2022 Philippine Elections

[Newsstand] Hope and danger in the December survey

John Nery
[Newsstand] Hope and danger in the December survey

Alejandro Edoria

Hidden highlights of the latest Pulse Asia poll include a couple of silver linings and a potentially ominous cloud for the opposition

Much of the coverage and commentary on the results of the December 2021 Pulse Asia survey centered on the apparent consolidation of the presidential contest between former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Vice President Leni Robredo, and on Marcos’ outsize lead.

I would like to focus on two possible sources of cautious optimism, and also one danger signal, for the opposition.

Trillanes and De Lima

Two opposition leaders at the forefront of the political resistance against President Duterte have seen a dramatic rise in their ratings. To be sure, Senator Leila de Lima, detained on spurious charges for almost five years, and ex-senator Sonny Trillanes, another object of presidential harassment, are still outside the projected circle of Senate winners. But Trillanes is now ranked 15-16, a big jump from 25-28 in September.

A year ago, in the February 2021 poll, he was ranked 27-30; now he’s within sight of the 12th seat in the Senate race. A year ago, De Lima lagged behind other prospective candidates for the Senate, ranking 33-44; in September, a month before candidates filed their certificates of candidacy, she was still ranked 30-36. In December 2021, however, her voter preference rating jumped to 20-25 – still outside the circle, but a marked improvement.

These improved numbers are a real cause for optimism for the opposition; two leaders who have pushed back strongly against President Duterte’s authoritarian turn and have paid the price for it – demonization, legalized harassment, disinformation, attempted arrest (Trillanes), actual detention (De Lima) – are now receiving enough public support to make reelection a serious possibility.

The January survey should give us a clearer view of their prospects; the election is still months away, and many candidates, including those identified with either the Dutertes or the Marcoses, are much better-funded. De Lima is not even allowed to campaign in the conventional sense. But for the opposition, the rise in their numbers is bracing.

What happened? It is possible that the actual filing of their certificates of candidacy helped refocus public attention on them. It is likely that they are benefiting from the special circumstance of Senate elections in the Philippines: The voter has 12 votes to give, and part of the voting calculation sometimes includes a vote for the outsider or the outlier, the “lost cause” or the “other side.” In my view, it is their strong, vigorous, loud opposition to President Duterte that has, by a twist of electoral fate, put them in a stronger position to win reelection.

In other words, they have been nothing but consistent these past five-and-a-half years, and suddenly the Filipino voter, with votes to spare, is seeing them in a new and favorable light.

Robredo allies

Perhaps learning a key lesson from the 2019 midterm elections, Robredo introduced a complete Senate slate in October. The senatorial candidates she chose to support included five leading politicians whose politics upset some of her supporters. But in a strategic move to position herself not only as the candidate of the political opposition but of a greater constituency – Filipinos who deserve competent and effective governance – she partnered with former vice president Jojo Binay, incumbent senators Dick Gordon, Migz Zubiri, and Joel Villanueva, and Sorsogon Governor Chiz Escudero.

The December survey shows that four of these candidates are well within the projected winners’ circle, with the fifth (Gordon, belatedly and repeatedly vilified by the President because of his investigation of the Pharmally scandal) just a bit outside it.

The opposition should welcome these results, because it allows them to follow through on the strategic insight behind Robredo’s decision to partner with the five. She did not only choose to support them; she is banking that she can count on their support too. 

For good reason, many of Robredo’s supporters have been publicly supportive of the seven other candidates in her Senate slate: De Lima and Trillanes, Senator Risa Hontiveros (who is currently in 12th place), Alex Lacson (20-23), Chel Diokno (21-27, another cause for cautious optimism), Teddy Baguilat (36-44) and Sonny Matula (37-45). 

But these candidates, and Robredo herself and her running mate, Senator Kiko Pangilinan, should consider entering into the next stage of their political alliance. 

It could be to create a campaign ad that sends a strong message of the political center holding together; for instance, Hontiveros’ many important measures that became law enjoyed the support of Zubiri, the majority leader in the Senate, and other majority senators. An advertisement that features Hontiveros, Zubiri, Villanueva, and Gordon together would strongly counter the mistaken belief that oppositionists don’t do anything but complain.

It could be to mount campaign sorties together. For instance: Lacson and Gordon are civic leaders and share much in common; Diokno and Binay have a human rights background that go back decades; Baguilat and Escudero were not in the House of Representatives at the same time but as ex-congressmen who served as provincial governors, they may reinforce each other’s positive attributes. 

Or it could be to reinforce the overarching theme of the Robredo-Pangilinan campaign: Gobyernong Tapat, Angat Buhay Lahat. Angat Buhay, the public-private partnership initiative that the Vice President started in October 2016, is a brand that is closely identified with Robredo. But the aspiration behind the goal to lift all lives up, through faithful governance, is not limited to Robredo or the opposition; it is shared by that greater constituency that Robredo seeks to represent. The five candidates can help reinforce the main theme by highlighting in their messaging the governance part: faithful, competent, effective.

Visayas danger

The same December 2021 survey asked respondents to rate the performance ratings of national officials. The results from the Visayas should be deeply concerning for the Robredo campaign.

The Vice President had a national approval rating of 43%, a plurality that was par for the course, given the massive and persistent disinformation campaign against her in the last five-and-a-half years.

Aside from the Bicol region, where she is from, Robredo received strong support from many parts of the Visayas in her 2016 run for vice president. But the latest survey shows a dramatic drop in her approval numbers in the Visayas, from 70% in September to 41% in December. This is tracked by a spike in her disapproval numbers in the Visayas, from 7 to 27, and by a rise in the number of undecideds, from 23 to 32.

But when the same survey, which was conducted in the first week of December, pivoted to questions about voter preferences, Robredo’s rating in the Visayas took a big leap. From 8 in February and 6 in June, her Visayas voter preference rating went up to 12 in September – and then doubled to 25 in December.

How do we square this with the drastic drop in her approval ratings, measured at the exact same time?

A preliminary read: The continuing disinformation effort against Robredo continues to take a toll on people’s perception of her performance as a national official. For reasons I cannot yet determine, this perception worsened the most in the Visayas in the last quarter of the last year. But her presidential campaign seems to be breaking through in the Visayas. Whether she can overtake Marcos’ lead in the Visayas may be dependent on whether her campaign can distance her image and her message from distorted perceptions driven by disinformation. – Rappler.com

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