UNA: The opposition that’s not quite

Ayee Macaraig

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UNA’s campaign reflects problems in identity, messaging, and the strange nature of this midterm polls and Philippine politics

THE ALTERNATIVE. UNA bets present themselves as alternatives to administration candidates but observers say they failed to distinguish themselves from Team PNoy. File photo from UNA Media Bureau

MANILA, Philippines – It was the first to organize, the first to campaign, and the only officially registered coalition. Yet surveys show the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) falling short.  

Vice President Jejomar Binay is putting up a fight, predicting that at least 4 of his senatorial candidates will make it.

Binay’s political lieutenants admit his coalition failed to raise enough funds in an age where media and money are the new kingmakers.

Yet beyond its war chest, observers point out that UNA’s campaign reflected problems in identity, messaging, and ultimately, the strange nature of this midterm polls and Philippine politics.

What defined UNA’s campaign?

INDEPENDENT SENATE. Vice President Jejomar Binay called UNA the “new opposition,” one that does not just criticize for the sake of attacking. He stressed the importance of an independent Senate. File photo from UNA Media Bureau

Identity problem?

Compared to this mid-term election, the 2007 polls were simpler. The then Genuine Opposition clearly drew the battle lines against an unpopular Arroyo administration.

With a popular Aquino president now in place and Binay part of his Cabinet, UNA called itself something else: the constructive opposition.

Besides the official relationship, Binay and UNA stalwart former President Joseph Estrada have personal ties with President Benigno Aquino III.

Edna Co, dean of the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP NCPAG), said UNA’s identity is confusing.   

“That’s a weak statement to say, a recognition and submission that the other team is really popular. They recognize that PNoy is okay and we’ll go against the tide if we say we are an opposition to that. Kung ako ang botante, sasabihin ko, ‘Bakit kita iboboto kung pareho naman ang mensahe ng kabila?’” (If I were the voter, I’d say, “Why will I vote for you when you have the same message as the other side?”)

UNA did try to distinguish itself from the administration. Taking a populist stance, the alliance harped on inclusive growth and gut issues. It tweaked Binay’s 2010 campaign slogan to “Sa UNA, gaganda ang buhay.” (With UNA, life will be better.)

While calling itself Aquino’s loyal opposition, UNA had no qualms about criticizing the administration on various issues – the Sabah standoff, the Mindanao power crisis, poverty data, the appointment of Commission on Elections officials with ties to the ruling Liberal Party (LP), disaster response, and especially the supposed harassment of non-LP members.

Binay’s spokesperson Joey Salgado said this stemmed from a directive of the Vice President.

“It was important for him that UNA articulate the need for an independent Senate, that we don’t have people just saying yes. You need a debate and you can’t have a debate with a tyranny of numbers,” Salgado told Rappler.  

Yet with Aquino’s popularity hardly affected by these issues and with the flow of good news on the economy, Co said UNA’s criticism did not stick.

“There was no polarizing issue that will really put people to say that this is black and the other is white. There weren’t so many ruffles. People are doing well. It’s promising so Filipino voters are kind to say, ‘It’s normal, let’s just let it be,’” Co said.

Even UNA campaign manager Navotas Rep Tobias “Toby” Tiangco conceded that the polls are unique. “It’s not an anti-PNoy vote. It’s individual candidates selling themselves individually.”

COMPLETING SLATE. UNA had a hard time forming its slate, fielding accidental candidate Nancy Binay at the last minute to form the ticket. File photo by Don Regachuelo

‘Good medicine, low dosage’

Still, Tiangco denies that UNA’s message is problematic. Asked about the lows of the campaign, he told Rappler, “Ang low lang sa amin ay low-budget kami.” (The only thing low with us is the budget.)

The secretary-general said this translated to fewer ads, with UNA unable to use 59 out of the 120 minutes initially allowed for ads in all TV stations.

“The message is the medicine. Even if it is the right medicine, if you don’t have the correct dosage, it will not work. That means even if it’s the right message, if you hear it only once every 3 days on TV, how do you remember it?”

Funding their individual ads was left up to the 9 candidates. Some UNA bets, particularly the children of UNA’s leaders, had enough resources to top the list of candidates with booked political ads.

What the alliance lacked in funds it tried to make up for with an early start.

UNA is the only group that beat the Comelec’s deadline for the registration of coalitions. It was also the first to start forming its lineup, announcing candidates as early as April 2012.

The early start though also meant early problems. UNA had a hard time completing its ticket, with LP convincing most re-electionists and popular bets to join its slate.

Tiangco said this was natural because the administration has more resources but funding was not the only factor. Initially an UNA leader, Sen Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III bolted UNA after the alliance welcomed resigned Sen Juan Miguel Zubiri, who he accuses of cheating him in 2007.

