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Contenders

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2021 - 12:00am

The onset of the election season is slow in coming this time.

It is less than a year before vital presidential elections are scheduled. In previous years, feverish positioning and horse-trading starts this month. Political parties are busy consolidating their ranks for hard campaigns ahead.

This year, there is hardly any activity detectable among the political parties. We have long acknowledged that our political party system is weak. But we suffer a mental block when trying to completely write them off.

Politicians aspiring for national office have, over the past few elections, discovered it is more cost effective to woo votes through direct campaigns, using posters extensively and today using social media. The shift cuts off local political power brokers who had depended on the fund-raising capacity of presidential candidates to finance their own campaigns. This is the reason why nearly all the standing political parties are actually shells of previous presidential campaigns.

One beneficial by-product of cutting out the political middlemen is that local executives, having no opportunity to squeeze financing from the national candidates, have to rely on their record of performance. This will improve the quality of local governance over time.

Over the next few months, we will see this trend of direct political marketing deepen. Filipino elections have always been popularity contests. It is important that the possible contenders build a positive voter disposition towards their public persona.

This is the reason why our national-level politicians have made their first investments in constituting social media teams. With restrictions on mobility and social distancing protocols, the only way to reach the voter is through his smartphone. It is from his phone that the average voter gets most of his political information.

The new terrain of electoral struggle is digital. Their partisans will be trolls.

The various political camps are doing their preliminary work very quietly. No one wants to be seen as indulging in electioneering while the pandemic rages. If they are doing their homework as they should, the campaign consultants should be running rough tracking polls by this time. This will determine a few basic things such as name-recall and voter disposition. That is indispensable to issue positioning and candidate packaging.

Most of the tracking polls are privately consumed. Their results are never disclosed, especially if these are unfavorable to the sponsors.

The only publicly available poll measuring voter preferences is the one conducted by Pulse Asia. The results of this poll is made public just days after the survey firm briefed its clients.

Over the past few weeks, trolls presumably allied with politicians with bad numbers, have been trying to discredit Pulse Asia. Unfortunately for these trolls, Pulse Asia is the only reputable survey available. As such, it provides a common reference for all the possible contenders for national office.

In the last Pulse Asia survey, voter preference for president leaned heavily in favor of Davao City mayor Sara Duterte. Those who preferred Sara to be president were double the number of runners-up Bongbong Marcos and Grace Poe. Vice-president Leni Robredo ranked seventh in this poll.

Robredo is being coy about throwing her hat into the presidential ring. The Liberal Party that she nominally leads does not seem ready to mount a full-scale national campaign. She has better chances running for governor of Camarines Sur or mayor of Naga City.

So far, only two possible contenders have more or less indicated they are prepared to run: boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and former senator Antonio Trillanes.

Pacquiao’s campaign has been active in social media, although better taste might be needed to polish his video releases. When he appeared close to formally announcing his presidential bid, one prominent politician raised the matter about his consistent absenteeism in both the House and the Senate. That sort of took the energy out of what might have been a jumpstart.

Trillanes last week informed the 1Sambayan group that he was ready to run for the presidency in the event Leni Robredo chooses to seek a local post. That seemed totally tone deaf for a politician whose career was shaped mainly by impolitic behavior. The move was quickly criticized for bullying Robredo into making an early decision.

In 2016, Trillanes mounted a solo campaign for vice president and garnered a little more than 2 percent of the vote. That is hardly a compelling jumping board for a presidential bid.

1Sambayan is a bizarre caucus composed of aging anti-Duterte personalities, none of whom ever sought an elective position. This caucus appointed itself as chief arbiter that will decide on who will represent the opposition in the coming polls. Its mandate for appropriating this role was never clear.

What is clear is this caucus of unelected personalities is trying to preempt the role of the standing parties in choosing candidates for next year’s election. There is much conceit in that.

The last time any sort of “arbitration to unite the opposition” happened was in the 1986 “snap elections.” That produced the unhappy tandem of Cory Aquino running for president and Doy Laurel as her vice president.

The extent to which 1Sambayan can play a role in the alignment of electoral forces will depend on how ready our standing parties are to abdicate their role in choosing candidates for the next elections. If the parties choose to abdicate, that will spell the end of party politics and open a path to the ruling coalition to play an even more hegemonic role.

No one seems to be giving much thought to how elections might be feasibly held in quarantine conditions.

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