SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 17, 2019 - 12:00am

Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy. But even the opposition Otso Diretso must be conducting its own post-mortem on its debacle at the polls.

The opposition raised valid issues against the Duterte administration during the campaign. But several of those issues on human rights and corruption had been raised against Rodrigo Duterte when he was running for president. And he won by a landslide.

This time, the principal implementer of Duterte’s war on drugs – the most brutal phase one of Oplans Tokhang and Double Barrel – is safely ensconced in the Magic 12. As of yesterday, retired Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa remained in fifth place even in the official count of the Commission on Elections.

Dela Rosa’s ranking in the Senate race is seen as another reflection of continuing strong public support, in general, for the war on drugs.

The opposition might have pulled Dela Rosa out of the Magic 12, if it had linked him directly to the aspects of the anti-drug campaign that were highly unpopular (according to the surveys) – the savagery of the killings, the teenage executions and abuse of police power during his stint as PNP chief. The anti-drug campaign continues, but it has been recalibrated, with no more “mummies” and fewer deaths.

Opposition campaign attacks, however, were directed not at Dela Rosa but at Duterte… who was not a candidate.

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Several political analysts have taken note of this, among them Dindo Manhit and Ranjit Rye, who faced The Chiefs this week on Cignal TV’s One News.

The two analysts also noted that Otso Diretso raised public awareness of the opposition team but not of its individual members. In fact I know several voters who told me they nearly forgot to pick Samira Gutoc on their ballot because they could not remember her name; what they remembered was Otso Diretso.

Earl Parreño, who is writing an unauthorized biography of Duterte, told The Chiefs yesterday that he attended an opposition rally in Cagayan province. He recalled that when voters saw Bam Aquino, they called out his name. When they saw Erin Tañada, they called out, “Otso Diretso”!

Unfortunately, Otso Diretso was not on the ballot. Voters picked individuals, not Otso Diretso, Hugpong ng Pagbabago or PDP-Laban on the ballot. If there is bloc voting in this country, Parreño said, Otso might have won.

Some of the candidates who kept making it to the Magic 12 in pre-election surveys, such as Imee Marcos and Bong Revilla, were vulnerable to negative campaigning and could have been pulled down, the analysts said.

Each candidate taken out of the Magic 12 meant a vacancy that other bets, possibly from the opposition, could have filled. Instead, the opposition went after Duterte and his policies, ignoring surveys that showed him still enjoying stratospheric ratings.

Vice President Leni Robredo was aware of this; she had told The Chiefs in an interview last year that her ratings always dropped when she kept criticizing Duterte.

This useful insight apparently was not imparted to the campaign strategists of Otso Diretso. The team preferred to make the elections a referendum on the Duterte administration.

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Duterte’s reaction to this tack boiled down to “bring it on!” He ran a focused campaign for his bets, just as he did in 2016, when he ran on a platform of killing criminals. He made a specific promise in the presidential race: to end the drug problem in six months. It didn’t look like simple campaign OPM, oh promise me. Apparently he thought he could replicate nationwide the methods he employed in Davao City. But he himself must have seen how unlikely it would be to deliver on this promise.

People, however, were captivated by the image projected of an action man who promised strong government, in contrast to the Aquino administration, which was criticized by then vice president Jejomar Binay (now out of favor with the voters) for its “paralysis by analysis.”

This time, Duterte focused his endorsement power on just three candidates: his anak-anakan Bong Go, his loyal enforcer Bato dela Rosa, and the guy who says he was cheated of the 12th Senate slot in 2016 by Leila de Lima, Francis Tolentino.

Duterte knew how to manage expectations: he often said he did not expect all candidates of Hugpong to win (in the first place, Hugpong had 13 bets vying for just 12 seats). He even skipped Hugpong’s miting de avance.

At the same time, Duterte went to work on Otso Diretso, focusing particularly on the only two members of the slate who were making it to the Magic 12 in the surveys: Bam Aquino and Mar Roxas.

In Duterte’s campaign sorties, he always found time to skewer Otso Diretso candidates individually, with the exception of Gutoc.

The skewering followed his endorsement of each of the Hugpong bets. His speech endorsing the candidates – and lambasting their opponents – usually went on for two hours. We heard the same messages so often in the newsroom that we had memorized his spiels for or against every candidate by the time the campaign period ended. That was an important thing: we remembered.

Other quarters say that it wasn’t just strategy, but also money – lots of it – that swung the vote for certain candidates in the Magic 12, with some local government executives reportedly getting millions of incentives for their support.

What’s clear is that the combination of “incentives,” the endorsement power of a popular president, and the undeniable mobilization of government resources and political support for certain bets – the equity of the incumbent – worked for Duterte’s Senate choices.

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All is not lost for the opposition. Noynoy Aquino, midway through his term, also enjoyed high popularity and formidable endorsement power. His administration slate clobbered the opposition in 2013.

The waning of that endorsement power illustrates how political fortunes can change dramatically within three years in this country.

This can be something to chew on for the opposition, as it sifts through the ashes of its campaign. There’s a bigger battle ahead in 2022.

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