MANILA - "Otso Diretso" senatorial candidates, endorsed by Vice President Leni Robredo, on Tuesday began an "uphill" 90-day battle geared at making "experienced" but "relatively unknown" opposition bets appeal to a voting population that still generally supports the ruling Duterte administration.
The slate began a 2-day campaign kick-off by knocking on doors and shaking the hands of bystanders in Caloocan City, one of Metro Manila's fringe areas with at least 650,000 voters, in a bid to "connect" with voters offline.
The group will move to Robredo's bailiwick in Naga on the second day to meet with the vice president and to touch base with Bicolano voters.
Though Liberal Party (LP) stalwart Caloocan Congressman Edgar Erice represents one of the 2 districts of the city, "Otso Diretso's" decision to use Caloocan as their launching pad deviates from the traditional practice of starting the campaign season in a party's bailiwick.
Nearly half of Caloocan's 648,933 voters supported President Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 presidential elections, while only 13.7 percent backed the Liberal Party's (LP) Mar Roxas, who is seeking to return to the Senate this year.
It's going to be a difficult campaign since most of the "Otso Diretso" candidates are grappling with an "awareness issue," Otso Diretso campaign manager Senator Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan earlier told ANC's Beyond Politics.
"Our campaign would be uphill as most of them are relatively unknown in the national stage," he said.
The opposition had a hard time looking for political allies, he revealed.
"May takot na ma-associate sa oposisyon... Maraming mga donors na nagsasabi na mahihirapan kami tumulong kasi may takot," Pangilinan said.
"Ayaw lumapit sa atin yung maraming pulitiko dahil pag kami ay sinuportahan, sasabihin na sila ay dilawan, sila ay involved sa drugs, sila ay kakasuhan, et cetera," he said.
Only 2 of the slate's 8 prospects, re-electionist Senator Bam Aquino and former Senator Roxas, managed to make it in pre-election surveys or those who have a "statistical chance" of winning in the May 13 midterm polls.
"Otso Diretso's" other bets--Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, former House Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, and Moro civic leader Samira Gutoc--were far behind incumbents and former senators running this year, based on several surveys before the start of the campaign period.
Pangilinan, however, defended their choices, saying these candidates were chosen based on their track record in quality public service and integrity.
"We believe it was the right thing to do, na kahit hindi sila sikat, hindi naman matatawaran ang kanilang kakayanan. Kailangan lang sila makilala ng ating mga kababayan," he said.
"It's a name-recall game. It's an awareness issue," he said.
The "Otso Diretso" has a social media team to maintain their online presence but the bulk of the campaign will be offline, Pangilinan said.
"The door-to-door campaigning, the door-to-door conversation is critical for us. Mahirap makapagkampaniya ng maayos sa social media nang hindi ka tino-troll so sa'n tayo pupunta?" he said.
"Otso Diretso" is shifting to a "different arena" where they would not be "trapped" and "drowned" by criticisms and trolls on social media, political analyst Edna Co told ABS-CBN News.
"What makes their battle difficult is that they are fighting a Goliath in terms of acceptance and popularity with the people," Co told ABS-CBN News, referring to Duterte's high trust and approval ratings.
Majority of Filipinos remained satisfied with President Duterte's performance as chief executive, based on a December 2018 survey of polling outfit, Social Weather Stations (SWS). His net satisfaction rating went up 6 points to +60 in December from +54 in September, which SWS classifies as still "very good."
Campaign strategist Gerardo Eusebio said the Otso Diretso slate is very qualified for the legislature since they are known to be good debaters and policy-makers, but added that these qualities may fall short in terms of getting people to vote for most of them.
"They (Otso Diretso) exactly have the qualifications that should meet up to what the positions require. They can write, they can argue, they can defend, they can rationalize, they have the proper training. They have all the rational ammunition needed for the battlefield of the Senate," Co said.
"Pero ang point, may ibang klaseng race papunta sa Senado. Kailangan natutuwa ang botante sa iyo, kailangan nakaka-identify sila sa iyo, yung lengguwahe mo naiintindihan nila," she said.
Each "Otso Diretso" candidate is championing an issue that fits their expertise and image, and at the same time would also benefit particular sectors, one of the group's campaign videos show.
