Mar Roxas as default candidate of the elite

The announcement by Grace Poe of her presidential candidacy on September 16 was met by stoic indifference by the Liberal Party (LP).

Claiming not to be worried, stalwarts of the party asserted that the LP has a candidate (Mar Roxas) and a clear platform, the anti-corruption “straight path” (daang matuwid). 

But is it really as simple and straightforward as that? It seems more accurate to say that the Liberals have a "default" candidate (as several leading LP supporters have confessed in private) whose major source of political capital is the endorsement of the incumbent President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III.

Not by machinery alone

Analyses of Philippine politics have been dominated by the "patron-client" paradigm which contends that elections consist of politicians building political ties that pyramid down from the national to regional and then the local level, with presidential candidates putting together their clientelist network under the guise of a "political party", but which is actually a makeshift structure designed just for the upcoming polls.

LP strategists think similarly, assuming that the indirect advantages of incumbency will allow Mar Roxas to put together an unbeatable electoral machinery.

But a look back at post-Marcos presidential elections suggests a different scenario.

Those candidates with the strong “machinery” (such as Ramon Mitra in 1992 and Jose de Venecia Jr in 1998 and even Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is widely seen to have stolen her election as revealed by the “Hello, Garci” tapes) have often failed to capture the presidency. Thus, machinery is a necessary but insufficient ingredient in winning presidential elections. 

Power of narratives

In the Philippines, where party ideologies are unquestionably weak, presidential candidates instead develop their own campaign narratives. These narratives, which then become the “governing scripts” for an elected president are either portrayed as compatible with the overall regime narrative, or are an effort to “pre-empt” it. 

Narratives are stories that weave ideas and events in a meaningful way.

From running in a national campaign to delivering the inaugural address, a president must tell a compelling story. Thus, in the context of Philippine politics, presidential regimes consist of quasi-programmatic, emotive narratives in election campaigns and/or a governance script that binds together a coalition of interests within a particular institutional context.

Campaign narratives and presidential “scripts” bind together a coalition of interests within a particular institutional context.

Narrative of ‘Daang Matuwid’

The LP has predictably framed the 2016 election in terms of continuity of its “daang matuwid” reformist narrative. Given the poor performance of its default candidate in early  popularity surveys, party strategists are correct in "selling" the so-called achievements of PNoy's administration instead. 

In the post-Marcos Philippines, “reformism,” the claim that re-establishing democracy, fighting corruption, and improving the efficiency of governance is the chief executive’s most important mission, has been the dominant campaign narrative and regime script.

It can be understood as a “bourgeois” political narrative that promises “I will not steal from you.” It avoids questions of equality much less redistribution, avoiding direct class-based appeals, and claiming instead to act in the national interest.

But at times, it can appear uncaring and morally self-righteous, particularly when poverty rates and unemployment remain much too high and thus economic growth far from inclusive.

However, as the PNoy administration is nearing its end, there is a growing perception that its anti-corruption rhetoric has largely been one-sided and that governance efficiency has never been its strongest traits (as demonstrated by the current traffic crisis in Manila dubbed by netizens as "carmageddon"). 

Nonetheless, PNoy manages to maintain his popularity on the strength of the reformist narrative that he embodies. Here lies Roxas' problem.

Embodying the narrative

Roxas is an experienced administrator and might well make a good president. But his weak poll numbers suggest his image as a candidate falls far short of what is necessary to win the upcoming presidential election. 

Recent elections have shown that a narrative cannot be passed on from one president to another. Although Corazon “Cory” C. Aquino endorsed Fidel V. Ramos as her successor, he barely won against Miriam Santiago-Defensor who, though lacking any substantial machinery, had a stronger image as a reformist. Santiago also claimed that the election results were tampered). 

Ramos, in turn, backed Jose de Venecia, who had a strong machinery, but a weak image (much like Roxas does today). De Venecia was defeated by Joseph Estrada, whose narrative as a friend of the masses (“Erap para sa mahirap”) was much stronger.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was, of course, unable to help her designated successor, Gilbert Teodoro in his hapless 2010 presidential bid. Teodoro’s image was further hurt by his perceived failings as chair of the National Disaster Coordinating Council in dealing with the 2009 flooding of Manila, not dissimilar to criticisms of Roxas’ crisis management in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda.

PNoy survived two major political crises (the pork barrel scandal and the Mamasapano tragedy) and has easily brushed off accountability for his failure to make significant improvements in infrastructure, with his poll ratings largely intact.

It seems doubtful he can simply pass on the “reformist” mantle to Roxas. 

In Philippine politics, the narrative must be “embodied” by the candidate, as Noynoy himself was able to do after the death of his mother Cory and as she was seen to do after the assassination of her husband (and Noynoy’s father) Benigno "Ninoy" S. Aquino Jr in 1983.

Roxas will have to prove very skilled in improving his image with voters over the next year, as enjoying the advantages of campaign machinery linked to the incumbent president, has not been a decisive advantage in post-Marcos presidential campaigns of the past.

As Senator Serge Osmeña (an astute political strategist himself) wisely counseled, “Yung tuwid na daan, it’s an overused phrase, sanay na ‘yung tao, jaded na. (Tuwid na daan is an overused phrase, the people are already jaded.) They should come up with something new.”

In the end, the LP leadership’s feigned optimism in the wake of Poe’s candidacy is reminiscent of the famous dictum of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann: “What, me worry?” –

Julio C. Teehankee is Full Professor of Comparative Politics 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. 

The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors only.