2022 Philippine Elections

[OPINION] Still early in the game

Joel Rocamora
[OPINION] Still early in the game

Graphic by Nico Villarete

Three factors will determine the outcome of the 2022 elections – among them, the capacity of Duterte to mobilize his popularity and the government machinery for his candidate

Several candidates for president and many local candidates have already filed their candidacies, generating a sense of immediacy to electoral politics. In fact, it is still early in the game. 

The three candidates (Lacson, Pacquiao, and Moreno) who have already proclaimed their candidacies are the outliers in the game. The main protagonists, Duterte’s candidate and Vice President Leni Robredo have not yet announced. Who actually files between now and October 8 will introduce some clarity but substitutions can still be made until November 15. 

Despite the advantages of incumbency, Duterte actually has serious problems. His choice is limited to daughter Sara and Bong Go, neither really stellar candidates. Duterte’s choice is limited because he has only one criteria for his choice: he has to be sure his candidate, if they win, will not turn against him and put him in jail. Some commentators speculate that the seeming uncertainty over who Duterte chooses is staged, part of the Duterte playbook. Instead what is projected is disarray. Sara does better than Bong Go in surveys, but both are actually weak candidates, so it does not matter much which one Duterte picks.

Sara’s survey ratings are a function of the power of a presidential father, Sara ‘Daughter’te’. Her problem is that this is “reflected power.” As the shine off of the Duterte presidency dims, there will be less to reflect on her. If she does run, she will have a “branding” problem. Her handlers say she is as tough as her father, but Philippine culture translates female macho into “tomboy” not exactly a winning brand in a sexist country. The name of Sara’s party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago(Coalition for Change) points to another problem. What is she going to change? What her father has crafted with six years in office?

Bong Go has a different set of problems. Being the unofficial “photo bomber” – being seen in every Duterte picture, does not seem to have provided him with “reflected power”. He has not established a presence in the Senate not just because he does not possess “senatorial” skills, but because he spends more time following Duterte around. He is a bottom dweller in presidential surveys. Maybe he has refused the PDP-Laban offer to be its presidential candidate because he understands his limitations. In Cebuano, ma bonggo siya – he will just be banging his head against the wall.

Bongbong Marcos, another presidential aspirant who is still firmly in the Duterte camp, could end up presenting a problem. He would be a powerful vice presidential candidate for Sara, providing her with electoral redoubts north and south. It would clinch Duterte’s identification with Marcos. But Bongbong may instead run for president. Time is running out on the Marcoses’ ambition to return to Malacanang. His father’s Martial Law-era party, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan(New Society Movement) declared Bongbong their presidential candidate. And his high survey ratings could feed his illusions.

I have labeled the Ping Lacson, Manny Pacquiao, Isko Moreno candidacies as “outliers” because in an election that is shaping up as a referendum on the Duterte presidency, they all have to work at dissociating themselves from Duterte. Manny Pacquiao will take Mindanao and Cebuano votes away from Sara/Bong Go but I seriously doubt that he can muster enough strength to become a national contender without a more credible partner. Ping Lacson will lose support in media and civil society because of his push for the anti-terrorism law. If he was really confident about his chances for victory, why did he propose a formula for survey-based withdrawal from the race?

Isko Moreno has generated more enthusiasm in media and the public, but why did he have to pick Duterte apparatchik Lito Banayo as campaign manager and Dr. Willie Ong as his vice president? Fed by recent statements bringing him closer to Duterte, political rumor mills picture him as a fallback Duterte candidate. He supposedly has won the support of Duterte people including Cabinet secretaries who are anti-Sara. But if Sara goes ahead and decides to run, and Duterte backs off from his vice presidential candidacy, he will lose the support of Duterte forces. His pro-Duterte moves are alienating him from opposition people. He will be up a creek without a paddle. 

Many Leni Robredo supporters are getting impatient about her seeming indecision. Maybe there is a reason why she and the Duterte camp have not yet come out. Declared candidates Lacson, Pacquiao, and Moreno had to declare early because they need to earn their opposition spurs. Leni does not have to do that. Some Leni enthusiasts have started attacking the declared candidates. Leni has not because she has not yet given up on opposition unity. She has been clear about her role as the leader of the opposition thru most of the Duterte years. If she is needed for opposition victory in 2022, she will not shirk the responsibility.

Discourse on opposition unity has had a narrow focus, on having only one opposition candidate. It is apparently impossible to achieve that at this point. Maybe because they have largely been irrelevant at this point, there has been no discussion of political party coalitions for the election, a common practice in European elections. Maybe the discussion should now focus on unity among peoples’ organizations, on church, academic, youth, and other civil society organizations. This is where Leni has distinct advantage.

