OPINION: The Continuing Search for Change: Analyzing Philippine Political Behavior (Part II)

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at Jan 31 2020 06:57 PM

Change is always the candidate voters choose in every presidential election. This is to be expected, as people have always been wanting to have better government and politics for a long time now. People hardly see or feel the government working for their welfare. Development has yet to reach the greater part of the country, and the gap between the rich and the poor has consistently been widening. The only way most families think they have, as a chance to get out of poverty, is to have a member or members of the family working or simply migrating and pursuing their dreams abroad.

It’s even ludicrous to argue that things were a lot better before, that government used to serve the people’s interest. If that were true, we wouldn’t be having many of our problems today. Imagine for example that, up to now, our infrastructure still requires substantial work when many of our neighboring countries have gone way ahead of us. It is pointless then to argue for and or against whatever happened before or during Martial Law. What is clear is that many reforms are needed, that the government has to finally work for the people. To me, this is the single overarching concern of every voter in every election. This is why every candidate always promises change even if in the end the same remains.

While voters have consistently preferred change, the kind of change or reform needed remains imprecise. There is hardly any meaningful public discourse on issues and needed policy response. Why and how would there be when the system simply does not give it primary importance. So, the idea of change is quite general.

The public considers the candidate who is able to demonstrate and argue that he or she is not from the same group as before and so is likely to bring about change. In the process, the focus of the campaign has been less about issues but more about the person. There is nothing to anticipate from a candidate who is elected as no concrete policy proposals are offered. Hence, it is a paradox that the people always expect so much, that things will change once there is a new President.

Change, however general, even vague, has then been the rallying cry of all candidates who ran for President. While then-candidate Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) in the 1992 presidential elections (first under the 1987 Constitution) was with the outgoing administration, his message was change. The political transition had already taken place under President Cory, so Ramos' pitch was that development should now be the program of governance. That was the core message of his campaign, encapsulated in the forward-looking theme “Philippines 2000”.

FVR was the anointed candidate of then-President Cory Aquino, contravening the decision of her allies in government. Ramos vied for the nomination of the then-ruling Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) but lost to then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ramon Mitra Jr. Ramos then claimed the nomination process was marred by fraud and proceeded to form his own party, Partido Lakas Tao, which then coalesced with the National Union of Christian Democrats of Senator Raul Gonzalez and the United Muslim Democrats of the Philippines of former Ambassador Sanchez Ali. With the help of Rep. Jose De Venecia, they formed the Lakas-NUCD-UMDP.

Ramos won and became the 12th President of the Philippines with a measly lead of 874,348 votes to the runner-up, Miriam Defensor Santiago. FVR’s mandate then was only 23.58% or less than 3 out of 10 of those who voted. Santiago cried fraud and protested the result.

Assuming that the elections were fair as there were no allegations it wasn’t free, FVR’s campaign of change may have resonated, except that he was running against other supposed “administration” candidates. Three other candidates then were all with the Cory Aquino administration: Ramon Mitra who was the standard bearer of the administration party; Jovito Salonga of the Liberal Party; and Salvador Laurel who was the outgoing Vice President then.

Miriam Santiago, no doubt, personified change. From the time she was appointed judge during Martial Law to Immigration Commissioner and then Agrarian Reform Secretary, she showed her prowess on promoting reforms and raising the standards in public service. Still, these weren’t enough to have her sustain her popularity and lead in the elections. If her lead had been substantial, it would have been difficult to tamper with the results. Of course, whatever happened had to be really investigated to have a definitive finding.

There were substantial accomplishments under the FVR administration. Most reviews would say that the country’s economy got back on track, several notable reforms, while some say flawed or diluted, were successfully passed, and the first agreement with Muslim rebels was concluded. Perhaps, all these weren’t enough so the voters proceeded with their experimentation.

Some say former Speaker Jose De Venecia was simply a hard sell, especially since he led the least popular government branch, which is the House of Representatives. It earned him the moniker "trapo" (rag) or traditional politician, and he lost substantially to then-VP Erap Estrada. Some say the latter simply was so popular that the former had no chance whatsoever. Then-candidate Erap campaigned for change, as expected, with a rudimentary slogan, “Erap Para Sa Mahirap”.

It was the 1998 elections that elected the most number of TV and movie personalities. To me, this was the public saying they want to see more notable changes, reforms they had been wanting ever since and which they had not seen in previous Presidents. So, the vote for an outsider was an experiment, departing substantially from the established formula of electing from those who already made a name in government and politics.

