OPINION: Analyzing Philippine Electoral Behavior

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at Jan 23 2020 08:59 PM

“Winnability” or popularity seems to sum up the formula for winning elections in the Philippines. However, there are those, like me, who still believe in capacity and background. Of course, popularity comes first as it is crucial to be known to the public and establish that assumption for the voters—that they know the candidate as a person.

Once popularity is established, capacity and background are fundamental to seal it. It includes the perception that one is a good person who is sincere (the candidate is able to show that public service is natural, not something that is done only for show and intended only to get public support), and understands or identifies with the majority of the people. All in all, I’d like to think that “winnability” is not just popularity but a combination of “charisma” and “capacity”. Perhaps I’ll submit the term “Chapacity”, instead of what, to me, is the kooky term winnability.

Still, there are those who think it’s just about popularity and that the voters don’t think, hence, the colloquial term “bobotante”. I have always believed that voters actually think; it is just that the system has an inadequate system of nomination that there’s not much to choose from. Apart from that, the kind of information that gets to voters is not necessarily all reliable, especially recently when much of what one reads has to be fact-checked. Before, there was a dearth of information available to the public; now, there’s so much information there that’s actually useless.

So, how do the voters choose whom they vote? We can learn actually from the kind of leaders we have elected in all 11 elections we have had under the 1987 Constitution. That would require a full study but would surely reveal a lot for us to understand how the people vote and improve on the prevalent view that it’s all about money and popularity. 

Meanwhile, we can first have a glimpse and look at national elections for this short article. Of course, this cannot be considered extensive enough as we did not isolate factors such as technology. Undeniably, this is a significant factor but should not be taken to mean as something that is unidirectional and therefore tends to favor only a particular group. That’s another topic altogether, the genesis of which and broader implications I wrote about in a previous article. 

On so many occasions now, I have heard some say that the Senate is no longer the same as before. Especially for those who witnessed historic debates in the upper chamber decades back, where great political minds where exhibited, the Senate of today is a distant counterpart. Back then, the Senate was the chamber for statesmen and astute political leaders like Raul Manglapus, Wigberto Tañada, Teofisto Guingona Jr., Jovito Salonga, Miriam Santiago and Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr., and that’s just naming a few. Of course, many more years back, we had celebrated Senators like Claro M. Recto and Jose W. Diokno.

So, it seemed that back then, those who made their name in various professions or industries were elected to the Senate. It would then seem like a pattern until people started electing popular TV and or movie personalities in 1992 like Tito Sotto (who is now Senate President), Ramon Revilla Sr., and Freddie Webb. Sotto and Revilla actually topped their respective senatorial elections. The administration party would also tend to dominate Senate elections then. Out of 24 seats, only two—Joseph Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile—went to the opposition in the 1987 elections. In the 1992 elections, only 1 of 12, Ernesto Maceda of the opposing party, won.

By 1995, voters still elected familiar names but started to modify their formula. This time, 3 from outside the administration party made it, and two—Senators Juan Flavier and Gregorio Honasan— were popular figures not because of television (TV) or movies but because of their background. Flavier was a medical doctor who became popular because of his slogan “Just DOH it” as he campaigned for the health department he headed before running, and his “Doctors to the Barrio” program. Honasan, on the other hand, made a name as one of the leaders of the coups d’état against President Cory Aquino years before. Popularity was a factor but the reason for it was different.

Then 1998 came and the result of the elections suggested that voters had come a long way in formulating and re-formulating their considerations and process in choosing who to vote for. That was the time when popularity can be said to be “the deciding factor” for getting elected. Apart from Sotto and Revilla who were re-elected, the Senate welcomed new members in popular TV personalities, Renato Cayetano, and basketball legend Robert Jaworski. Rodolfo Biazon, the popular general who defended then-President Cory against coup attempts, also won. That was also the time when Erap Estrada was elected President and his opposition coalition dominated the Senate, winning 7 out of 12 seats. 

To me, this should not be taken to mean that popularity became the single consideration of the public in choosing whom to vote. It can be interpreted that it was some experiment, no longer relying on supposed “professionals” who are supposedly the ones capable of making a difference in public service. Perhaps, and this should be further studied, the public may have thought they have had much of the same crop of political leaders before and were disappointed. Hence, the consideration then was to try the exact opposite and find out the difference.
 
Many thought then that anyone who’d be on TV and the movies would surely be a winner. Then again, the 2001 election results showed otherwise. It was consistent with the experimentation in 1998. Many of the popular TV and movie personalities failed to deliver. That time, popularity was still a factor but the voters seemed to have required more than just being popular. Noli de Castro, a popular newscaster won, but not Dong Puno. The election of Manny Villar and Panfilo Lacson is also worth noting. Both were popular but because of their background. Villar was a successful businessman and Speaker of the House of Representatives who impeached then-President Erap, while Lacson was chief of the Philippine National Police.

There were other TV and movie personalities who also ran, especially at the congressional and local level, but popularity wasn't enough to win. Erap’s magic, or should I say charisma, on the other hand, was demonstrated more in the election with the victory of his wife Loi Ejercito. That could have been a sympathy vote following Erap's ouster a few months earlier.

When 2004 elections came, the voters decided to give more seats to the opposition. Five out of 12 went to the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP), the united opposition coalition. Of course, at that time, the President was not as popular as the previous presidents which could explain the weakened pull of the administration. It should be noted that the "Hello Garci" scandal that made then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo really unpopular was made public only in June 2005. So, if there was any factor that gave the opposition more seats, it was because the opposition candidate for President was Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ), undoubtedly popular, and he campaigned as friend and ally of ousted President Erap.

On the other hand, it could also be argued the voters then were simply looking for new names for the Senate. Many of those who did not make it to the cut were re-electionist senators who, by name recall, had historically always made it back. The election of Jinggoy Estrada, on the other hand, confirmed the so-called Erap magic. It was the first time that a mother and son were both elected to the Senate. Voters were really experimenting on their choices. Popularity remained a factor, of course, especially the pull of Erap, but the background was likewise a key consideration.

By 2007, the administration’s public support had already taken a beating, and 8 out of the 12 senators who won were from the Genuine Opposition. Note that it should actually be considered 9 out of 12 as Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan is from the Liberal Party but interestingly styled himself as “independent” and was not part of the “Genuine Opposition” coalition. Of course, Sen. Kiko was being “careful” as a candidate when he thought of presenting himself as a middle-ground choice.

It was difficult to read the public sentiment then. President GMA already admitted that she tampered with the 2004 elections but despite several attempts by the opposition, not one successfully unseated her. Then-Vice President Noli De Castro remained committed to the administration while there were some who thought the public probably preferred GMA as president as she was more capable compared to the VP. Perhaps, the public had already reached some level of political maturity, more sensitive to the downside of resorting to extra-constitutional means of changing presidents. 

2010 came and it was obvious the political leaders were adjusting, as clearly there was a need to carefully make sense of the public’s changing preferences and sentiments. Take note that by that time, the impact of the information revolution had already reached significant levels, no longer limited only to Manila but even in key cities all around the country. True enough, political leaders thought it was best to give the public more choices than usual.

For the first time, we saw several political parties fielding their own slates, unlike before where coalitions were forged between different political parties. The voting public responded and showed how they mixed and matched their choices. Note that then- Presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino emerged as the runaway winner but it was not enough for the Liberal Party to get the majority of Senate seats. It can also be noted that the results mainly favored returning senators. Several TV and movie personalities ran, but only those already familiar as senators made the cut.

One thing is clear with this exposition: voters have been making an effort to choose what to them is a good candidate. It may not be as sophisticated or congenial to some but nonetheless serious choices on their part. Yes, money and resources matter, but are not enough to guarantee a win. Of course, this is discounting any of the allegations or presumptions of irregularity. Money can get you good marketing, but marketing is as good only as the product. Popularity is a plus no doubt, but can be translated to votes only with some impression of capacity or track record. Perhaps, there’s also a threshold of popularity that spells the difference.

I'll get to the 2013, 2016 and 2019 elections in the next article as I focus on the presidential elections. You will see that there is a pattern of adaptation from the voting public. The same factors persist like popularity and background, but one cannot be isolated from the other, hence my coined term "chapacity." In the end, voters decide based on the changing composite of factors. If one is able to make sense of how this composite of factors is formulated by the public, it will prove to be useful in making plans for a campaign, or as a group intends to, anticipate possible winners and champions for policy advocacies.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)
 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.