Can 'Daang Matuwid' win a Philippine election?
MANILA, Philippines – When Manuel Roxas II announced his bid for the presidency in 2016, he was not only the ruling Liberal Party (LP)'s standard-bearer or President Benigno Aquino III's anointed candidate.
"Pambato ng Daang Matuwid (Champion of the Straight Path)" is how Roxas and his campaign team fashions the former interior secretary in a presidential election that's shaping up to be the most competitive in recent history.
The LP's promise, after all, is the continuation and strengthening of "Daang Matuwid (Straight Path)", its catch-all phrase for its good governance, anti-corruption, and transparency platform.
"Hinding-hindi ako lilihis sa Daang Matuwid. Ibubuhos ko ang lahat; wala akong ititira para sa sarili ko. I will leave everything on the floor para sa labang ito (I will never veer away from the Straight Path. I will give my all, I won't leave anything for myself. I will leave everything on the floor for this fight)," an emotional Roxas said in a speech after Aquino’s endorsement.
"Naniniwala ako: Hindi lang ito tungkol sa akin o kay PNoy. Ang Daang Matuwid ay tungkol sa mga pangarap ng bawa't Pilipino. Sabi nga ng Pangulo: It is worth fighting for (I believe that this is not about me or Aquino. Daang Matuwid is about the dream of every Filipino. The President once said: It is worth fighting for). It is worth sacrificing for, and dying for, if need be. The straight path transcends me and PNoy; it is a Filipino ideal that has been there long before we were born, and will remain long after we are gone."
"Hinahamon tayo ng kasaysayan na isabuhay ang prinsipyong ito; na magpatuloy sa ating paglalakbay; na ipaglaban ang ating mga pangarap bilang lahi (History is challenging us to live up to this principle; to continue the journey and to fight for our dreams as a race)," added Roxas.
But it is a lofty – if not peculiar – campaign slogan in a country where calls for reform and change are the norm in every election and where potential for greatness has always been just that: a promise.
It has been 6 months since those words were uttered, and Roxas numbers in preference polls have shot up – and then plateaued. LP and Roxas supporters claim that unlike his rivals, they have the numbers, programs, and beneficiaries to back them up.
Will these be enough to bag a seat in Malacañang?
‘Daang Matuwid’ bubble?
In sorties attended by Roxas, testimonies from beneficiaries of various government programs – the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), Bottom-up Budgeting Process, and universal health care services – typically take center stage.
"Hindi naman tayo nagtaas ng buwis. Hindi tayo nagbago ng pambubuwis. Pero, anong pagkakaiba? Bakit tayo may pera ngayon? Dahil hindi na ninanakaw ang inyong pera (We did not raise taxes. We did not change taxation. But what's the difference? Why do we have funds now? Because your money is no longer stolen)," Roxas told supporters in a recent visit to San Mateo, Rizal, referring to the current administration's programs.
Testimonies from beneficiaries figured prominently in the LP's kick-off for the official campaign period. In between speeches by its senatorial bets were dramatic video interviews with locals who are recipients of the 4Ps or of PhilHealth.
Those from the LP and the Roxas campaign claim this is the difference between their campaign and others: while they can promise the sun and stars, the LP has proof that it's delivered.
But it's a mentality that belongs in a "bubble," said University of the Philippines Diliman Associate Professor Aries Arugay.
"If I were a candidate, the only way that I could really say that the current status quo is good and it needs to be continued is if only I am so out of the loop of what is really happening in the country," he told Rappler in an interview ahead of the official start of the campaign period on February 9.
Arugay downplayed the Aquino administration’s gain – the same benchmarks the Official Gazette boasts about – by pointing out that despite a high gross domestic product growth rate, unemployment has yet to be truly fixed.
He added: "How can you continue a system that produces this kind of rampant socio economic and political inequality? So ipagpapatuloy ang (you'll continue) inequality? Ipagpapatuloy yung itong (You’ll continue) unemployment?"
According to the United Nations (UN)’s 2015 Human Development Report (HDR), the Philippines showed a "slight improvement in human development" but at a "slow pace." The HDR focuses on jobs as central in human development, a means to reduce inequality.
To be sure, the wealth gap is a worldwide phenomenon, where only a sliver of the population controls a bulk of the wealth.
But Arugay argued that promising continuity, given gaps and failures in the current administration is a "flawed campaign." He added: "It doesn't really rally the people. It doesn't really convert. Because precisely the entire premise is wrong."
But for "Daang Matuwid" coalition spokesman and Marikina Representative Romero Quimbo, theirs is anything but perfect and anything but keeping the status quo.
"The last thing we want to say is [that] we want to carry on with Daang Matuwid without learning from history, without [learning] from the mistakes and removing the baggages and all the biases we had before. We've learned from these things and we want to make Daang Matuwid 2.0," he told Rappler on the sidelines of preparations for the ruling party's kick-off in Roxas City.
