2nd presidential debate: Reinforcing narratives

Professor Mark R. Thompson, Dean Julio C. Teehankee
2nd presidential debate: Reinforcing narratives
In the first debate, none of the top contenders were particularly successful in defining or refining their campaign narratives. The second one in Cebu this Sunday provides them another chance.

The Supreme Court decision permitting Grace Poe to contest the presidency this coming 2016 election, makes it very likely that the May polls will be a very close four-cornered fight.

The results of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey for March have shown that the debates did influence voter opinion but not as significantly as can be expected as a reaction to the Supreme Court decision.

Thus, the next round of public opinion surveys will be vital in determining whether Poe regains her pre-disqualification momentum and cements her position as the candidate to beat. But if her numbers stagnate or even falter, then this opens a window of opportunity for one of her rivals, particularly Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay or Davao Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte, to become the front runner.

The second presidential debate on March 20, 2016 is therefore crucial for all 4 major candidates to differentiate themselves from one another and take the lead in this close presidential race, the tightest since 2004 or even, given the large number of viable candidates, since 1992.

As we have discussed in our earlier pieces (READ: 2016 elections: Battle of Aquino, Binay narratives; Grace Poe attempts to break the wheel; and Mar Roxas as default candidate of the elite) the impression that Philippine campaigns are only based on popularity, name recall or money overlooks the fact that candidates draw upon enduring narratives to woo voters’ support, via “air war” (TV and radio ads) as well as in their “ground war” (winning over local politicians and their supporters).

While parties are organizationally weak and lacking in major ideological commitments, these narratives (which for a winning candidate become a “governing script”) are stories candidates tell that identify the major problems facing the country and show why they are best positioned to deal with them effectively.

Given that party identification means little in terms of policy and none of the candidates have floated bold new proposals, the debates are a forum where candidates can demonstrate their ability to run the country competently and inclusively through a plausible and persuasive campaign narrative. They must weave together a convincing tale about how they will combat corruption, restore peace and order, and reduce poverty. Although, candidates will of course try to combine these three areas, the debates highlight which aspect they best represent.

Roxas: Daang Matuwid 2.0 (minus the upgrade?)

As the anointed candidate of the current administration of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Mar Roxas has struggled to gain traction with his promise to continue the “Daang Matuwid.” Despite, the relative popularity of the incumbent, Roxas has consistently registered disappointing survey numbers. He was the biggest gainer in the post-debate SWS survey with a four percentage point increase from his February numbers, but still not enough to land in first place. So far, Roxas is the only one among the four serious presidential candidates (that include Poe, Binay, and Duterte) who have not taken the top position in the three major surveys (SWS, Pulse Asia, and Laylo Research Strategies). This indicates that he has had great difficulty “inheriting” this reformist narrative from Aquino.

His performance in the first debate appeared only to reinforce this perception because of his abrasive manner, attacking his opponents for their lack of experience, volatile temperament, or lack of probity in elected office while claiming he is the most honest, experienced, and reliable candidate. While “negative campaigning” can be effective under certain circumstances, in Roxas’ case it only served to raise questions in the minds of many voter about his own “negatives,” namely his competence in handling natural disasters, dealing with armed insurrections, and defusing transportation crises.

Perhaps more damning was his apparently distant demeanor which only served to confirm the perception that he lacks empathy for the plight of ordinary Filipinos who, as continued high rates of official (and even higher rates of self-reported poverty) demonstrate, have thus far seen limited benefits from the “straight path.” 

“Reformism” can appear to be an uncaring and morally self-righteous narrative to the poor when poverty rates remain high. As the Aquino administration nears its end, many voters perceive it as an agenda of selective persecution of the government’s enemies without  effectively institutionalized good governance even if the president himself is widely considered to have been honest. But as the “default candidate of the elite” Roxas seems poorly positioned to claim that can effectively build on this reformist platform by addressing some of its key failings. Rather he is perceived as being deeply implicated its many of failings.

Roxas’ mixed performance in the first debate is ironic given that these candidate parleys should play to his strength of his unquestioned command of policy details like no other presidential bet. Instead, his defensive and distant style has, barring more positive and empathetic approach in the next debate, made him more reliant than ever on his regional bailiwick in the Visayas, and his monolithic Liberal Party machinery, and his huge campaign war chest for his ads.

Binay: Populist or trapo?

Despite a tremendous barrage from his opponents accusing him of massive corruption, Binay has managed to regain his position at the top of opinion polls (alongside Grace Poe) through an astute use of messaging and machinery.

In a series of brilliant TV ads, he took charges thrown at him (“nognog” and “pandak”) and turned them to his own advantage, underlining his image as the champion of the Philippine poor. The success of this strategy was indicated in the December Pulse Asia survey which showed him leading the other candidates by a significant margin among the largest group of voters, the poor D and very poor E Filipinos. At the same time, of course, corruption charges weakened his support among the ABC voters, thus giving him an outsider image despite his long tenure as Makati mayor and as vice president.

The first debate appeared to offer him the opportunity to further enhance this image of a fighter for the poor who himself faces ceaseless attacks from a “selfish” elite. However, his wooden and old-style manner during the debate instead suggested that despite his clever advertising, he is a little more than the traditional politician (“trapo”) that his critics and political enemies have painted him to be. Thus, the second debate gives Binay perhaps his last chance to restore his image an outsider candidate of the poor braving an elite assault.

One difficulty that Binay faces in this effort is that despite his claim to be an anti-establishment candidate, he has, along with Roxas, the most extensive and organized campaign machinery of dedicated loyalists. He also has a long (and controversial) record of public service. This makes it more difficult for Binay to present himself as a crusader for the dispossessed, as the political neophyte Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) who lacked a well-oiled political network in 2004. This is the paradox of the Binay campaign: the “outsider” with an “insider’s” campaign resources and a much maligned record in political office – that he failed to adequately address during the first debate. Hence, Binay appeared to be the biggest loser in the post-debate survey with a five percentage point drop.

Duterte: Our Donald Trump?

The rapid rise of voter support for Rodrigo Duterte, despite his late entry into the race, serves to highlight the pent-up anger among the middle class at the deterioration of public order and particularly worries about growing drug abuse, the seductive appeal of his neo-authoritarian style among a segment of the urban millennials, and the “anti-Imperial Manila” sentiments that has fueled his popularity in Mindanao.

But Duterte’s emphatic promise to bring discipline and order to the country has turned out to be a mobilizing but also constraining narrative. He has energized his base with his pledge to use any means (including those that violate the rule of law) to end crime in 3 to 6 months, an unrealistic and quite possibly dangerous  promise about which expects voters to just “trust” him. His poor human rights record (instead of denying he brags about his “extrajudicial” killings he claimed were necessary to clean up and pacify Davao), and bombastic style (typical of a many local politicians but unusual in national politics he uses course words in his speeches to underline his toughness) may enthuse his supporters but also scares independent voters, limiting, Trump-like, his broad-based appeal. 

The first debate offered Duterte a chance to “soften” his image, claiming he would combat disorder and corruption without openly breaking with the rule of law. Instead, again much like his American tycoon counterpart, he used the opportunity to engage heated exchanges with Roxas, whom he sees as perfect foil, a well-intentioned, but incompetent and overly procedurally minded “reformist.”

While he did land blows against Roxas, they may well have redounded against him as well since his image as the most mercurial and unpredictable candidate was only reinforced. Those looking for a “safe pair of hands” to guide the Philippines through a difficult world economic environment, tense relations with China, as well as to maintain the political stability, which is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the current administration, went away more skeptical than before the debate began. Given Duterte’s temperament, it seems unlikely he will opt for a more moderate tone in the next debate as he seems to have chosen a maximalist stance that he hopes will energize his supporters but may well also deter the undecided. 

