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News Commentary

Guided by ‘correct’ information? Anxious Filipino voters choose new leaders

Jeremaiah M. Opiniano - Philstar.com
Guided by âcorrectâ information? Anxious Filipino voters choose new leaders
Voters in Tondo, Manila cast their votes at the Magat Salamat Elementary School on May 9, Wednesday. Presidential candidate Isko Moreno will be casting his vote at this precinct.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao

MANILA, Philippines (The Filipino Connection) — The Philippines awaits anxiously the outcomes of a May 9 national election and a new government’s pathways to moving forward from a pandemic and from a rowdy political climate.

At stake for over-66 million Filipino voters are hopes of rebuilding their economic lives, of electing “better” leaders, and of having an improved political landscape.

Electoral outcomes, however, all depend on how these registered voters process the “correct” information they get, which may have confused their supposedly informed vote.

Printed election materials such as these pamphlets try to sway Filipinos to certain candidates. But in both offline and online communication channels, a barrage of "correct" and "false" information have flooded Filipinos’ minds. As voters choose new national leaders on May 9, the Philippines’ future banks on Filipinos’ processing of supposedly "correct" political information. 

Poll surveys frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr. consistently called for national unity. Lurking in his background, however, are histories of his father’s “confirmed”-but-disputed economic gains, multi-billion dollar corruption and ill-gotten wealth, human rights violations, and beneficial infrastructure projects.

Outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo appealed to Filipinos’ rational thinking to say that usual ills in Philippine governance must end. State auditors have confirmed her office’s projects as judiciously spent, but critics lambast Robredo’s ties with former Philippine presidents —surnamed Aquino— who “confirmed” to have not improved Filipinos’ lives during their regimes.

Other candidates — Francisco "Isko" Domagoso (mayor of the Philippine capital Manila), boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, Sen. Panfilo Lacson Jr., and five others— have offered their platforms even if poll surveys see them lagging behind the runaway frontrunner Marcos Jr.

Getting information

The Philippines’ 2022 elections also mark the second time that social media sways Filipinos towards partisanship, divisiveness, and receipt of both “factual” and “false” information. Outside of Facebook, Twitter and now TikTok, the working Filipino class just tries to get information through old-fashioned ways.

While guarding a building in Sampaloc district in Manila, “I got handed this plastic,” 24-year-old “Bruno” (not his real name) says. That clear plastic carried a white paper, with pictures of the five leading presidential candidates, and a comic pamphlet dashed in pink ink.

Passengers have reasoned with me many times, taxi driver Virgilio Burunquit, 61, narrates. “Robredo voters have asked me if I want further corruption. But wait, have accusations against Marcos been proven?

End of the Duterte regime

Former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte steps down as president on June 30. Supporters laud Duterte’s tough stance in his anti-drugs policy (including the alleged wanton killing of drug users and pushers), as well as pre-pandemic years of “high” economic growth (2017-2019 average: some six percent) and big-ticket infrastructure development.

Critics, however, thumbed down the sitting government’s mishaps in handling the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak; the economic recession of 2020 (which many governments worldwide felt); and a ballooning national debt —60 percent of gross domestic product— that the new government will inherit.

Marcos Jr. owes to President Duterte the burial of his father, former 20-year president Ferdinand Sr., in a cemetery for national heroes last November 2016. The president’s daughter, outgoing Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, is Marcos’ running mate and a runaway leader too in vice presidential poll surveys.

(President Duterte, however, did not publicly endorse any specific candidate as campaigning ended May 7th.)

The Office of the Vice President got politically sidelined by the Duterte presidency in most of these past six years. In response, Robredo’s office implemented development projects and handed out aid especially during natural disasters and during this running Covid-19 pandemic.

Modern Filipino political rivalry

Robredo narrowly beat Marcos Jr. for vice president in 2016 by some 280,000 votes, that even a national recount of electronic ballots affirmed Robredo’s win after Marcos’ electoral protest.

Duterte won the presidency overwhelmingly, with him leading by a handy 6.6 million votes over then-Senator Mar Roxas.

“We should guard our votes,” Marcos, Jr. said in a recent rally, “and not let our win snatched away from us.”

“Panalo ka na (You win already)!”, Marcos’ supporters shouted in his end-campaign rally Saturday night, May 7th.

Confusions, discontents

But this recent campaign has sowed confusions and disconnections among Filipinos in deciphering who truly “leads” the political horserace.

Poll survey firms that employed scientific multi-stage random sampling got criticized for allegedly missing out or underrepresenting certain population segments (particularly voters belonging to high-income families). Two former national statisticians think this approach by polling firms may present questionable results.

Spanning various rounds and months, Marcos Jr. leads these poll surveys by at least 28%. Eve-of-election poll survey results by two Philippine polling firms (Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations) have predicted actual election results correctly most of the time.

Drone videos and photos of campaign rallies, however, capture shots of jampacked crowds that then get flooded on social media. “Guesstimates” (or guess estimates) swirl over social media, with pundits and observers providing either “accurate” or “bloated” numbers.

