The Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan: Implications for National Elections (Part 1)

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, The Philippines cannot afford political partisanship and personality-based politics that stymie an interaction between local and national actions and harm the public interest.The elections are two years away and the country would benefit from early work that creates conditions that enable a broader electoral debate on why and how development, the economy and climate action are linked.

When Typhoon Haiyan made landfall as one of the world’s strongest storms in recent memory, it revealed the strengths and weaknesses of Philippine political leaders. It exposed the potential of political partisanship and personality-based politics to stymie a winning interaction between local and national institutions in the benefit of society.The predicted effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, will provide similar tests of governance in the Philippines and around the world.

With so much at stake, it is worth examining how and why Typhoon Haiyan, as well as climate change, could shape priorities in the local and national elections in the Philippines in 2016. We traveled to the provinces of Leyte and Eastern Samar more than a month after Typhoon Haiyan to assess how the disaster had changed people’s perception of the links between climate change and effective governance.

Although President Benigno Aquino III and local officials made the necessary preparations for the typhoon, including readying aircraft, equipment, personnel, evacuation alerts and warnings for residents, the impacts of the storm were overwhelming: At least 6,092 were killed in the disaster, with 1,779 still missing today. The death toll has continued to rise; surpassing the official expected casualty count of 2,500 people. Power and communication lines in various provinces were crippled, infrastructure was obliterated and newly-appointed rehab czar and former senator Panfilo Lacson has said that around US$4 billion will be needed to rebuild the areas affected by Haiyan.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Aquino claimed that some local officials failed to adequately prepare for the typhoon. The political sensitivity of this matter is rooted in a rivalry over two decades old. Romualdez is the nephew of former First Lady Imelda Marcos, wife of the late President Ferdinand Marcos. President Marcos’ 20 year dictatorship was heavily criticized by then Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who was assassinated in 1983. His death sparked “People Power”, a movement that toppled the Marcos administration.Aquino’s son, Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III, was elected president in 2010, while Marcos’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. became senator in the same year.

The squabble between these two powerful families sheds light on the scrutiny directed toward local and national government at times of disaster. Existing laws and national and local disaster mandates do not require local government units to formally or legally seek the assistance of the national government for disaster relief since it is assumed that this should be provided automatically. Although Haiyan calls for national and local convergence and tighter coordination, these objectives have been put on the backburner by partisan politics.

Learning from other disaster responses

Conflict between Aquino and Romualdez echoes the disagreement between former Republican President George W. Bush, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. Bush was heavily attacked for the U.S. government’s poor and delayed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed more than 1,000 people, and cost the government US$81 billion in property damages. Bush was also rebuked for crossing swords with Blanco over disaster relief and evacuation problems.

How did the electorate react? According to the Research Center for the People and the Press, Bush’s approval ratings dipped by 4 points and 69 % of the respondents in a poll conducted two weeks after Hurricane Katrina said they wanted the next president to be “different” from Bush. The Republican Party also lost many congressional seats in 2006, with Hurricane Katrina seen as a major deciding point for voters.

Comparing the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina to President Barack Obama’s supervised disaster response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 reveals crucial differences in how various leaders respond to these disasters. Obama, who was in the middle of a reelection campaign, leveraged the praise he received for his quick and “across the aisle” coordination with Republican Governor Chris Christie. He earned approval for his active monitoring of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from other Republicans as well.

Voter Concerns after Haiyan

Interviews with Typhoon Haiyan survivors revealed that people value leaders who set aside politics to strengthen coordination and cooperation in the face of disasters. They want leaders to be transparent about their efforts to organize relief delivery and failing to support victims encourages allegations of political favoritism.

Interviews with Typhoon Haiyan survivors revealed that people value leaders who set aside politics to strengthen coordination and cooperation in the face of disasters.

The story of Allan Catuday, 50, one of the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, shows how politics, elections and governance could be affected and improved by facing the challenge of climate change. Catuday lost his home and livelihood as a coconut farmer in Haiyan when thousands of coconut trees were uprooted. He and his family now rely on aid for subsistence months after the disaster. Catuday wants the next barangay (or neighborhood) captain to ensure that goods will be efficiently and equitably distributed among those who were affected, regardless of whether the victims supported the official during the elections . Catuday said the delivery of aid to survivors has been conducted on a “color-coding” basis that favors “yellow,” referring to the color of the Liberal party to which the major of the town belongs.

Arthur Maraya, whose eight relatives were among the 150 people buried in a mass grave in Palo, Leyte, wants their next mayor to be able to explain what a “storm surge” is. “Our mayor told us stay at home because the typhoon will be strong. But our homes were washed out. If they explained to us what a storm surge is, we could have known what to do,” he said.

Genelyn Albarico from Guiuan, said the next mayor should also be able to provide security to prevent instances of looting, a problem which in turn leads to price increases as people resell products at much higher prices. She also wants public officials, down to the barangay captain, to know what climate change is. “If they don´t know anything about it, people could die,” she said.

A buzzword?

Even before Typhoon Haiyan, Philippine politicians have included disaster preparedness and climate change in previous political campaigns. Some even made these topics the centerpiece of their candidacy, such as Sen. Loren Legarda and governor Joey Salceda, who each proposed solutions and responses to climate change challenges.

A study published in 2011 by Professor Michael Canares concluded that local government units in the province of Bohol “hardly responded” to the climate change challenge. After reviewing the local development plans of 60% of the municipalities in Bohol since 2004, Canares discovered that adaptation and mitigation were not included in the plans, nor had any climate change vulnerability assessment studies been conducted. He cited two reasons for the lack of responses – “a very raw and shallow understanding of the causes, effects, and possible local solutions to climate change, and the pessimism that such a global solution can be addressed by local actors and actions.”

The Philippines would benefit from addressing the challenge of climate change as a priority in politics and in public policy. In the second part of this article, we lay out the case for making climate and sustainability into pivotal issues in the 2016 election and outline ideas as to how to create conditions that will turn this into a reality.

Upcoming article sneak peek

What to Expect on Climate from Latin America's New Presidents?