Religious endorsements: Half-truths, bloated figures, with strings attached

By Aries Rufo, Newsbreak

Posted at May 05 2010 11:42 PM | Updated as of May 06 2010 07:42 AM

MANILA, Philippines—With the new Iglesia ni Cristo head endorsing an unexpected choice for president, Benigno Aquino III, and with the El Shaddai leader’s bet being closely watched by political players and ordinary voters alike, the real capability of their organizations to deliver supposed bloc votes is the subject of debates again.
 
Nine years ago, just after the senatorial and local elections, Newsbreak magazine asked questions related to bloc voting sects: How much of these religious groups’ supposed strength and influence is myth? Are they any close to holding Philippine politics hostage? Or are they peddling half-truths?

The answer is, yes, they peddle half-truths, the estimates of the votes they can supposedly deliver is bloated, and their endorsements always come with strings attached. Even the candidates they supported in the past are downplaying the weight of the Iglesia ni Cristo support, for instance.
 
Senior writer Aries Rufo wrote “Church Power” for the May 23, 2001, issue of Newsbreak. Read on, and find that the views and analysis of our sources then remain relevant today. They sound like they are discussing the 2010 polls.

 
 
Church Power
Newsbreak, May 23, 2001
 
By Aries Rufo, Newsbreak
 
They are feared, they are aggressively courted, they are among the most sought-after by political parties especially during elections. For those wanting to be elected to office, they are considered an important factor in the winning equation.
 
At first, it was only the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). Then the charismatic Catholic groups and Christian sects followed suit. The latest addition is the Couples for Christ (CfC), which is an otherwise apolitical religious group.
 
Undoubtedly, religious groups have gained considerable clout in the political arena. For them, the electoral process has become as much as part of their affairs as their primary purpose of saving souls.
 
Religious endorsements—raised a notch higher by the INC through bloc voting— became fashionable in the 1990s when the INC, the Catholic Church and the Jesus is Lord (JIL) movement of Bro. Eddie Villanueva endorsed their respective candidates in the 1992 presidential race.
 
That election year, the JIL proved to be the biggest winner when its candidate, Fidel V. Ramos, a Protestant, bagged the presidency. Thus far, only the Jehovah’s Witness church which has a membership of 144,000 has not participated in these endorsement exercises.
 
In the 1995 and 1998 national polls, the “religious contest” became fiercer and heated with the entry of Bro. Mike Velarde’s El Shaddai. After testing the waters in 1998, CfC will again try to leave a mark in this year’s polls.
 
But how much of these religious groups’ supposed strength and influence is myth? Are they any close to holding Philippine politics hostage? What deals come with their endorsement?
 
THE NUMBERS GAME
One of the myths perpetuated by religious groups, intentional or otherwise, is the voting strength of their bloc, or congregation. Outside of their group, nobody knows for sure how many they are, or how big their voting population really is.
 
For instance, the bloc-voting INC boasts of a four-million-strong voting population nationwide, which roughly translates to more than 10 percent of the entire electorate. While it is not enough to ensure the election of a candidate running for a national post, the INC vote is most sought after, followed by the El Shaddai endorsement.
 
But insiders say the four million actually represents the entire population of the INC, including those ineligible to vote. Political analysts, strategists and politicians themselves believe the figure is much lower.
 
Reelectionist senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., one of the topnotchers in the 1995 senatorial race, estimates that the support of charismatic groups—the INC included— constituted only 0-12 percent of his total vote.
 
A former president’s son who was endorsed practically by all religious groups in 1995, Magsaysay says their effective endorsement becomes magnified because the undecided “tend to go” with the perceived winners.
 
Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, who was endorsed by the INC in the 1998 national polls, also refuses to entirely credit the support of the religious for his victory in the 1998 polls.
 
Perhaps a more telling indicator that the INC’s voting strength is not larger than life is the small number of sample respondents from the religious group tapped by reputable survey firms for their polls.
 
In surveys conducted in 1992, 1995 and 1998, the Social Weather Stations got three percent of its total respondents from the INC group, as compared to six to eight percent from other non-Catholic groups. In fact, an exit poll conducted in the 1998 polls, INC voters, at the very least, were estimated to be only 800,000.
 
But the INC is not the only religious group guilty of bloating its numbers. SWS estimates place at 307,000 the absolute voting strength of the JIL, far from its membership claim of three million. El Shaddai voters are estimated to number 1.31 million, also far from its supposed seven million membership.
 
“All in all, the survey’s projected total membership in charismatic groups of all kinds amounts to 3.2 million voters,” the SWS says in its book on the 1998 national polls. Given the numbers, religious bloc voting may not be all that effective at the national level.
 
Angelito Banayo, campaign manager of senatorial bet Panfilo Lacson, says that at most, religious endorsements come in handy for those running for local posts and those who emerge in the lower half of the winning senatorial lineup. For those on the borderline, he adds, a separate or collective endorsements of religious groups, especially the INC, may spell victory or defeat.
 
This could spill over to the presidential race, as in the case of Miriam Defensor Santiago who lost by less than a million votes to Ramos in 1992. “Had the INC, for instance, supported Santiago and not [Eduardo] Cojuangco, Santiago would have won,” Banayo says.
 
