The politics of presidential anointment

The recent talks between President Noynoy Aquino and Senator Grace Poe about a possible political alliance in 2016 signal the start of the election season in the Philippines. 

The fact that the President is talking to Poe, who has been doing well in surveys, is a tacit admission of persistent doubts about the prospects of the administration’s presumptive presidential candidate, Interior and Local Government Secretary and Liberal Party president (on leave) Mar Roxas. 

This development also serves to put the spotlight back on the power of the incumbent President’s anointment.

The practice of an incumbent president anointing (or endorsing) his or her chosen successor candidate is a relatively new phenomenon in Philippine politics. There was a time when presidential candidates would seek the blessing of the trinity of traditional politics in the Philippines: the US, the landlords, and the party bosses. 

Manuel Roxas, Ramon Magsaysay, and Diosdado Macapagal convincingly won the presidency with the support of these strategic groups. Aspiring presidential candidates at the time did not seek the anointment of the incumbent since practically all postwar presidents (except Manuel Roxas and Ramon Magsaysay who died while in office) sought re-election. Ferdinand Marcos had to switch from the Liberal Party to the Nacionalista Party and sought the blessing of the three to win the 1965 election.

Post-Marcos presidential campaigns

In the post-Marcos era, party stalwart and House Speaker Ramon Mitra competed with party outsider and Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos for President Cory Aquino’s anointment. Ramos won the anointment and Mitra lost the election.

The scenario was repeated in 1997, when Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr and Defense Secretary Renato de Villa battled it out for the blessings of President Fidel Ramos. De Venecia won the anointment but lost the election. In 2009, the anointment of Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro as the candidate of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo turned out to be a political kiss of death.

Several factors contribute to the importance of presidential anointment in post-Marcos presidential campaigns. 

First, for pragmatic reasons it would serve well for a one-term president to ensure that the next one be friendly to avoid future political persecution and harassment. Given the fate of past presidents Erap Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, PNoy must secure some insurance in the aftermath of the DAP controversy and the Mamasapano tragedy

Second, an anointment will ensure a continuity of narrative and the preservation of legacy. Ramos did not only cloak his presidential campaign with Cory’s EDSA reformist narrative but added a layer of developmental orientation with his Philippines 2000. 

Third, an anointment will open access to state resources and machinery. Again in 1992, Cory’s anointment spelled the difference in Ramos’ fledgling campaign machinery.

Fourth, a presidential endorsement will help preserve the bonds of clientelistic clans and hold off the rush to switch parties. Party-switching occurs twice in an election cycle: first, during pre-election party switching when candidates align with the most popular candidate; and second, during post-election party switching when elected officials affiliate themselves with the winning party to gain access to patronage. This early, a number of LP members are already planning to jump to VP Jejomar Binay’s United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).

Mar-Poe or Poe-Mar?

Since 1992, the mobilization of issue, image, and machinery has become the primary mode of presidential campaign strategy. 

It is important to translate market votes into political support by way of popularity reflected in public opinion surveys. 

There are essentially two factors that will draw or repel market votes to a candidate: image and issue. Image is the general perception by the electorate (whether positive or negative). On the other hand, issues are major concerns of the electorate that they hope the candidates will address once they are elected. The administration is apparently framing the 2016 election as a continuity of its reformist narrative and much vaunted economic performance. (WATCH: PHVote forum: The leader I want)

Here lies PNoy’s dilemma. 

Will Aquino turn his back on his longtime political ally, Mar Roxas, who had to give up his presidential ambitions in favor of Aquino's run in 2010? Will Aquino follow the example of his mother in picking an outsider but winnable candidate, like Grace Poe? 

At present, Mar has the party machinery but Grace has the popularity. With almost a year to go before the election, Mar can still work on his popularity and Grace still has to build her machinery.

However, a formidable political machinery is not enough to guarantee success in presidential elections, as experienced by Mitra in 1992 and De Venecia in 1998. The experiences of Miriam Defensor Santiago in 1992 and Raul Roco in 1998, however, demonstrate that image and issues are also not enough to win presidential elections. 

A candidate needs the corresponding political machinery to get and protect the votes. Successful presidential campaigns just like Erap Estrada's in 1998 and Noynoy Aquino's in 2010 were characterized by the right mix and astute use of popularity and machinery. 

Thus, the key to victory in 2016 is a (still) popular president endorsing a popular candidate. –


Julio C. Teehankee is Full Professor of Comparative Politics and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at De La Salle University. He is a veteran of presidential campaigns since the 1986 snap election. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy.