Second of 3 parts
MANILA, Philippines – A candidate favored by the influential Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) “is half-assured of 80%” of the votes cast by INC voters in elections, according to De La Salle political science professor Gladstone Cuarteros.
The Iglesia is, after all, a solid bloc, considering that INC members regard as a religious duty going to the polling precincts on Election Day to carry out the command of their leaders.
In a close local race where the winning margin can only amount to a few hundred votes, this chunk of votes can spell the difference between victory or defeat. But in national races, this potency is yet to be tested convincingly. For instance, in senatorial races where voters nationwide have as many options of voting for 12 candidates, the INC’s bloc-voting power is effectively diluted.
Besides, most of those in the INC list are either in the winning circle based on pre-election surveys, with the names of the anointed ones released just a few days or days before the poll exercise.
In the May 13, 2013 mid-term elections for instance, 10 of the INC-endorsed candidates won, but this winning group had been predicted early on by pre-election surveys. The younger Jackie Enrile, who was endorsed by the INC, statistically had a chance of barging into the top 12 candidates, based on a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations from May 2-3. But it appears the INC endorsement was frustrated by Senator Gringo Honasan who was also endorsed by the sect. Honasan occupied the 12th spot.
It was former senator Richard Gordon who gained most from the INC endorsement as he was well outside of the winning circle days before the elections. When the last vote was counted, he was in 13th place, some 700,000 votes behind Honasan.
In the May 10, 2010 polls, all but one candidate carried by the INC won in the senatorial race. But the INC came up with its list two days after the Social Weather Stations (SWS) released its last pre-election survey. The INC list mirrored the SWS survey results. The only exception was Rufino Biazon, who was carried by the INC, but who placed 14th.
It was in the May 14, 2007 senatorial race that the vulnerability of the INC’s bloc-voting power was exposed when 3 of its chosen ones lost in the elections. Mike Defensor, Vicente Sotto III, and Ralph Recto placed 14th, 15th and 19th respectively in the polls.
A 4th one, Juan Miguel Zubiri, who managed to squeak past Aquilino Pimentel III for the last and 12th spot, later resigned in 2011 following allegations that he benefitted from massive cheating conducted in Maguindanao by the Arroyo administration. He was replaced by Pimentel.
If the effect of an INC endorsement for the senatorial races is debatable, it has some semblance of validity in tight presidential races. The last two presidential races – 2004 and 2010 – could be instructive.
In the 1992 presidential race, the INC backed the candidacy of “Danding” Cojuangco who placed 3rd behind Miriam Defensor-Santiago and eventual winner Fidel V. Ramos.
In the 1998 national polls, the sect threw its support behind Estrada but some observers say the effect of the INC endorsement was hardly felt since Estrada was the runaway winner anyway.
But the 2004 presidential race may tell a different story.
A former Cabinet secretary under both the Estrada and the Aquino administration observed that Arroyo would not have won in 2004 had the INC not supported her. Arroyo won over the late action star, Fernando Poe Jr, by a margin of one million votes.
The former Cabinet official said the INC was actually torn between then Senator Panfilo Lacson and Poe and it didn’t help that the two could not get their act together. “The INC issued an ultimatum between the two – that one of them should give way. If they cannot agree, then the INC said it will support Arroyo,” the source, who was privy to the INC deadline, said.
As it happened, talks between Lacson and Poe disintegrated. It was only then that the INC announced it was supporting Arroyo. In hindsight, “had Lacson given way, Poe would have won over Arroyo,” the former Cabinet official said. Arroyo won by 1.12 million votes, although allegations of massive cheating with the help of a disgraced poll commissioner, hounded the rest of her presidency.
In the 2010 presidential race, the INC abandoned Estrada and endorsed Aquino instead. He had been leading all pre-election surveys which made him a safer bet for the INC. The INC announced its choice 5 days before Election Day.
