Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

[Newsstand] High-risk and make-or-break: Marcos Jr.’s debate strategy

John Nery
[Newsstand] High-risk and make-or-break: Marcos Jr.’s debate strategy
His actual and perceived strengths have allowed Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to say he will skip the official debates. Wrong move.

Is the Marcos approach to debates – to avoid them, essentially – a “smart” strategy? It is certainly rational, in that it seeks to play to the actual and perceived strengths of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as a presidential candidate. But is it guaranteed to be successful? Not at all. In fact, it has the potential to derail his candidacy.

Avoiding debates may seem like a winning strategy; in reality, it is high-risk and make-or-break.

Marcos is currently the frontrunner, and avoiding debates is a frontrunner’s privilege. In a lopsided race, it makes sense for the leading candidate not to treat his rivals as equals, to sharpen the difference between the leader and the also-rans. Pulse Asia’s December 2021 survey showed that Marcos was clearly well ahead of the other candidates; his 53-percent voter preference rating was the first outright majority finding in the country’s short history of election surveys.

To a much more obvious extent now than in 2016, when he ran unsuccessfully for the vice presidency, Marcos also benefits from a massive disinformation operation. He has denied this. He has even denied the very existence of what he terms a troll army, but the evidence – rigorous research by academics, investigative reporting by journalists, copious anecdotes from social media influencers, not least the many digital trails operators left behind – is unequivocal. The Marcoses or their proxies have been seeding social media with both outright disinformation and with so-called gray content for years; Marcos Jr.’s high rating is only the latest harvest.

Mastery of closed-door negotiations is also a decided advantage, not necessarily of Marcos, but of his campaign. The influence of the former president and former speaker Gloria Arroyo is pronounced; Arroyo’s political favorite, Representative Martin Romualdez, is Marcos’ first cousin and a key player in the campaign. And Marcos’ politically savvy sister, Senator Imee Marcos, is also excellent at cultivating political relationships. For politicians like them, debating policies in public is a distraction; they know the real work of building political alliances is done behind the scenes. The strongest proof that they are masters of political negotiation is the decision they masterminded that up to today bewilders President Duterte: How did they convince or persuade the erstwhile frontrunner, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, to slide down to vice president?

These three advantages create a logic that is easy to follow: Distance the candidate from his lagging rivals. Campaign from the heights created by  advantage. Avoid the level playing field of a presidential debate.

Decline in quality 

But Marcos has additional reasons for avoiding debates. 

Judging from his performance in 2016, he doesn’t do well in them. He doesn’t deliver crisp answers. He leaves himself open to rivals’ rhetorical counter-attacks. (Among the worst in the official 2016 debate was when he went overtime; Senator Alan Peter Cayetano immediately pounced and, referencing the Marcos reputation for thievery, asked, in resonant Filipino, “Are you stealing even my time, too?”) And while his celebrity status grants him real stage presence, he doesn’t seem to have (to coin a phrase) “presence of stage.” In other words, he sometimes seemed lost; during the part of the debate where the vice presidential candidates were asked to use giant cut-outs of a thumb, to signify yes or no answers, he initially answered the very first question “Have you ever engaged in corrupt practices?” with a thumbs up. (To answer the same question, rival Leni Robredo playfully pointed her thumb cut-out AT Marcos.)

But even in his recent interviews, some conducted in controlled settings, he has given meandering, even nonsensical answers. Many of his responses are motherhood statements; to borrow a term from American politics, they are BOMFOG: generic “brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God” statements that really do not mean anything. Some of his BOMFOG answers are even illegal or unconstitutional. Will he appoint relatives to the Cabinet or other government positions? He is open to the idea, he said, as long as they meet the right performance criteria. Sounds reasonable, except that the Constitution (Article VII, Section 13, second paragraph) expressly disallows the President of the Philippines from appointing “the spouse and relatives by consanguinity or affinity within the fourth civil degree” to high government office.

Between his debate performance in 2016 and his recent interviews, the decline in the quality of his answers has been marked. It may be an effect of his bout with COVID-19, which by all accounts hit him hard, but I tend to the view that the low quality is the political equivalent of rust. Since he left the Senate in 2016, Marcos has not been engaged in any political debate or social issue, or indeed in any matter of real consequence. 

Real risks

Will his advantages continue to provide cover for his weakness in debates and offset the real risks his avoidance strategy brings?

In the first place, his most important advantage, popularity in the surveys, may be temporary. I do not mean to suggest that the next survey will show a drastic drop in his ratings; I only mean to point to the experience of previous survey leaders. Voter preference ratings tend to converge toward the middle of the band; it is only rational for Marcos campaign strategists to assume, not that his ratings will continue to rise (as some of his most fervent supporters claim on social media) but that they will inevitably fall. They will need to control, to slow, that decline.

But his very decision to avoid taking part in debates may actually serve to speed up that inevitable fall. The Marcos disinformation machinery is used to defending him from charges of corruption or human rights abuses when his father was dictator. (To be sure, that defense is based, essentially, on denial.) It is not used to defending him as cowardly, or lazy, or stupid. These are exactly the new accusations leveled at him simply for refusing to join Jessica Soho’s (masterful) presidential forum. Imagine the response when the Commission on Elections places an empty chair in each of the three official debates to represent his absence. Not even his campaign’s advantage in alliance-building can cover up for that.

In my view, the real game changer of the 2016 elections were the three presidential debates – the first, officially, since 1992. I do not see any reason to think that the debates in 2022 will not attract the same large TV and social media audiences, focus the same high levels of attention on outstanding candidates, or generate the same intensity of public discussion. It would be foolish of Marcos, not smart, to cede all of that. – Rappler.com

Veteran journalist John Nery is a columnist and editorial consultant of Rappler.