysts call this the “honeymoon period” and it typically lasts up to a year after the election. Thereafter, the President’s ratings will fluctuate, but his or her goodwill is typically sufficient to carry the administration’s Senate slate in the midterm elections.

But what goes up, must go down. As the next Presidential election draws near, the incumbent’ satisfaction ratings slowly but surely decline through a nauseating mixture of scandals, misdemeanors, and sky-high expectations turning into unfulfilled promises. Some of these will be the President’s fault; some will be the fault of his men; and some of it will be the fault of our weak bureaucracy, where many good ideas just “lie there and die there”.

And so, association with an incumbent President becomes more of a handicap than an advantage. In fact, it effectively negates any leverage gained from having the ruling party and/or government resources in your pocket. In a close election, like 1992, the President’s endorsement might provide an edge. But against a popular opposition candidate, that endorsement is a death wish.

For a while, it looked like the administration of Rodrigo Duterte would buck the trend. For starters, his administration had a net satisfaction of +60 as of end-2021- the highest of any post-EDSA president. In fact, Rodrigo Duterte is the only President to have not lost his honeymoon period- he plunged as low as +45 in 2018, but he recovered miraculously. Not even the pandemic seemed to dent his popularity. Meanwhile, the opposition had been decimated in the 2019 Midterm elections, and their only viable candidate- Vice President Leni Robredo- hemmed and hawed on whether she would run, leaving her supporters to patch together a “People’s campaign” in a few months.

With sky-high approval ratings, a dominant party, and a weakened campaign, the Duterte regime was well-positioned to beat the Curse of Incumbency.  And yet his government is first in post-EDSA history to not field its own “official” candidate in a Presidential election. Why is this the case? This question will be answered in my next column.

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