At the local level, especially in the areas where there is a huge concentration of members, religious endorsement can spell a difference. Banayo cites the case of Laguna where candidates endorsed by the INC won. In Manila, Mayor Lito Atienza won over political heavyweights by relying on the endorsement of the El Shaddai.
 
STUDYING CANDIDATES
If the religious and charismatic leaders are to be believed, their endorsements come only after a careful perusal of the qualities of the candidates. But analysts and politicians themselves believe that the endorsements actually hinge heavily on the popularity and the personality of the candidates and not on any church-based standards or teachings.
 
Magsaysay, a consistent topnotcher in the 1995 poll surveys, says he believes that the INC considered his “high winnability and party background.” Also, he says, the JIL endorsed him because of his affiliation with the LDP-Lakas coalition, which the Christian group backed in that year’s senatorial race.
 
The JIL, he says, has always been supportive of whomever Ramos endorses. Case in point is former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. whom the JIL even “anointed” in 1998 as the next president.
 
Although JIL’s Villanueva says the group comes up with its “list” after “careful discernment” by its leaders, an examination of their choices shows that the group is inclined to support Ramos’s candidates. This year, it is supporting the entire administration slate which Ramos also supports.
 
INC critic and political analyst Alex Magno says the sect, contrary to its claim of supporting candidates who are pro-poor, actually endorses those whom they believe they would benefit from in the long run. “Their strong personal loyalty to [Ferdinand] Marcos is the reason why they supported Cojuangco and [Joseph] Estrada in the elections,” he says.
 
To make sure that their chosen candidates actually win, Magno surmises, the INC draws up its own “kodigo” for members in the last few days of the campaign. “Kung talagang winning, ilalagay sa list. Tumataya naman sila sa siguradong panalo (They always bet on the sure-winners),” he says.
 
An INC member says that the sect’s hierarchy likewise “consults” its members about its “chosen” candidates to gauge who the popular ones are within its own ranks. An informal survey is usually held six months before the elections, and three months before.
 
El Shaddai spiritual adviser Fr. Anton Pascual admits that one of the reasons why Bro. Mike got into trouble with Catholic Church officials was his choice of candidates.
 
“In the case of Estrada, Bro. Mike endorsed him even (without Church approval). Sa standards, dun sumabit si Bro. Mike,” he says. One plausible reason why Velarde endorsed Estrada, Pascual says, is that most El Shaddai members were for the deposed President in the first place. He committed the grave mistake of basing his endorsement on popularity. “One cannot just endorse a candidate, it has to be grounded on objective moral standards,” he adds.
 
“Masa yan e, kaya  it went for Estrada. So in effect, Bro. Mike’s influence on his members is minimal,” Pascual argues.
 
ENDORSEMENTS WITH A PRICE

Of all the half-truths perpetuated by leaders of religious groups, the most understated perhaps is that their endorsements are voluntarily given—with no strings attached.
 
But various interviews by Newsbreak shows otherwise. Religious groups do not ask concessions or favors from candidates in exchange for their endorsement. The requests pour in after the candidates win.
 
Banayo, whoa acted as Estrada’s political adviser in Malacañang, says that the INC and the Catholic Church, to a certain degree, had at one time or another asked favors from the government.
 
As a member of the presidential personnel group that screened potential nominees to some government positions, including the judiciary, Banayo says there were several instances when the INC pushed for its own candidates. He says this excluded the appointment of former Justice Secretaries Serafin Cuevas and Artemio Toquero, both INC members, during Estrada’s time. It was generally believed that their appointment came with the strong endorsement of the INC.
 
By dangling their suppose bloc vote, Magno says the INC expects “to exact favors from the power wielders” later on. “It’s their version of political horse-trading. I’ll give you votes, I’ll expect from you later,” Magno says.
 
The INC, he adds, grew financially during Marcos’s time, cornering juicy contracts, particularly public works projects, in exchange of continued support for the late strongman. Under Estrada, he says the INC wanted to control government agencies such as the Land Registration Authority, the Land Transportation Authority and the Justice department.
 
And weeks before the Edsa protests, Magno adds, “they wanted to control Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue,” two of government’s revenue-generating agencies.
 
“Influence-peddling, kasi ang ikinabubuhay ng INC. Remove that and it will mean the death of their institution,” he says.
 
But in fairness to the INC, Magno says, its leaders want to “commandeer state resources for the benefit of their members” unlike Velarde who seeks government favors “to enrich himself.” The plunder case pending against him is an indication of this, Magno points out.
 
The 1.2 million-strong CfC is no less immune from seeking quo pro quo arrangements with the government. The CfC recommended to Kompil the inclusion of senatorial candidate Liwayway Vinzons Chato in the administration slate.
 
Besides political favors, religious groups also extend their influence over the formulation of national policy. A classic case, recalls Biazon, were the bills on divorce and population planning which he introduces in the Senate and which died a natural death. His colleagues refused to endorse it for fear of reprisal from the Catholic Church.
 
Another bill, introduced in 1995 and which sought to tax churches on their operations, was archived following strong pressure from religious groups. This early, Biazon says, he can already anticipate pressure from these groups when bills they perceive to be contrary to their beliefs or interests are introduced in the Senate.
 
Who says there was such a thing as free lunch? (Newsbreak)