Observers said Robredo “leads” in rally attendances over Marcos Jr.

Online trends, especially through Google Trends, add up to the confusion. Filipino users type names of the candidates to see if these search queries draw up numbers. Google Trends show Robredo trending more over Marcos, Jr. with margins similar to Marcos’ lead in poll surveys.

Some analysts even juxtaposed Philippine Google Trends results to France’s. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron trended more on Google Trends over Marie Le Pen, and he eventually won the May 1 elections. But Pulse Asia’s Ana Marie Tabunda said these online trends do not equate to voting preference.

The political battle went traditionally offline too, with some supporters resorting to community and house visits to hand out pamphlets and giveaways, and to explain information verbally.

But online misinformation and disinformation swarmed voters’ minds. A mid-2021 survey of over-7,700 university students showed that only 32 percent of them got more than six answers correctly in a ten-item quiz to on identifying “fake” news.

“They think they know the correct information, but only a few can discern what is the correct information,” says political scientist Dr. Ador Torneo of De La Salle University, sensing that misinformation and disinformation may ruin democratic institutions.

What ‘informed vote’?

Confusions and discontents to these incomparable poll surveys, campaign rally attendances and online trending results may have diluted Filipino voters’ supposedly informed vote. The deluge of offline and online political information —correct, corrected, false and falsified information— may have made voters hard pressed to make the right choices, says Torneo.

Even some candidates’ disregard of presidential debates, organized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and by varied Philippine broadcast media companies, has tumbled down the public’s understanding of platforms of government, Torneo adds.

Instead, the recent campaign period that began last February 8 saw candidates use messaging that “appeals to emotions and nostalgia,” Torneo thinks.

“It is about winning people over, without going into (understanding the) basic information”.

At stake

The Philippines regained democratic freedoms in 1986 after (alleged) electoral fraud by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. led to a bloodless “People Power” revolution in February that year. Catapulting former housewife Corazon Aquino to the presidency signaled the end of Marcos Sr.’s martial law era. However, online trolls, social media pundits and numerous current-day Filipinos, young and old, discredit martial law and laud its gains.

Some 36 years after the events of February 1986, Marcos Jr.’s projected win this May 9 may signal the political redemption of the Marcoses (say their supporters) and the comeback of alleged corruption and bad governance under a democracy (say Marcos’ critics).

Domagoso called on the country’s tax agency to collect over-P203 billion (US$3.8 billion) —in current-day rates— of estate taxes from the Marcos family. The Philippine Supreme Court even promulgated such collection of estate taxes with finality in a 1999 decision.

Marcos Jr. said “there’s a lot of fake news” roaming around his family’s allegedly unpaid estate taxes.

Economic turning point?

Outcomes of May 9 also provide a turning point for the Philippines’ desires to move forward from the pandemic and to catch up and achieve targets of a long-term plan, called Ambition 2040, for economic prosperity.

The Philippines (population: 110 million) is currently entering a window period called the “demographic transition.” This means that working-age citizens outnumber young and elderly dependents, providing a situation that more savings and investments from that bulging labor force get invested in the country.

That demographic bonus is estimated to last until 2070, say government economic planners. On top of that, a 10-million overseas Filipino population connect to their motherland by sending more cash remittances. The record-high US$31.4 billion cash remittances last year helped bail the Philippines out of further economic collapse.

Lucky for the country, SARS-CoV-2 transmission is dissipating since March. But with the global economy still teetering from pandemic-induced recessions, rising inflation and business disruptions and closures, the Philippines currently bears the brunt of being cash-strapped since the pandemic had to be mitigated and Filipinos be provided support.

The Philippines has “limited resources available to face (economic) storms head-on,” says economist Dr. Alvin Ang of Ateneo de Manila University. “More promises of spending are simply difficult (to do) because of the lack of resources and limited revenue generation.”

How the human mind handles political information

In the midst of overflowing information about candidates, the economist Ang had called on voters to “carefully process each candidate’s platform and decide if the (candidates’) plans and strategies can roll us forward on the rough and tough road ahead.”

But voters, Torneo notes, resort to “cognitive shortcuts” to speed up in making decisions.

Burunquit the taxi driver personally admitted he’ll pick Marcos, Jr. But his family of four —with a housewife, a recently-resigned 30-year-old mechanical engineer, and a 19-year-old university student— decides collectively.

We decide with my wife, he says with a laugh. The Burunquits did so in 2016, voting for Rodrigo Duterte and his running mate Alan Peter Cayetano.

“My wife will facilitate our collective decision making in our family dinner tomorrow (May 7). Bahala na siya sa amin (she’ll take care of us).”

Mrs. Burunquit is leaning towards Robredo, observes husband Virgilio. Daily radio programs and television news have exposed her to numerous information on all the contenders.

“If we decide to vote for her,” says the 30-year taxi driver, “that’s our final decision.”

 

The Filipino Connection is a regional partner of Philstar.com.

2022 ELECTIONS

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