With businessman Joey de Venecia backing out at the last minute, Binay reluctantly agreed to field his daughter, Nancy, even if she lacked experience and ambition. Ironically, she is now the highest rating UNA bet.

NOT VISIBLE. Analysts say compared to President Aquino, UNA’s 3 kings were not consistent in endorsing the slate both in ads and sorties. File photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig

Where did the 3 kings go?

Despite the bumps, UNA was able to assemble what it called a lean and mean team.

Heading the group are the so-called 3 kings: Binay, Estrada and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Making up the executive committee, they hand down major decisions.

Under them are Tiangco and his deputy campaign manager, Valenzuela City Mayor Sherwin Gatchalian, both running a national campaign for the first time. Salgado said the two were tapped to offer fresh insights, complementing the 3 kings’ decades of experience and political savvy.

A former businessman, Tiangco oversees 4 departments: the media bureau, communications and TV ads, sorties, and finance. Candidates have their own campaign managers and staff.

Tiangco said decision-making was easy, with the 3 kings giving him authority to call the shots and him doing the same with the department heads.

With the team in place, UNA edged out Aquino’s slate in coming up with the first ads and sorties. UNA mounted an explosive opening salvo in Cebu, a combination of fiery speeches attacking the administration and Tiya Pusit entertainment segments that became a campaign staple.

The alliance though did not sustain the momentum.

Co said, “They began with a bang but towards the middle, if you compare it with Team PNoy, PNoy consistently worked hard on the endorsement of his candidates. That stopped on the part of UNA, one is ads but even the sorties.”

“Even if it’s 3 against one, in consistency, visibility, strong presence and support, PNoy really has an edge over the 3 because they never said anything except in the beginning. They did not work together to pull and endorse their candidates,” she added.

UNA’s 3 kings were only complete in the Cebu campaign kickoff and in Estrada’s proclamation rally in Manila. 

Tiangco admitted as much but said the 3 kings’ absence was not intentional.

In the middle of the campaign, Binay had to represent Aquino on foreign trips. Estrada also let go of the campaign to focus on his Manila mayoral bid. Enrile kept a low-profile because of an eye problem. The survey ratings of the so-called impeachment trial superstar also plunged following the Senate fund controversy.

Tiangco said that it is only Binay who constantly gives him instructions lately. The Vice President made up for lost time and tirelessly hit the campaign trail in the homestretch.

Salgado explained, “This last month, he saw the importance of his presence in the rallies. He also helps candidates who need an extra boost in media. He calls candidates personally to give ideas and his insights on the surveys.”

Binay’s spokesperson, who helps lead the media bureau, said UNA stopped airing the slate ad featuring its 3 kings because surveys showed that team ads are not effective in swaying voters anyway.

HUGE FALL. From number 3, Cagayan Rep Jack Enrile went down in surveys because of controversies linked to him and his father. File photo from UNA Media Bureau

Common bets’ snub, survey drop  

Early in the campaign period, UNA made a pivotal decision: to junk common candidates Sen Loren Legarda, Sen Francis Escudero, and Grace Poe after snubbing its events. 

Gatchalian told Rappler the decision had a negative impact. “That was a very strong blow to UNA for obvious reasons, because they were topping the charts. That was a low for improving our numbers.”

Tiangco, who made the call, said UNA demanded discipline and commitment.

“It would have been a politically convenient solution to keep them but we don’t want a politically convenient solution. We’d rather stick it out with those who want to stick it out with us,” he said.

On top of the no-show common candidates, UNA also had to deal with a drop in the numbers of some bets.

In the September 2012 Pulse Asia survey, Cagayan Rep Juan Ponce “Jack” Enrile Jr ranked as high as 3rd to 5th, Sen Gregorio Honasan II was at 6th-10th place while Zubiri placed 6th-11th.

Now, the 3 are at the bottom of Pulse Asia’s list of 16 candidates with a statistical chance of winning.

By his own admission, Enrile dropped as voters realized it was he, not his father who is running. He also admitted that controversies involving the Senate President affected him. Tiangco believes the revival of murder cases linked to him also pulled down Enrile’s numbers.

For Honasan, Tiangco said it was because the senator had no ads until recently.

Zubiri attributed the decline in his ranking to the rise of Team PNoy bets Bam Aquino, Cynthia Villar and Poe, and also to the time he called Pimentel’s spouse a “battered wife.” He admits it was a mistake.

Tiangco and Salgado said the alliance tried to help out candidates lagging behind in surveys by offering inputs on their messaging and ads but ultimately, it was the candidate who prevailed.

“This is where we had different views with some of the candidates. They think that their ad is the best ad. Sometimes, we think it could have been better or there are inputs we want but at the end of the day, they are the candidate. What can we do? They pay for their ads,” Tiangco said.

