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MANILA, Philippines – Manuel “Mar” Roxas II has been through highs and lows since July 31, 2015, when President Benigno Aquino III anointed him the torchbearer of “Daang Matuwid.”
His numbers shot up after the endorsement. But as the official campaign period begins on Tuesday, February 9, Roxas is stuck at 20-22% – despite all the war chest behind him.
According to the latest surveys, the Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer either ranks 3rd or is statistically tied for 2nd with opposition standard-bearer Vice President Jejomar Binay.
What would it take to win the 2016 elections?
Issue 1: Identity crisis
Roxas has been a lot of things in his more than two decades in politics. That’s why he hasn’t made any headway so far.
He started as the reluctant politician who morphed into “Mr Palengke”, dancing and charming his way to garner the most votes in the 2004 senatorial race.
He’s been called “Boy Bawang” after a dramatic stunt to oppose former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s plan to change the Constitution. In 2010, he was the man who put “bayan bago sarili (country before self)” when he let go of his presidential dreams to make way for Aquino.
Today, he is the “Pambato ng Daang Matuwid (Champion of the Straight Path),” who promises to continue and strengthen the gains of the current administration.
And there lies the problem: Roxas’ messaging has been erratic at best – or a failure at worst – in the last two decades. The same problem plagues him now.
Last year’s opening salvo was a dramatic ad of Aquino declaring that there was “no one else” but Roxas.
This was followed by a flashy and celebrity-packed “Fast Forward” music video, which earned online ire. There were a series of ads that trumpeted the gains of “Daang Matuwid” through testimonies of beneficiaries.
They all fell flat – if his survey ratings are an indication.
This year, Roxas seems to have finally found his groove through stripped-down ads that saw him admitting he was “boring” while boasting that he gets the work done and most importantly, that he does not steal.
Is Roxas a straightforward, no-frills technocrat or is he Aquino 2.0? According to sources from within Roxas’ camp, the two need not be separate; the challenge is to weave both narratives into one.
But can his camp fine tune this message enough to bag a seat in Malacañang?
University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay said the problem is that between “bayan bago sarili” and “Pambato ng Daang Matuwid,’ Roxas somehow “got lost.”
“His image before was that of a technocrat, a financial mind. Why do you think he was number 1 senator? Why was he entrusted these Cabinet portfolios? He needs to go back to the Mar Roxas before 2010,” Arugay told Rappler.
But it might be too late to heed that advice, since neither Roxas nor the ruling party has any plans of revising their campaign message. At most, said “Daang Matuwid” coalition spokesman Marikina Representative Romero Quimbo, they need to change or improve on how they communicate “Daang Matuwid.”
Issue 2: Steer clear of controversy
It’s a no-brainer for any candidate to dream of a controversy-free run. But there have been times when Roxas himself courted, or at least entertained, controversy.
Late 2015, Roxas found himself in a heated word war with friend-turned-foe Duterte.
It started when the Davao mayor accused Roxas of being behind rumors Duterte had cancer, a claim Roxas and the LP quickly denied and never downplayed. But Duterte seemed to still begrudge Roxas for his supposed treachery.
Months later, Roxas fired back when he said the notion of Davao being the country’s safest city was a mere “myth.” Duterte hit back, accusing Roxas of incompetence in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) before claiming that the interior secretary was lying about his Wharton degree. The Davao mayor said he’d slap Roxas should they cross paths in the campaign.
A visibly peeved Roxas faced the media days after and challenged Duterte to a slap-dare should he prove that his Wharton degree existed. The verbal tussle escalated into a fist-fight challenge, a gun duel dare, before Roxas finally backed down and called on Duterte to a debate.
Rival politicians were quick to criticize the two for the exchange. It seemed out of character for Roxas, usually nonchalant about “baseless” allegations, to flare up like that.
And while they traded barbs over media, Binay was busy pressing flesh, keeping quiet, working to regain the numbers he had lost.