Stuck at 20%
According to the latest Pulse Asia survey on the 2016 elections, Roxas is in a statistical tie with opposition standard-bearer Vice President Jejomar Binay and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.
Independent candidate Senator Grace Poe led the pack anew, gaining 9 percentage points amid disqualification cases left and right.
Mar Roxas' Preference Poll Numbers
|Pulse Asia||SWS||Laylo Research Strategies|
Given the surveys' margins of error (up to +/- 3 for national results), Roxas has yet to safely break away from the 20 percentage mark. His biggest rise was between Pulse Asia’s May-June 2015 and September 2015 surveys, where he gained 10 percentage points post-endorsement.
In contrast, Binay’s numbers peaked at over 40% in 2014 preference surveys, before the Senate went full blast in its probe into corruption allegations against him. Poe has also hit the 40% mark in early surveys, but hovers at around 30% in more recent ones.
The latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey paints a more bleak picture for Roxas, who fell to a mere 18 percentage points, placing him at 4th.
A breakdown of Pulse Asia's most recent survey showed Roxas' performance in different geographic and socio-economic classes virtually unchanged, save for a slight dip among the A, B, and C classes.
Roxas is strongest in Visayas, his traditional bailiwick, and is second in Mindanao, a distant 20% compared to front-runner Duterte with 48% in the southernmost part of the country.
Across the board, Roxas ranks either 3rd or 4th. Most notably, he has very low numbers in areas that deliver the most votes – the National Capital Region (NCR) and Balance Luzon, where many vote-rich provinces are located. Poe and Binay dominate those areas.
But Roxas did register a 10-point increase among class E, the poorest of the Philippines' poor. It's a class that's also most likely beneficiaries of the administration's 4Ps, its flagship conditional cash transfer program.
Could this be because of the government’s "Daang Matuwid" push?
Arugay said the program – and its supposed gains – serve to "fill a big gap" in the "Daang Matuwid" mythos, at least in the context of the 2016 elections. "It’s a tried and tested populist program. Let’s call a spade a spade, it’s a populist program," said Arugay of the program.
The flaw, said the political scientist, is in the government’s failure to properly translate the program from its Latin American origins into the Filipino setting.
In Brazil, where dole-outs as an anti-poverty and wealth redistribution program started, it was supported by a strong party with grassroots members, said Arugay.
It's not the case in the Philippines.
Without a strong party system in the grassroots – meaning down to the barangay (village) officials – the program is vulnerable to patronage politics. Complaints on the ground, said Arugay, was that some beneficiaries weren’t being properly screened so sometimes the poorest in a location weren’t getting the dole-outs they would have qualified for.
It's because of this, he said, that a popular 4Ps program won’t exactly translate into votes for the ruling party's anointed bets.
"Anyone will accept dole-[outs], it’s another question whether those dole-outs will translate into votes. The problem is that you have candidates like [Vice President Jejomar] Binay who can deliver the same promise," he said.
Change of messaging?
There was an effort within the ruling party to think of a new message for the 2016 elections, Quimbo admitted.
"Ultimately with all our discussions we came back to the fact that Daang Matuwid is not yet done. It has its core opponents that we cannot win over anymore and that is one of the main reasons why we wanted to change it, but we came to accept that if they cannot accept Daang Matuwid, then they probably will not support us anyway," he said.
What may be lacking, said Quimbo, is the party’s effort to explain just what "Daang Matuwid" means. For the LP, it means poverty alleviation, the tenacity to run after corrupt politicians, making non-populist but sound fiscal decisions, and thinking in terms of the next generation and not merely of the next election.
But for skeptics and critics, "Daang Matuwid" also means a lot of other things: a broken mega city weighed down by poor infrastructure, selective fights against corruption, infamous aviation and motorist traffic, and a recently-vetoed bill that would've raised pensions for poor senior citizens.
The administration’s ups and downs, said Quimbo, are par for the course.
A "general program of action," which lists the issues and priorities of a Roxas-Robredo administration was unveiled when the party kicked off its 2016 campaign in Roxas City.
"There's accountability. In fact, the fact that we are embracing Daang Matuwid means we're embracing also the mistakes," added Quimbo, when asked about criticism that Roxas and the slate fail to acknowledge the administration’s shortcomings.
Roxas has said as much in the newest series of television ads.
"Itutuloy ko ang Daang Matuwid. Kung may kulang pa, pupunuin ko. Kung may mali pa, itatama ko (I will continue the Straight Path. If there's anything lacking, I’ll correct it. If there's anything wrong, I'll make it right)," he says.
It is both the boon and bane of a ruling party's campaign promise of continuity. There's a track record of accomplishments to back it up alongside a long list of hiccups, roadblocks, and complete disasters that leave much to be desired.
Will the pros eventually outweigh the cons, as the ruling party hopes and believes? – Rappler.com