UNA also went on the offensive, criticizing Team PNoy bets like Bam Aquino after he entered the magic 12. The alliance repeatedly questioned his stand on Arroyo, having been her appointee.

“Bam was trying to brush aside his stint with GMA. Their line is we got candidates who are Arroyo allies. We are just returning the compliment. Sure, let’s use the Arroyo bogey. For every 10 ex-Arroyo allies in UNA, there are 1,000 in LP down to the local level. So look who’s talking,” Salgado said.

LP CRACKS. UNA expects to benefit from cracks in the administration coalition, with NP, NPC and even LP leaders expressing support for some of its candidates. File photo from UNA Media Bureau

‘All politics is local’

Despite Binay’s leadership, Salgado said the success story of the 2010 campaign’s dark horse cannot be replicated in UNA. In 2010, the former Makati mayor pulled a come-from-behind victory thanks to his network of local leaders, Makati sister cities, and fraternity.

“This election is different, it’s not a one-on-one race. You have 9 candidates. The Binay formula works for Binay but it’s not a formula that works for all,” Salgado said.

Still, Salgado said UNA took a page from Binay’s campaign: the emphasis on the ground game.

“The Binay campaign was a combination of ground and air war. It was conventional wisdom at that time that air war wins you elections. We introduced a new factor. Here, the reward goes to those who work hard campaigning on the ground.”

From motorcade, rallies to market tours, reporters observe that UNA has longer sorties compared to Team PNoy and its candidates sweep even far-flung towns and barangays. All throughout the campaign, UNA stressed the importance of drawing a big crowd in rallies while hitting the poor turnout in some Team PNoy sorties.

Salgado said the ground game is especially important now that the race is so tight, and candidates are saturating the airwaves with ads.

Tiangco said as early as February, Binay pushed bets on the campaign trail non-stop but they asked for rest days. “Now, he’s here so nobody can complain. When he says 7 days, he’ll do it. The problem is no one is able to keep up with his pace.”

Despite the challenges, UNA expects to reap the fruits of a decision it made early on.

The alliance limited its coalition to Binay’s Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) and Estrada’s Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP), refusing to coalesce with other national parties to avoid conflict in the local level.

In contrast, LP partnered with ex-rival Nacionalista Party (NP) and the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) to complete its slate. Now, some NPC, NP and even LP leaders have come out to say they will support some UNA candidates.

Gatchalian, an NPC member, said, “The coalition was designed at the top but not at the bottom. So those on the top benefit but on the ground, there are many imperfections. You’ve seen Pangasinan, Tarlac, Negros Occidental, so there are many areas and that benefits UNA.”

Tiangco said LP partners in the local level are unlikely to support Team PNoy if the ruling party fielded bets against its candidates, especially the incumbent ones.

“I’ve said it in the beginning. All politics is local. Once the local campaign starts, that’s when they will realize na magkakasakitan. (They will get hurt.) They realize, ‘My gosh, this guy put an opponent against me, you think I’ll vote for their ticket?’”

NO IMPACT. UNA campaign manager Toby Tiangco says the outcome of the polls will have no effect on VP Binay’s 2016 presidential bid. File photo from Nancy Binay’s Facebook page

Nancy Binay and the 2016 battle

For all of UNA’s hits and misses, Gatchalian said the polls boil down to personalities.

“When voters vote, it’s not because of your group brand name, it’s because of the individual.”

Salgado said this election is one of the tightest in recent history precisely because now more than ever, voters do not see much difference between the parties and among candidates.

Name recall then becomes key, explaining the strong showing of the 3 kings’ children, especially Nancy Binay.

Gatchalian said, “Part of Nancy’s numbers is an affirmation of VP Binay’s performance. So if Nancy will make it, that’s an affirmation that VP Binay is clearly doing a wonderful job in the government. I think that will be a good benchmark for 2016.”

For the rest of the group, Co said 2016 will be a challenge.

“The opposition that will fight PNoy and his team in 2016 will have to strategize better, think more deeply, plan seriously what edge it will have but certainly this administration is positive, enjoying support. That’s the bigger challenge in 2016.”

Tiangco disagreed. Whether UNA wins or loses more seats, Tiangco said the outcome will have no impact whatsoever on Binay’s 2016 presidential bid. 

“It’s us politically involved people who care about it but the general population, you think a farmer or a fisherman cares? You think it will affect his decision whether it’s 9-3 or 10-2 or 6-6 on who he will vote for the next president?”

“Or is it more important for him how this candidate can help him when he becomes president? Is it more important to a farmer or fisherman how VP Binay when president will help them uplift their lives? What is more important to them?” – Rappler.com

Visit #PHvote, Rappler’s coverage of the 2013 Philippine elections. Get to know the candidates through our comprehensive profile pages.


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