A mandate to do what?

Most political analysts have no problem in saying that the winner in the 2016 presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte, has earned a clear mandate. Yet, they will probably disagree with one another as to what this mandate instructs him to do.

Duterte did not win by a majority, but by a simple plurality of just over 39 percent of the total votes cast for president. This means that 60 percent of the voters—the majority—did not choose him as their president.

That is not unusual. It has been the pattern under the 1987 Constitution. In other countries with a runoff system, an electoral outcome like this triggers a second round, in which voters would be asked to choose the next president from the two front-runners.

Yet, to many Filipino voters, majority support is not as important as winning by a “landslide.”  The focus is on the margin by which the winner has defeated his or her closest rival. Duterte won by a decisive margin of nearly 16 percent of the votes. That is seen as a solid basis for a mandate.

Clearly, “mandate” is not a legal term.  But neither is it just a figment of political rhetoric.  Not all winners in presidential contests can claim a mandate. Fidel V. Ramos could not because only a thin minority chose him to be president in 1992.  But he managed to negotiate a mandate in the course of his presidency.  Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was proclaimed the winner in the fraud-tainted election of 2004, but, throughout the nine years she was in office, she never managed to claim a mandate. In contrast, in 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III won convincingly and, at once, claimed the mandate to clean up government and solve poverty. Congress and the public gave him all the support he needed.

Clearly, a presidential mandate is a matter of perception. An elected president might claim it in order to overhaul the national policy agenda.  From Day One of his campaign, for example, Duterte signaled that he would not be content with merely enforcing the laws passed by Congress.  He promised to “fix this country,” and, more specifically, to suppress criminality and illicit drugs within three to six months.  He made known that he is prepared to resort to harsh measures to achieve this.

But, beyond these ambiguous statements, what was said during the campaign can hardly serve as a guide for determining what the people’s will is on a lot of important issues. Should we take his decisive victory as a mandate to change the form of government, to invite the armed Left to sit in government, to rehabilitate the image of Ferdinand Marcos in our nation’s history, to restore the death penalty, etc.—just to name a few of the topics on which he has pronounced himself while waiting to be sworn in as the country’s next president?

The American political scientist Patricia Heidotting Conley, in a book titled “Presidential Mandates: How Elections Shape the National Agenda,” writes: “Mandates imply that politicians receive direction from the voters who elected them. In practice, however, the voice of the people is not so easy to decipher, even if all votes are accurately counted.”

Were the Filipino voters rejecting democracy and expressing a preference for strongman rule when they chose Duterte? Then, how do we explain the triumph of Leni Robredo over the son and namesake of the late dictator in the vice presidential race?  Were the voters communicating an intense rejection of the administration by not choosing its candidate, Mar Roxas? If so, how come 7 out of the 12 winners in the senatorial race were from the administration slate?  If the vote for Duterte was truly a vote against oligarchic rule, how do we make sense of the fact that in the last elections, except in a few places, political dynasties easily kept their grip on local power?

If a mandate is a command given by the voters, what exactly is the content of this command?  I don’t think anyone knows.

Knowledge, in this context, would have to assume a deep understanding of the reasoning that went into every vote, the contingencies that determined the candidates’ messaging and shaped media reporting, the role of campaign finance and machinery, etc. In view of this complexity, does it still make sense to speak of presidential mandates?

Conley believes it does. But, rather than talk of mandates as if they were unproblematically deducible from electoral outcomes, she argues that it might be more useful to view presidential mandates “as summary judgments of political possibilities, made in an environment of uncertainty and limited information.”

Concluding from her study of US presidents from 1828 to 1996, she writes: “A president will only claim a mandate—and change the policy agenda—if he believes that he can mobilize voters and then members of Congress to support his point of view.  Mandates are perceptions of political opportunity.”

No one probably knows this better by now than President-elect Duterte. By making extreme statements on a wide range of issues, later revising these or even taking them back as jokes, he has been able to see how far he could go in changing the national policy agenda. He has seen the opportunity, and there is no doubt he will seize it to challenge old ways of thinking. I can imagine how affirmed he must feel to see members of Congress lining up to join his party even before he has assumed the presidency.

Yet, even he seems bothered by all this fawning. This cannot serve as a mirror for government. The other day, I heard him say: “Don’t worship me. Worship the Constitution!”  I don’t know what prompted him to say that, but I take it to mean he will welcome being told if he’s overstepping his mandate.

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