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  • Local Machines and Vote Brokerage in the Philippines
  • Edward Aspinall (bio), Michael W. Davidson (bio), Allen Hicken (bio), and Meredith L. Weiss (bio)

The 2016 general election in the Philippines attracted global attention for the man who won the presidency: Rodrigo Duterte. The tough talking mayor and former Congressional representative from Davao City hesitated before joining the race, but then became an [End Page 191] indomitable force in the weeks before the elections on 9 May. Duterte’s meteoric rise, and the race for the presidency generally, helped mask the electoral drama that unfolds every three years at the local level and upon which national candidates so desperately depend.

As part of a multi-country investigation into clientelist networks and patronage flows in the context of electoral politics across Southeast Asia, the authors travelled throughout the Philippines to study the elections from a grassroots level. Joining our effort were members of a team of forty-five researchers, distributed across a roughly representative set of congressional districts nationwide.1 Our researchers interviewed candidates, campaign staff and vote-brokers (termed locally liders); observed campaign events; and scrutinized both messages and gifts distributed. The aim of the project was to develop a coherent sense not only of how campaigns worked on the ground, but also how that ground varied (or not) across areas and communities.

Accordingly, our discussion in this article is pitched towards what local candidates and their teams did before and during the campaign. Duterte is an exemplary case: his tightly knit local machine, centred around him as mayor, is a common political pattern in the Philippines — what is unusual is merely how far that machine propelled him. Local electoral dynamics shed light on two key dimensions of Philippine elections: the nature of political alliances and machines, and the role of money in greasing the wheels of those machines and steering voters’ loyalties and votes.

Political Alliances and Machinery

Our starting point was Davao City, Duterte’s home base. The most startling feature of local politics in Davao was that virtually everyone supported Duterte, regardless of the presidential candidate or party with which they were formally allied. As candidate for mayor, Duterte had curated a (successful) local party, Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod, complete with a slate of candidates for the city council. His efforts to root out crime (however brutally) and clamp down on corruption, together with local pride at the prospect of the first-ever president from Mindanao, combined to produce extraordinarily zealous support for Duterte among locals. Duterte’s place at the apex of a unified, loyal local machine carried him upward, with his national-party berth under Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP–Laban) being mere expedience. [End Page 192]

Yet, Duterte’s popularity did not necessarily translate into support for other candidates from his party. Nationally, his vice-presidential running mate, Senator Peter Cayetano, was a distant third in the polling. Locally, while candidates in many areas were eager to capitalize on Duterte’s popularity, his coat-tails proved somewhat limited outside of his home city of Davao. Just a couple of hours north of Davao, in Compostela Valley, voter support for Duterte was strong and he handily won the province. Yet, his popularity could not trump the local political machines mobilizing votes for local candidates on other tickets. Machines affiliated with the local dynasties and the ruling Liberal Party swept the races for governor, vice-governor, congress, and the bulk of municipal and provincial board seats.

Duterte is emblematic of a pattern of local electoral politics that recurs across the Philippines: the mayor-centred machine. Explained a city administrator (and former city counsellor) in the Central Visayas: “If you have a strong mayor, you have a strong party.” Typically, such machines will be organized under the banner of a local faction or party — often aligned with a national party. Frequently it is a local dynasty, or some alliance of families, that forms the backbone of such a machine. Local machines will often endorse candidates for national positions from the same party with which they are aligned, and those candidates and/or that party, in turn, may contribute campaign resources in exchange for access to the...


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pp. 191-196
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