Philippine elections: Gendered leadership and minding the infrastructure gap

By Dr Derlie Mateo-Babiano
Associate Professor in Urban Planning, Melbourne School of Design

A groundswell of election-related news and activities dominates my newsfeed as I start to browse through my profile on social media.

From painting large murals on private property walls to the house-to-house election campaigns. The flash-mob variety show-like public rallies and picnic gatherings.

The hotly contested Philippine election is front and centre in the minds of Filipinos not just in the country, but across the globe. There are 1.7 million overseas Filipinos registered to vote and 65.7 million voting at home.

On May 9, the Philippines, an archipelagic nation of 7,100 plus islands, will elect more than 18,000 national and local positions.

On a single ballot, Filipinos will vote for their choice of president, vice president, 12 senators and several local positions.

COVID-19 could change gender dynamics

Because of the Philippines’ multi-party electoral system, numerous parties are allowed to put in their nominations. Nine pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates are vying for the highest positions in the country.

Yet what is telling about this national contest is the gendered nature of political leadership.  While more than half of the country’s 110 million population are female , only one of ten presidential aspirants is a woman. And there is a sole female vice-presidential candidate.

While there have been two female presidents elected to the highest post in the past, there is generally less public support for women candidates. And once elected, they are often bombarded with gender-based criticisms.

In the historically male-dominated and very toxic culture of the Philippine political landscape, women in leadership are often stereotyped as weak, indecisive and therefore not fit to lead.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an unusual setting for female leadership to shine globally, demonstrating forms of protective femininity , or showing a more caring and empathetic side in dealing with COVID challenges and trauma situations. So, this election could be different.

Elections would often set the stage for the nation’s foreign as well as domestic policies, hence, in a perfect world, people make their choices based on weighing and comparing candidates’ policy platforms. The sad reality is that this choice is often driven by personality politics.

Very much like a popularity or beauty contest, these ‘presidentiables’ will resort to literally singing and dancing. Their narratives often highlight their celebrity status or their illustrious family connections, rather than talk about their track record or focus on their future plans or policy platforms.

What's at stake for cities

Filipinos generally choose who will govern them but not necessarily how they will be governed. But there is so much at stake in this election. As one of the country’s architect and urban planner laments that Metro Manila is an urban planning mess.

The soon-to-be elected president stands as the chief ‘policy architect’ for the country. Therefore, we need to understand their policy platforms, infrastructure and development priorities.

Most importantly, they must provide a clear program on how to tackle big issues of our time: the climate emergency, urban densification, and the pathway out of the pandemic.

According to the Director of Development Studies at Ateneo de Manila University, Dr Jayeel Cornelio, the next six years will be a “crisis presidency”.

A few months ago, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries organised a forum for presidential candidates. Investments in human capital and economic infrastructure have figured prominently in their platforms. They shared how investment in tangible, big-ticket infrastructure projects will help stimulate the economy as the nation transitions into a post-COVID society.

Senator Manny Pacquiao declared that he will support and extend the planned national railway project to the south of Mindanao.

Labour rights activist Leody de Guzman is keen on funding hospitals while Senator Panfilo Lacson will focus his efforts on enhancing the national broadband as a way to improve information and communications technology infrastructure in the country.

A woman smiles and waves
Incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo is the only woman in the presidential race. Pic: Picryl

Mayor Isko Domagoso is focused on socialised housing while Vice President Leni Robredo, critical of the present government’s infrastructure priorities on “build, build, build,” will shift to ‘smarter’ infrastructures .

This means more support for digitization to improve access, strengthening the logistics sector, providing support to agricultural workers, bolstering innovation through incentives and extending credits to small and medium-sized enterprises.

Being a public transport commuter herself, Robredo firmly asserts that infrastructure projects should benefit the people, particularly transport commuters, workers, and the riding public will be prioritised and would move away from “car-centric” infrastructure.

The next Philippine presidential elections have highlighted a renewed focus on infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has set the scene and tone for infrastructure needs and policy reforms that will be required over the next six years.

While the candidates have shared with us the what, they were, however, unclear on the how. How these infrastructure projects can improve the livelihoods of the common Filipino remains uncertain.

We are at a critical juncture.

The voting public has the duty of care to either continue business as usual or pave the path towards a different politics where people are at the centre of conciliation fuelled by strong grassroots participation.

We might find ourselves being shaped by masculine roles and ideals. Or it may be time to embrace and enable a different kind of leadership. All of these have societal impacts.

So perhaps when all the votes have been counted and the results of the Philippine elections have been published, we will find ourselves realising that the last man standing could indeed be a woman.

Banner image: Election materials in Bacolod City ahead of a 2016 election in the Philippines. Source: Brian Evans/Flickr


politics; election Politics; Election southeast-asia; philippines Southeast Asia; The Philippines

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