2022 Philippine Elections

[OPINION] Does the ‘masa’ rule?

Edilberto De Jesus
[OPINION] Does the ‘masa’ rule?
'In their electoral choices, the masa voters respond to signals from the elite'

According to democratic principles, they should. They have the numbers; economic classes C-D-E account for some 90% of votes.  Electoral outcomes say they do.  Candidates capturing a majority of the C-D-E classes win.   Pulse Asia no longer bothers to include the A-B classes in its presidential preference surveys;  they don’t carry enough votes to affect the final results. The C-D-E votes elect the country’s leaders.  

Politicians follow the masa numbers.  In selecting candidates, political parties award points to those whose careers, looks, and talents (song and dance) spark masa appeal.  But numbers do not make up for lack of other endowments.  The masa population has lower income, less access to educational opportunities, more pressing basic needs, limited time to think through policy issues.  Strategists must design campaign materials and electoral events to match the masa’s absorptive capacity and interests.  Hence, the common default: bread-and-circus events to encourage attendance, and policy messages reduced to catchy jingles, slogans and slurs against opponents.

This pattern of traditional political campaigns, commonly derided before as “bakya” (low-cost, wooden footwear of the poor), feeds into the narrative that blames the masa for the failure of democratic governance.  Critics of the bakya crowd complain about its denunciation of incompetence and corruption in government — and its record of reelecting politicians, whose well-known credentials and performance hardly reflect competence and integrity.  Hence, the despair of elite pundits at the “damaged culture” of the masa and the bleak prospects for Philippine democracy – until the masa are more economically resilient and better “educated.”  

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And yet, if we are to believe recent survey and election results, the responses of the A-B electorate do not substantially differ from those of the C-D-E classes.  In the 2016 presidential elections, a higher proportion of the A-B than of the C-D-E classes voted for Duterte.  Since his election, the A-B trust and approval ratings for Duterte have not greatly diverged from those given by C-D-E.  Similarly, the lead Marcos Jr. has thus far enjoyed in the presidential polls repeats across the board from A to E.  So, how do we justify the assumption that A-B make more intelligent, more discriminating, and more ethical judgement than C-D-E respondents?

Discussions on the merits of contending presidential candidates suggest the same metrics guiding the thinking of voters, irrespective of their economic status.  A-B classes may know more about the politicians and the political issues, but, like C-D-E, they value access to the candidates.  A wider KKK (Kamaganak, Kaklase, Kaibigan) network give them better chances of personal contact with the candidates personally through their family, school, or professional circles.  C-D-E must rely on finding intermediaries.  

A-B political analysts often share the same general outlook on the masa appeal of candidates at the starting gate.  Candidate A: commendable credentials and grasp of governance issues, clearly differs from the incumbent and the competition, but ‘not popular.’  Candidate B: banks on popularity among the masa, who perceive him as sincere and honest.  Candidate C: Clearly incompetent and corrupt, but benefited by well-funded organization and political connections.  A-B analyses apply more tools to measure “winnability,” arguably, a bigger concern than for C-D-E voters. They get the appeals for campaign donations and must assess the business and political risks and returns at stake in meeting or rejecting the requests. 

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The convergence between the logic of A-B and C-D-E political reasoning disputes the thesis that fixes on the masa the flaws of a damaged culture and the failings of Philippine democracy.  Masa votes confirm the winner.  This hardly means that the masa “choose” these leaders.  Or that the A-B classes play no role in the political process. Decades of social science research have produced variations on a contrary theme: in their electoral choices, the masa voters respond to signals from the elite, who also determine the prior question of who will be presented on the ballot for the people to elect. 

Most leading contenders for the presidency draw on elite-level bank accounts.  Isko Moreno came from humble origins but just from unspent campaign donations gained a windfall P50 million.  Variously called patron, cacique, or boss, the elite decide who will receive the funding required to conduct a campaign and, if necessary, the coercive capabilities that may be required for defensive or offensive purposes.   

In a political environment increasingly dominated by “fat” dynasties, public opinion polling agencies do not need to survey the 10% of the voting population in the A-B classes, as Pulse Asia has concluded. Seventy percent of the legislators elected in 2010 to the 15th congress came from political families.  Add the 100 richest families, the number would still reflect only a fraction of the A-B population willing to use wealth for political purposes.  Unfortunately, the .001% are unlikely to respond to surveys. In-depth interviews with experts and interdisciplinary research would more reliably identify the critical “kingmakers,” their perspectives, and the prospective policies of the candidates they support. 

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And yet, it would be imprudent to dismiss the masa as incapable of exercising any agency.  History has recorded moments when the masa, responding to severe national stress, defied the odds and moved against the expected flow of events.  EDSA was such a moment, like the Arab Spring and the European color revolutions.  Granted, these transformations encounter elite resistance and remain incomplete.  Even the French Revolution did not prevent revolutionary excesses and Napoleon’s counter-revolution, but France never lost the light it ignited.

Does the sudden groundswell of Robredo mass rallies around the country, exceeding those of Cory Aquino, predict another transformational moment?  Will the elite and the masses awaken in time to the dangers the election results may pose for the next generations of Filipinos?  Prophesying is a risky enterprise.  But the philosophical axiom, supported by historical examples, allows us to argue from existence to possibility.  What has happened before can happen again. – Rappler.com

Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.