Even with Erap’s untimely exit as President, he remained popular. His claim of persecution by the elite was so successful that he almost won as president again in 2010 and got most of his family elected. In 2004, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ran for President as an incumbent, it was a good strategy to ensure there was only one administration candidate, that the votes wouldn’t be divided. One can argue that GMA wasn’t really popular a president, hence the result of the elections, but she had a substantial following from different sectors, considering her background.

She had the advantage of being the incumbent and the only administration candidate against popular movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ). While she was running to remain as President, her message was still change, which is establishing a “Strong Republic”. This was a subtle message, suggesting to do away with the “supposed” scandals in the government of her predecessor. It may have worked, considering that there were only 5 candidates; the other 3 were Senators Panfilo Lacson and Raul Roco, and Jesus is Lord Leader Eddie Villanueva. They were, however, not considered "contenders" then.

After her victory in 2004, the 'Hello Garci" scandal the following year was so damaging to GMA that she would never regain popularity. Only 2 administration candidates won in the 2007 midterm senatorial elections, and the administration bet for President, former Department of National Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, in 2010, finished a far-fourth. Teodoro was considered by many as very competent and the principled of all the officials in government then. He could have been a good bet, especially since the outgoing administration did perform well in the economic front. The public, however, could not care less of continuity and believed that the country sorely needed change.

Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino, one of the staunchest critics of the GMA administration, won handily as President in 2010. Many believed that he won because he was an Aquino and there was public sympathy with the passing of his mother, former President Cory Aquino. The dismal finish of Sec. Teodoro, on the other hand, showed that whoever was the opposition candidate would likely win. Again, ousted President Erap ran and finished second, so it is in that consideration that the sympathy vote applied.

Considering the figures of the 2010 elections nonetheless, it would be too much to assume that former President Erap could have won if it was not then-Sen. Noynoy who ran as the Liberal party candidate. The lead could have been less but considering the significant margin of the winning candidate, anyone less popular had a good chance of winning. Erap still had a following, but one that was difficult to increase since he was already once a President and even left unceremoniously. The point is that anyone from the opposition could have won then.

PNoy ran using the same platform of change, which was “Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap”. He became the most popular President and administration at the start compared to all those that came before it. As expected, the public had high expectations but after a year, it already showed weaknesses. Economic growth tapered as government spending dipped and after it was revealed that its development plan was still being worked out.

A lot could have been accomplished by the PNoy administration. The aggressive infrastructure development started then, and the agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could have been completed during that time, but the Mamasapano massacre happened. So much was also promised--from becoming a rice exporter to ending the classroom shortage, but none of these happened. In the end, PNoy could not sustain his popularity towards the end of his term.

It was a wasted opportunity; there were so many reforms many thought could be pushed then considering the popularity of the President. Most notable of these was the Political Party Reform initiative, but it died mysteriously in the Senate. There was so much disappointment that in the 2016 Presidential elections, the theme was the same and even more resonating: real change had to be pursued.

The perceived number one contender then was Senator Grace Poe, owing largely to her unexpected first-place finish in the 2013 Senatorial Elections. She campaigned using the slogan “Gobyernong May Puso,” which seemed to emphasize the need for sensitivity in government, another subtle approach to criticizing an outgoing government. The surprise winner was Rodrigo Duterte, the former mayor of the biggest city in the country, Davao City.

President Duterte started “feeling the pulse” by going around campaigning for federalism. The slogan of his campaign was quite simple, “Tapang at Malasakit” but more than the slogan, what resonated was then-candidate Duterte’s emphasis that the system was rotten and should be changed if real change is to happen.

The question now is: what is to be expected in 2022. The President is emerging to be the most-popular President we've ever had, but the question is whether this can be transferred. On the other hand, unlike previous elections, it seems that there is no other opposition group that can offer an alternative. The Liberal party remains ineffective and neutralized, while other political parties have been cooperating with the administration.

Change has been the message of candidate Duterte, and it is the same image that has been cultivated and sustained by the administration. Its performance has generated a lot of criticism from the opposition but the public remains appreciative and therefore supportive of the government. If at the end of this administration, change is really felt, whoever intends to run for President should have a more potent message of change. Remember that popularity is important, but capacity is as much important and it has to coincide with Charisma. "Chapacity" has to be there for a candidate to win.

(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.