Grace Poe: Mixed messaging

Despite the pro-poor, “populist” appeal of her adoptive father, actor-turned-politician Fernando Poe Jr or FPJ, Grace Poe has managed to attract a significant segment of the urban middle class. She has cultivated an image as a serious minded reformer when she held a minor government position, led key Senate investigations (particularly of the Mamasapano massacre), and endorsed a Senate report recommending corruption raps be filed against Binay. Poe thus has a dual narrative both as a champion of the poor like her adoptive father and as an honest politician committed to further reforms.

In both of her narratives she invites voters to make invidious comparisons to her opponents. Like Binay, she is pro-poor but the cleaner version, not plagued by corruption allegations. Similar to Roxas, she is a reformist, but is the more competent and more caring advocate of good governance by promising to make it more inclusive, reducing still high levels of poverty among Filipinos. 

But there are reasons to believe that her “mixed message” (symbolized by her campaign slogan “galing at puso” that attempts to present her as both competent and caring) is not getting across as well as she hoped. The disqualification cases against her seemed to have hurt her in that they have made people aware of her time in the US. This adds to the sense that she is inexperienced, elitist and out of touch with the average Filipino, which may explain why she has not been able to “inherit” the populist message of her father, particularly in Mindanao, a bastion of FPJ’s support where Duterte dominates (according to the latest Pulse Asia survey he is favored by 45% of Mindanaoans; even Binay does better at 21% than Poe does with a measly 15%).

Moreover, the endorsement of Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), while providing Poe with some campaign machinery and additional funds (though probably still substantially less than the networks allied with Roxas and Binay), also associates her with the former Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr, leading critics to charge her with being his “puppet” and thus potentially watering down her reformist image as well.

This is why the “politics of the dead” has not played out the way that might have been expected given how Noynoy Aquino’s “anointment” as presidential candidate occurred after his mother Cory’s death in 2009. While Noynoy effectively presented himself as the natural inheritor of his mother’s honesty and sacrifice in the name of public service, Grace Poe is more easily dismissed as the prodigal child who only recently returned to the Philippines rather than the dedicated daughter carrying on FPJ’s cause. While he was seen to have fought for average Filipinos (albeit in films, but many in the masa seemed to have a visceral sense that he cared for the underdog), she is seen to by many ordinary Filipinos to have left for a better life abroad.

In the first debate Grace Poe did little to counter this negative perception of her as out of touch with the average Filipino. While she came across as polite and well informed, this did little to change those who view her as someone with too little understanding of the plight of ordinary Filipinos. Rather than making an emotional appeal to deal with the scourge of poverty and the injustices of the Philippines in the spirit of her father’s pro-poor campaign, she stuck to generalities that did not offend anyone but also offered little reason for them to support her candidacy. While remaining relatively well positioned in the race, any “break out” from the field will involve her connecting better with the masa in the spirit of FPJ’s 2004 campaign.

A clash of narratives

While the two remaining debates are unlikely themselves to determine a winner, they provide an opportunity for the leading four candidates to define (and refine) their campaign narratives.

In the first debate none of the top contenders were particularly successful in this regard, with Roxas’s negativity only underlining his own vulnerabilities on the issue of competence, Binay’s wooden style adding credence to charges he is only too traditional a politician, Duterte’s bombast highlighting how destabilizing his presidency might be, and Poe failing to make an emotional connection to poor Filipinos who were core supporters of her adoptive father. 

Candidates will compete in the upcoming debates on who can deliver the best governance and the most inclusive growth. To gain momentum, Roxas will need to offer a more qualified defense of the current administration’s straight path while promising more concrete improvements while Duterte’s stress on discipline and order would need toned down to show it would not violate the rule of law if he wishes to win over more independent voters.

Binay must more convincingly show that rather than being a corrupt insider he is an outsider with a Robin Hood like commitment to helping the poor. How strong Grace Poe’s competing populist appeal will depend on how successful she is in convincing the poor voters who once flocked to FPJ’s campaign to see her as the rightful heir of her father’s promise to help the worst off in society. – Rappler.com


Julio C. Teehankee is Full Professor of Political Science and International Studies and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at De La Salle University. He is also the Executive Secretary of the Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA). 

Mark R Thompson is acting head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, both of the City University of Hong Kong.


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