Election Fever Hits the Philippines
October 21, 2015
From October 12-16, thousands trooped to national and local Commission on Elections (COMELEC) offices across the Philippines to file certificates of candidacy for the May 2016 elections. The wannabes came in all shapes and sizes, some in attire portraying revolutionaries from the period film “Heneral Luna,” or shirts emblazoned with intergalactic space invaders. It was like a Philippine fiesta with bystanders ogling at politicians with movie stars in tow.
Even President Aquino joined the Liberal Party’s mass at the cathedral nearby and accompanied presidential candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas and his running mate, Leni Robredo, to the COMELEC, to the surprise of his own security guards and the media.
Whether legitimate or a nuisance, serious or bizarre, the candidates brought drama and comic relief to an otherwise stressful week for the COMELEC. In a country where politics and show business intertwine, and politicians are voted for based upon their surnames or for the commercial endorsements they make, the 2016 election appears to be no different from past elections. At the filing, old and new faces stood together, donning new political parties or discarding old ones, embracing old enemies, or “conveniently” finding new friends all in an effort to lure voters over the next seven months.
Despite the pageantry surrounding the election, much is at stake. For presidential candidate Jejomar Binay, a win could mean an erasure of the corruption charges leveled against him, and the political survival of his clan (his children are an incumbent senator, representative, and mayor.) For Mar Roxas, it means continuity of the reforms that President Aquino began and the survival of the Liberal Party.
For Grace Poe, it means poetic justice and revenge for her adopted father, Fernando Poe, Jr. who was allegedly cheated of the presidency in 2004. For VP candidate Bongbong Marcos, it means a rewriting of the darkest pages of Philippine history under the Marcos dictatorship. For VP candidate Chiz Escudero, it means the fastest way to the presidency in 2020, or earlier, should Grace Poe win the election but lose the disqualification case.
Gauging from latest public opinion surveys, it will be a hotly contested election for both the president and VP positions. There is no clear favorite at present, and the winners for both positions are expected to win by a close margin. They will clearly not replicate President Aquino’s landslide victory in 2010 elections. (He won by a plurality with the highest percentage of votes since the restoration of democracy in 1986, garnering 15,208,678 votes, or 42 percent of the total.
With the coupling and de-coupling of presidential and vice presidential tandems from mixed political parties (the two posts are elected separately), the election results will be determined not by the party machinery but by the personal networks of the candidates. Of all the tandems, only the Roxas-Robredo one is running under one ticket, the Liberal Party. The other tandems are a mixed bag of politicians, some of whom have over time been on opposite sides of the political fences. Strange bedfellows they make, with the lines of activism and opportunism blurring at every turn.
The race for the vice presidential post is equally interesting. There are more VP candidates than there are presidential candidates. Some of the VP candidates made early proclamations and shopped around for presidential candidates who would take them. Three of the VP candidates come from the Nacionalista Party (NP) but are running as “independents” – their decisions were purely personal and did not go through a party convention (no surprise there). With the split in the NP votes, they would have to rely on their personal networks to win. In the case of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (Bongbong), he will depend on the Ilocano bloc and Marcos loyalists, while Alan Peter Cayetano will depend on the patron-client networks built over the years (wife Lani is incumbent mayor of Taguig, sister Pia is incumbent senator, and brother Lino is representative of the 2nd district of Taguig). And both Gregorio Honasan and Antonio Trillanes IV (both previous coup plotters), will bank on the support of uniformed personnel and their families. However, even regional loyalties will not be enough. Four of the VP candidates hail from the Bicol region: Robredo, Honasan, Trillanes, and Escudero. Thus, the Bicol bloc will also be split among the four (assuming voters will vote for their own kin).
The election will also be a baptism of fire for the new COMELEC chair, Andres Bautista. With a highly contested election, it will take all the powers and sobriety of the COMELEC to ensure that the election is credible and that the results are accepted by the public and the candidates.
Inasmuch as Philippine politics is a “politics of personality,” it is wishful thinking that substantive issues will take center stage in election campaigns. The issues of reducing poverty, licking corruption, establishing peace in the South, and addressing maritime security will likely be lost among the smokescreen of kingmakers who push candidates in pursuit of entitlements and historical claims to the throne. It will still be a “Game of Thrones,” Philippine-style. Similar to the fickle-minded and opportunistic character of the banners who easily switched loyalties from Robert to Stannis to Renly (Baratheon), and the horse-trading, alliance-building, back-stabbing, and rumor-mongering that occurred in and out of the courts of Westeros, campaign strategists will dig deeply into the pasts of rivals, looking for skeletons in the closets that could expose their rivals’ weaknesses. Of course, the ever-reliable Lannister gold will always come in handy. Last week, rumors of alleged payments provided to supporters of a presidential candidate were headlined.
In an election such as this, who will emerge as winners? Oh, plenty, and not just those who will fill the seats they ran for. The “winners” will be the candidates who ran to receive the outpouring of campaign funds or for the publicity generated (for a possible Cabinet position or dry run for the 2022 election); and of course, the spin-doctors and publicists whose income will be augmented by the praises or the criticisms they deliver over the radio or television. And the losers? Plenty, too. In “Game of Thrones,” as in “Heneral Luna,” men of principles and integrity get killed (or mangled at the polls). Aside from the candidates without the money and the personal connections, the 62 million plus voters run the danger of being hoodwinked by the glib talkers and their promises stand to lose. That is unless they separate the wheat from the chaff, discern the truth from the glib talk, and rise above the din of the circus that is the election.
Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in the Philippines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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