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Opinion

Brawl

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

This could yet be the dirtiest Filipino presidential election.

There are many reasons why it could be that.

First, the de facto campaign period is long, about six months. The official campaign period begins February. But the candidates are not going to sit still until that time. The “pre-campaign” is when no rules apply. They may spend an unlimited amount on propaganda and not have to declare it in the Statement of Contributions and Expenditures they file --- that notorious piece of fiction prepared by each candidate’s lawyers after the votes are counted.

Second, this is a contest of personalities, not programs of government guaranteed by respected political parties. We saw the past few weeks how the parties bent to the whims of powerful politicians and how they became merely convenient vehicles for documenting candidacies. The existing parties are mere accessories in aid of personal ambition.

Third, what we call an electoral campaign is really a war of branding --- this being an entirely personality-centered contest. Those ranking better in the preference survey do so because of stronger branding. In the “pre-campaign”, each one will try to erode the branding appeal of the other. This is why people from the advertising industry have elbowed out the traditional political experts in running the campaigns.

Fourth, much of the political class (governors and congressmen) follows the bandwagon. This is why it is important to lead the surveys early on. This is also why it is important to destroy rivals way before the campaign period to leave the local powerbrokers little choice.

Fifth, we live during the time of Leni Robredo whose running is premised on stopping Marcos (although she is not doing a good job of it). This is a sure-fire formula for deep polarization, making the campaign a bipolar struggle between good and evil. Sure enough, her followers have tried their best to vilify and demonize everybody else.

Sixth, we live during the time of Rodrigo Duterte who sees every partisan differentiation as a brawl. He has an inclination towards burning bridges before he has crossed them. The only strategy he knows is to scorch the earth. The word in the grapevine is that his camp is taking out the heavy artillery to clear out the field for

his preferred successor. After all, nothing is more cost-efficient than negative campaigning.

Seventh, the “electoral investors” (for want of a better term) routinely apportion their largesse according to the candidates’ placement in the preference surveys. This adds to the urgency of demolishing rivals early in the game. The candidates are like gladiators who must go early and hard or risk elimination by the self-fulfilling prophesy of electoral financing.

Fasten your seatbelts. After the carnival of candidate-substitutions comes the real battle of mutually assured destruction. There are wages to be paid for having such a weak political party system.

Retain

We seem to forget that the formal campaign period is still months away. The candidates, we are told, as not campaigning yet. They are all roaming the country on “listening tours.”

All the chaos we saw leading to the deadline for candidate-substitution matter very little by the onset of the official campaign period. Since the timelines were stretched by the practical requirements of an electronic elections system, the dynamics of electoral campaigns changed.

Given the substitution spectacle we were treated to, several legislators are proposing amendments to the law curtailing the options for substituting candidates. They seem to think such curtailment is the popular thing to do.

This is likely an over-reaction. The legislators tend to overlook the fact that the period for substitution is provided for to strengthen the hand of the political parties. It enables the parties to discipline their candidates as well as allow enough leeway for other contingencies.

If we take out the power of the political parties to substitute the candidates they field, we will further weaken our party system. Of course, the period of substitution was abused. This is to be expected given that our electoral politics have become personality-centered rather than party-based.

Rather than weaken the party system, reforms ought to be introduced to strengthen it. Our electoral laws, after all, were written long before electronic elections and the procedural timelines they dictated.

If our legislators think some changes need to be made in our electoral law, they ought to open the whole thing for revision. We need to have a clear principle guiding the overhaul of our electoral system. The first principle here must be to strengthen our party system.

If we have a strong party system, we can develop a pool of statesmen well grounded in the policy issues and committed to the party platform. We will therefore be less reliant on family branding or sheer celebrity status to decide on who will be fielded to lead the nation.

With a strong party system, our nation’s policy inclination will be more predictable and elections will be less disruptive. Political succession will not be dictated by the politics of vengeance. Sports and movie idols will not think celebrity status is a ticket to political power.

We cannot have a modern and effective political system if elections are disruptive events among brawling celebrities. We cannot continue to have electoral outcomes dictated by vested interests willing to invest money in funding campaigns. Elections must no longer be gladiatorial contests between candidates out to demolish all the others.

Retain the substitution period and do the hard work of overhauling our electoral democracy. We owe that to ourselves.

RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE
Philstar
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