There are some issues that are simply hurled against Roxas. At the height of uncertainly about disqualification cases against her before the Commission on Elections (Comelec), Poe accused Roxas and Binay of being behind moves to take her out of the race.
Binay was quick to deny this, pointing out that he, too, has been a victim of unfair attacks.
The ruling LP, whose party chairman appointed the officials in Comelec, found it much more difficult to deflect those accusations. Both Roxas and his party deny having a hand in any of the cases against Poe, whom they once tried to woo as a vice presidential bet.
Issue 3: Will ‘Daang Matuwid’ work?
Ask any stalwart of the ruling party and the answer to the question is easy: of course it will.
For LP members and supporters, “Daang Matuwid” is as real as can be in the form of programs that aim to redistribute wealth, universal health care, and a budgeting process that supposedly “empowers” the regular Filipino.
But for Arugay, “the people who think that things need to be continued, and it’s only the status quo that needs to be preserved, are those who are living in a bubble.”
The LP is quick to admit this: banking on the promised continuity also means taking on the failures of the current administration.
Step one should be Roxas owning up to the mistakes of the administration.
The party says they’ve already worked on this, and promises the release of a “general program of action” which will detail Roxas’ plans to address the country’s problems, including the shortcomings of Aquino.
Roxas and his running mate Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo’s numbers soared post-endorsement but tapered in the months that followed. Is this how “Daang Matuwid” works?
Arugay said it’s the effect of a “campaign in denial.”
“It’s denying a lot of things by portraying that things are good, we just want to work and build on it and expand it. They’re not good. You see it every day. You see the lack of governance, the lack of government presence everyday. Traffic, crime, lack of infrastructure,” he added.
The LP hopes Aquino’s popularity and overall good satisfaction ratings will boost their candidates’ numbers, particular during the official campaign period when Aquino is expected to push aggressively for his bets.
Again, Arugay sees a flaw in that plan. “The assumption is that the way Philippine politics is conducted is based on institutions or based on affiliations, and not personal. But it’s personal. Aquino’s satisfaction ratings are his. It’s not transferrable,” he said.
The Roxas campaign is set to expound more on “Daang Matuwid” while also focusing on Roxas’ strengths – particularly, his track record both in the legislative and executive branches of government as a financial expert.
“He needs to tell us what he plans to do differently from Aquino. Because there are differences between the two. You see it in the statements of Roxas that he seems to have a different approach. But what is that approach? He’s being too careful not to veer away from Aquino. If that’s the case, then he’s unlikely to get votes,” said Arugay.
Issue 4: All aboard, no jumping ship
Roxas was among the first presidential bets to announce a 2016 run, second only to Binay.
With every addition of a popular candidate to the race came rumors of LP members jumping ship to find a more “viable” candidate. Mouthpieces of the party were quick to downplay those rumors, but Roxas was a little more pragmatic.
Amid reports that a handful LP members from Mindanao were going to support Duterte instead, Roxas simply said “that’s how democracy works.”
LP members from all over the country took turns reiterating their support for the president-on-leave, insisting that neither regional affiliations nor survey ratings could sway them to the other side.
But if his numbers continue to be lackluster as the campaign progresses, Roxas is in danger of seeing last-minute changes of heart, particularly in local races.
Local races could also prove to be tricky for the LP, particularly in areas where an LP member is running against a politician who is not a member of, but is allied with, the LP.
One colorful example is the province of Laguna, where the LP forged an alliance with local Nacionalista Party members led by Governor Ramil Hernandez. Hernandez has the incumbent vice governor, an NP member, as his running mate. But Provincial Board Member Angelica Jones, a member of the LP, is also running for vice governor. During recent sorties in Laguna, Roxas made it a point to give attention to both candidates, being careful not to call either of them “the next vice governor.”
Making sure that local gatekeepers stay yellow until the end will be crucial. All politics is local, after all. – Rappler.com