The former Cabinet official pointed out that Estrada would have overtaken Aquino if the INC chose the former president. Aquino got 15.208 million votes, while Estrada finished with 9.487 million.
But is it really just a case of dagdag-bawas (add-subtract) arithmetic where one merely adds the voting potential of the INC to the one endorsed and subtract the same number from the nearest rival?
INC size and clout
How big is the voting bloc of the INC in the first place?
A 2000 census showed that 2.3 % of the population belonged to the INC, with almost 81% to the Catholic faith. That year, the estimated population was 76.5 million. That means there were around 1.75 million INC members that time.
A separate exit poll conducted by SWS in partnership with media giant ABS-CBN in the 2001 mid-term elections tends to support the figures. In that exit survey, the SWS concluded that “the INC’s vote strength is only about 1.2 million or 3% of the total electorate.” In 2001, the total number of registered voters reached 36.3 million.
With a conversion rate between 68%-84%, “that translates to 800,000 to 1 million votes,” the SWS said. In the scheme of things, while such number may be small compared with the total number of registered voters, “as a solid voting bloc, INC votes can be very influential in helping borderline candidates for the Senate,” the SWS said.
In that election, the INC backed Santiago but the SWS said the INC bloc vote was not enough to propel her to victory. The 13th and last spot was secured by Honasan, edging out Enrile and Santiago who placed 14th and 15th, respectively.
“The exit poll revealed that INC’s support for Santiago was not enough to put her in the winning circle since other religious groups like Catholics, who comprise 82% of the electorate, gave more votes to Honasan than Santiago,” the SWS concluded.
Extrapolating from the 2001 figures, given the number of registered voters in 2010 at 50.7 million, the number of INC registered voters would only reach around 1.521 million.
Given his margin of victory over Estrada, Aquino would have won convincingly even without the INC endorsement.
The fact is, religious groups have the tendency to bloat their figures. The El Shaddai, as early as the 90s, claimed a membership of 7-8 million. Yet members of El Shaddai already of voting age only numbered 1.3 million, based on a survey conducted in 1998.
Since politics is addition, realpolitik dictates that one has to corner support from all sectors to capture the votes.
Allen Surla, professor at De La Salle University, pointed out that the INC bloc-voting has served the sect well “since they are able to negotiate with politicians” concessions that otherwise would have been denied of less organized groups.
“Anything they do, they do it collectively and they are able to show strength and unity,” he added.
In being able to affect who gets to be elected, they obtain some leverage from politicians – from sparing them from harassment or intimidation to as simple as allowing them to operate in peace. For local positions, they can even bargain for the employment of their own members, in exchange for perpetual political support.
“They may ask the mayor or the governor that a certain percentage of the employment be given to INC members,” Surla said.
But INC spokesman Edwil Zabala, in a separate interview, strongly denied that the INC bloc-vote has strings attached to it. “We vote, that’s it. It is one of the misconceptions that after voting, we do other things. Those who assert that, they should be the ones providing proof for their assertion. We vote, that’s all.”
The quid pro quo sought by the INC is more altruistic than for vested personal interests. The bottom-line is that it will be the church and its members who will benefit in the long run. “The INC provides for the housing and health care of its members. And they get the funding from the tithes given by the members. The more INC members have jobs, the bigger tithes they get.”
A retired Catholic archbishop agrees that the tithing imposed by the INC on its members has shaped the political nature of the group. “For instance, INC members are not allowed to participate in strikes. That makes their members more employable and more desired by employers. More employed members mean bigger tithing.”
In fact, the INC was one of the prime movers of the Overseas Filipino Workers phenomenon in the 70s which former president Ferdinand Marcos pushed, the retired archbishop said. “The remittances of these INC members helped the sect financially.”
It was Marcos who first realized that the INC could be cultivated as political allies. “In exchange for their political support, Marcos gave them concessions such as jobs for their members,” a long-time political observer said.
Slowly but surely, the INC began to realize its own potential clout in the national political arena. – Rappler.com