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MANILA, Philippines - Months before the 2004 elections, John “Sonny” Osmena was ranking 3rd or 4th in pre-election surveys, making him a shoo-in for a senatorial seat. He was a veteran politician with a formidable family name. His base was vote-rich Cebu. He knew how to play the media game.
Osmeña was running for a second term as senator under the K4 coalition party of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In 1998, he placed 8th in the official count, with more than 9 million votes. A defeat for a re-electionist like him was almost unthinkable.
And then something happened.
A few weeks before the May 10 elections of 2004, a self-confessed call boy hogged the headlines when he accused Osmeña of rape. Osmeña denied the charge and the complaint was eventually dismissed by the Department of Justice for lack of probable cause. But the damage was done. Osmeña lost his senatorial bid that year, placing 15th in a field of 48 candidates
Osmeña would admit that the rape allegations turned off a lot voters. But he figured it was something he could live down. Thus he ran for yet another Senate seat in 2007. But he lost, placing 20 in a field of 37 candidates.
A few years earlier, in 1998, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim surprised everyone when he threw his hat in the presidential race and ran against tough opponents such as Joseph Estrada and Jose de Venecia Jr. Lim had one reason to be confident: he got the endorsement of then former President Corazon Aquino and implicitly, by extension, that of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin. (Both Mrs Aquino and Sin are now deceased.)
With the backing of these two EDSA figures, he believed he had a fighting chance to become president.
But any chance Lim might have had went down the drain after certain sectors questioned his citizenship. A court petition alleged that he was not a natural-born Filipino, which is a constitutional requirement for presidential candidates. Lim lost big time, placing fifth in the presidential race with 2.3 million votes. The winner of that race, Estrada, got 10.7 million votes.
Lim’s citizenship was raised again in this year’s midterm race in his return bout with Estrada -- this time for the Manila mayoral post. The obvious formula was: if it worked in the past, it should work again.
Various shapes and shades
Scandals, exposés, court cases -- these are some of the tested tricks of the trade that are usually launched in the homestretch of campaigns. And they come in various shades and shapes.
While they do not count as the sole factor for the defeat of a candidate, they usually spell the difference if crafted well and made at the right time. They can be fatal to one's candidacy.
We interviewed 4 sources -- two political operators and two PR practitioners -- who identified at least 5 of the most effective dirty tricks during elections.
1. Character assassination
Osmeña has long been hounded by rumors he's gay, and this made him an easy target. Before this, Osmeña rankled not a few public figures with his constant tirades against power contracts entered into by the Ramos administration with independent power producers. At one point, Ramos attended a Senate Blue hearing on the power mess, the first former President to do so.
It did not help that Osmena allied himself with President Estrada during the latter’s impeachment. In 2004, he switched sides and joined the camp of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Osmeña never got to meet his alleged accuser face-to- face, as the supposed sex worker wore a mask during media interviews. The Cebuano lawmaker refused to dignify the allegations, and he paid a high price for it.
The late Senator Raul Roco -- a one-time presidential wannabe -- was also the subject of innuendos. He was rumored to be a wife-beater, despite being named "honorary woman" for championing the rights of women. In this year’s election, Sen Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III had to parry allegations that he beat his estranged wife, which was supposedly one of the reasons why they got separated.
One's buried past can be fodder character assassination. Senatorial aspirant Juan “Jack” Ponce Enrile Jr was forced to address long-rumored talks that he killed matinee idol Alfie Anido, former boyfriend of his sister Katrina.
2. Psychological fitness
This dirty trick worked against then presidential candidate Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who lost to Fidel Ramos in the 1992 presidential race. But President Benigno Aquino III got away with it. At the height of their presidential campaigns, Santiago was referred to as “tililing” (gay lingo for crazy), while Aquino was called "abnoy" (or abnormal).
Reports that Aquino underwent psychological treatment persisted even after he became president. At the height of the impeachment of Renato Corona, the then Chief Justice (who was later dismissed) dared Aquino to make public the purported psychological record. And every now and then, Santiago's critics continue to question her psychological fitness.
3. Disqualification, death, withdrawal
This is the most popular weapon among members of a campaign team's dirty tricks unit. Rumors of death, disqualification and withdrawal of a candidate surface just a few days before election day. The aim is to confuse voters, especially the undecided ones.
These false reports used to spread through word of mouth. But the false reports now fly fast and easy through text messaging and anonymous posts on social media. A rumor is now simply a click away.
One political operator says this strategy has evolved through the years. For instance, candidates file disqualification cases against their rivals for the flimsiest reason, just to set the stage, so to speak. Then a few days before the election, they spread rumors that the disqualification case has been granted. Sometimes this trick works, sometimes, it doesn’t.
4. Questionable qualification
Defeated presidential candidate Sen Manuel Villar was subjected to this trick not once but many times in the 2010 national elections. First, rivals sought to demolish his claim that he came from a poor family. Then, his critics questioned his ethics as a public official, because of allegations he used his position and taxpayers’ money to protect his business empire.
The controversies hurt his credibility, painting him as an opportunist who would use his position to further his personal and business interests. Juxtapose this with his flip-flopping loyalties (from being crowned by Estrada as House Speaker to stealthily maneuvering the impeachment of his patron) -- and the image is complete.
The most recent one to be subjected to a demolition job of this nature is re-electionist Sen Loren Legarda, for supposedly not declaring in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) a posh condo property in New York worth $700,000. Legarda has accused a PR man of being behind the supposed demolition job to benefit another candidate who is supposed to be lusting for the presidency in 2016.
5. Fake, planted or staged scenario
This could take the form of staging a scenario that puts one's rival in a bad light. One example is to stage a fake ambush or assassination attempt and blame it on the other candidate.
If this style is not preferred (either for being dangerous or contrived), there are safer options.
One classic example that operators love to share is the art of making candidates look bad among voters. “Have someone distribute cash and attribute this to the candidate. Tell the people that Candidate A has more cash to share if they will attend his political rally. People will then go to the rally, expecting to be given money. If Candidate A refuses, then the people who went there will feel they’ve been taken for a ride. Then they will have a negative impression of that candidate.”
One emerging variation of this is to stage vote-buying purportedly being done by a rival, have it photographed and shared on social media. Another variation is to make it appear that a rival is violating Comelec rules, like the rule on campaign paraphernalia. The point is to make it appear that the rival is so desperate for votes.
What is the best way to counter black propaganda?
Those we interviewed say the best way to neutralize a demolition job is to face the allegations and issues head on. “This was the mistake of Villar. He hedged in defending himself in the C-5 controversy. By the time he decided to face the allegations, the public had made up their mind,” one political operator said. A Villar political ally confirmed this. “We could not defend him in the local level since he decided to clam up. How could we defend him if he was not talking?”
In the case of Legarda, she immediately answered the allegation and identified the supposed PR man behind her alleged questionable SALN declarations. “That was one way of neutralizing the attack.”
If a demolition job is about withdrawal, death or disability, one has to make himself or herself seen in public -- even in wakes. “Attend a mass, go to wet markets, go to wakes and fiestas. Make yourself visible. Do not just counter with a press release or a text message.”
To be sure, demolition jobs will have a certain effect on one’s chances, and the challenge is to contain damage to the minimum. “Of course, it won't hurt if you will have your own demolition team," says one of our sources. An eye for an eye, after all, adds spice to an otherwise boring campaign. - Rappler.com
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