From ‘ground war’ to ‘air war’

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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With restrictions on TV ads lifted by the Supreme Court, will sorties lose primacy in the campaign?

Marites Dañguilan VitugA pristine white building on a Makati street, with not a single tarpaulin or poster on its façade and no groups milling about, seemed like an unlikely place for a campaign headquarters. The area was relatively quiet. A couple of security guards stood by the bank on the ground floor. My colleague and I thought we were in the wrong place and hesitated to enter.  

But when we walked up to the second floor—the guard had to announce us first—we found the HQ of Team PNoy. There, in the hall, life came about. The walls were filled with candidates’ posters. There was a long table with coffee and merienda, and cubicles and rooms that surrounded a wide space for press conferences. People were busy, on the phone, shuffling papers, talking to visitors, analyzing survey data.

We had an appointment to interview the campaign manager, Sen Franklin Drilon.  

He led us to his office, a small room that had a view of the building across the street that was studded with posters of Migz Zubiri. During the interview, his two cell phones rang incessantly and he had to excuse himself a few times to answer calls in the nearby conference room. He seemed to be putting out fires.  

It appears that Drilon is a hands-on campaign manager. He showed us a list of the dozens of sorties they’ve had and those he participated in: “I join sorties to have a first-hand feel of how it goes, the problems, so we can improve and revise…”  

It is a reality in the Philippines that local politicians are not that interested in the senatorial elections. Their concerns are parochial and they are more keen on the congressional race. So part of Drilon’s job—and that of his aides—is to tap their network of allies in various parts of the country and mobilize them for the sorties.

Political parties, after all, are not enduring institutions here. Members are like grains of sand; they easily shift positions. What matters are the personalities one knows and the friendships built.

Supreme Court’s TRO

The sorties regained their importance in this mid-term election campaign when the Commission on Elections declared early this year that each candidate is only allowed 120 minutes of TV ads and 180 minutes of radio ads—in contrast to a liberal interpretation in the past that interpreted these minutes to apply to each station. “We shifted to sorties, to on-the-ground campaign,” Drilon pointed out.  

But will the Supreme Court order freezing the Comelec rule be a game-changer? It may be late in the campaign to see a dramatic change. Early on, some candidates had already planned to intensify their TV ads during the last stretch of the campaign.   

Why did the Court issue the TRO belatedly? 

Initially, some in the Court were hesitant to act on the petition of the networks to suspend the Comelec rule because no candidate questioned it. Apparently, Sen Alan Peter Cayetano’s intervention gave the networks’ petition gravitas. 

Majority of the justices, we learned, converged on 3 different reasons. First, Comelec failed to justify the new interpretation of making the airtime cumulative instead of per station. They argued that any curtailment of political expression must be clearly justified.

Second, they saw a lapse by the Comelec: it issued the resolution without a public hearing. The hearing was conducted only when the networks protested.

Third, some reasoned that the law itself which limits airtime is arbitrary because it does not contain a spending cap. Different candidates will thus have different spending caps because network airtime rates vary. A compelling point that was raised was that the limit must be on the campaign expenses, not on the airtime, and the limit on campaign expenses must be based on the voting population.  

‘Air war’ gets votes

Still, the “ground war”—wherein candidates go through rigorous town-and-city campaigns, pound the streets, and press more flesh—continues. “Air war,” on the other hand, refers to the use of media, especially ads, to court votes. 

Chit Asis, head for operations of Team PNoy, has been involved in election campaigns for decades. She said that “elections are not won by either air or ground war. They are won by both. Their interplay is crucial.”

In her experience, “the air does the vote getting and the ground ensures the delivery and protection of the votes.” Ground war requires a tight organization of warm bodies. She explains: “Ground war has to do with hard work consisting of a wide range of activities, from a simple hand-shaking operation, handbill distribution, operation “dikit” or postering, house-to-house visits, meeting local leaders, gate- keepers, and warlords, to attending fiestas. It has to do with mobilizing people to action, people who have been convinced and won over by the air war.”

Referendum on Aquino

So far, the surveys show that 8 to 9 out of the top 12 senatorial candidates are from the administration slate. A mix of factors account for this, from the candidate himself/herself to the way he/she conducts the campaign. 

But the 8 or 9 in the winning circle have one element in common: the endorsement of President Aquino. For a president on his third year in office, Aquino’s satisfaction rating is not at all bad (59%). 

The ruling coalition candidates’ ground and air war are getting a big boost from the President himself who, according to several accounts, is enjoying his spirited campaign on the road. He knows that this election is a referendum on his performance. –





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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.