Doubts about Leni’s “winnability” comes out of her low survey numbers. A recent survey reportedly trusted by Malacañang, shows her gaining six points, enough to keep her as a serious contender. I am sure she has not forgotten that when she began her winning campaign for the vice presidency in 2016, she had one measly point. Presidential preference surveys at this point in the race are not reliable. Manny Villar was ahead of Noynoy Aquino in surveys early in the 2010 campaign. At various points, Jojo Binay and Grace Poe led the 2016 surveys. The most useful surveys will come in February and March 2021 when serious contenders and “also-runs” are more clear. What is important at this point is where a candidate’s numbers are going, up or down. Sara’s numbers are going down, Leni’s up, significantly higher, I am sure, after she announces her candidacy. 

Some analysts make much of the weakness of Leni’s party, the Liberal Party (LP). Indeed, the LP lost a lot of its politician-members after their presidential candidate lost in the 2016 elections. What about Duterte’s party PDP-Laban, which has split in two. The LP has made a risky but radical organizing decision. Instead of concentrating on recruiting established local politicians, they have focused on recruiting non-politicians with influence in local communities. This coincides with what is likely to become an important Leni base, 1Sambayan.

1Sambayan has already announced that it is supporting Leni for president after its consultation process. At this point, 1Sambayan says it has 123 member-organizations, 47 local, 22 overseas Filipino worker groups, and a total of 3 million members. Even if only half of these members actively work in the Leni campaign, she will have a powerful parallel campaign machinery, one that will easily dovetail with the revitalized LP. It will also become a massive (non)troll army for the social media campaign which has been in place since June. 

Three factors will determine the outcome of the 2022 elections. One, the capacity of Duterte to mobilize his popularity and the government machinery for his candidate. Two, where local political plans place their bets. Three, the kind of campaign machinery that will be put together by the opposition candidate. 

Surveys show that Duterte’s approval rating has fallen in the last couple of months. He still has high numbers but these are likely to fall further in the aftermath of the Senate investigation of massive, high-level corruption in multi-billion government purchases for the pandemic, what we might call the Pharmally scandal. It has been clear for years that corruption in the bureaucracy increased because Duterte paid little attention to the way his Cabinet ran their departments. Several scandals have erupted revealing billions of pesos lost to corruption in the purchase of Navy frigates, National Food Authority rice importation, and the allocation of PhilHealth funds. But these did not reach Malacanang’s doors.

Duterte himself has made sure that the Pharmally scandal reaches him by avidly defending the deals. Michael Yang – the Chinese businessman who was appointed “economic adviser” by Duterte is enmeshed in the scandal – he is probably the architect of this multi-billion peso scam, who knows? In a futile attempt to stop the Senate investigation exposing one anomaly after another, Duterte has personally attacked Senator Dick Gordon, chair of the blue ribbon committee, who has answered in kind, provoking an embarrassing fish mongers fight. Duterte has banned members of the Cabinet from testifying. It is not that, by his own admission, Duterte has not been able to do much against corruption, the Pharmally scandal shows him abetting it.

Broadcast media, now intensified by social media, will be more important in the coming election because of the limits on mobility imposed by the pandemic. In a recent column, Joel Butuyan says that the Duterte people’s social media campaign will not be as effective as in the 2016 election when Duterte was the only candidate mining social media for votes. Because of the pandemic, many more people are active in social media. Without using expensive troll farms, Leni fans are drowning out pro-Duterte trolls. 

Some analysts worry that a desperate Duterte might turn to the military and police. He will have to compete with local political clans for control over the police who, in many places are dependent on town mayors. Duterte has floated the idea of a “revolutionary government” several times, each time the Armed Forces leadership has vetoed the idea. Because of the revolving door style of AFP leadership, Duterte cannot count on consolidated leadership in the AFP. And the US, under Biden’s leadership, is likely to use its considerable influence on the AFP to prevent the continuation of a pro-China Duterte regime. 

These conditions will increase the role of local political clans and their vote banks. Although media continues to focus on which political parties support which candidates, already minimal, the importance of political parties will be even more diminished. Some clans have expressed support for Duterte and Sara, but these pledges are written in water. It will only be after the approval of the national budget in December, when local leaders already know their allocations, that real choices will be made.

The diminution of political party role will increase the importance of civic activism. This gives Leni Robredo an advantage. She has generated the most enthusiasm among the presidential aspirants. 1Sambayan provides an organizational channel for this public enthusiasm. LP reorganization is also in this direction. There will be other factors determining the outcome of the elections in 2022, but Leni enthusiasts should have no doubt about her winnability. If they work hard for her. – Rappler.com