"Otso Diretso" senatorial candidates will focus on easing the life of the Filipino family, Pangilinan said.
Alejano, a former Marine officer-turned-lawmaker, focuses on national security and defense.
Aquino, who helped pass a law that guarantees free college tuition, zeroes in on education.
Diokno, founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law and son of Commission on Human Rights founder Jose 'Pepe' Diokno, advocates for justice.
Gutoc, who hails from Mindanao and is the lone female candidate on the slate, is championing Muslim rights and women empowerment.
Hilbay, born in Tondo to poor parents but managed to succeed as a lawyer, is pushing for affordable housing.
Macalintal, who won a complaint against a 5-star hotel who refused to grant him a senior citizen discount, vows to craft more laws for the elderly.
Roxas, who earned an economics degree from Wharton University in Pennsylvania, markets himself as an economist-lawmaker who can help address inflation and other economic woes.
Tañada, a former Quezon province representative and labor rights advocate, listed job creation as one of his platforms.
This was also a way to appeal to voters across regional divides, analysts said.
"Having a bailiwick is very important because these are your home court where you have a dominance of votes. If you don't have a bailiwick, then go to your sectoral bailiwick," Eusebio said.
"To me that is intentional, purposive. Nag-ooffer sila ng something different kumpara sa ibang mga pulitko. Ibinabalik nila yung public interest na hinihimay yung sector," Co said.
Dropping the 'dilawan' tag
Aside from door-to-door campaigning, the slate -- backed by the Liberal Party -- crafted television and online advertisements that noticeably refrained from the using the color yellow.
The sunny color, known as "dilaw" in Filipino, had been the symbol of the EDSA People Power movement in 1986 that installed Cory Aquino as the country's first female president. Her son and former President Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino III is one of the Liberal Party's stalwarts.
"If you're tagged today as 'dilawan', it's not exactly a badge of honor. It may drag you down. People have come to understand dilawan as parang corrupt, inept, inefficient," Eusebio told ABS-CBN News.
The slate is also banking on Robredo's endorsement, instead of getting very visible support from former President Noynoy Aquino.
Aquino's administration which had enjoyed high approval ratings got marred by several controversies, including a "delayed" aid response for victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, and a botched anti-terror operation in Maguindanao in 2015 that resulted in 44 special police forces killed.
"They are better off without President Aquino. That signal was already set in the previous election," Co said, referring to the 2016 presidential elections where Roxas, who was endorsed by Aquino as his successor, lost to Duterte by 6.62 million votes.
Another Leni win?
But given that it's a long, 90-day election campaign, LP leaders believe anything can happen. Robredo, for instance, has been prodding voters to stage a repeat of her "unexpected win" in the 2016 vice-presidential race.
"Kung naaalala niyo ‘yung election nung 2016, ako yung kandidatong hindi inaasahang mananalo. Ako yung hindi kilala,” Robredo said during a pre-campaign event at the University of the Philippines.
“Sa survey noon, nagsimula ako sa 1 percent lang ‘yung nakakakilala sa akin,” she said.
“Walang kapaga-pag-asa, pero dahil sa tulong ninyo, nagtagumpay ako. Ganun din po ‘yung gagawin natin sa ating Otso Diretso,” she said.
But the "Otso Diretso" roster is lacking one thing that Robredo had when she snagged the second highest elected position in the country, Eusebio said.
"Maybe the venerable vice president Leni must have forgotten that it was actually the death of her husband (late Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo) that catapulted her to power," he said.
"I'm not saying that she's not worth any political capital at all but 'yung pagkamatay ni Sec. Robredo certainly fueled her being vice president today," he said.
What the "Otso Diretso" can learn from Robredo is her "approach and style" when dealing with the masses, Co said.
"Wala sila nung tragedy na nawalan ng asawa. [But] They can make a conversion through personal interaction," she said.
"It is basically simplicity and connecting with people," he said.
Pangilinan said they are hoping to capture the 25.97 million Filipinos who did not vote Duterte for president.
"Going back to 2016, 61 percent of the voters did not vote for President Duterte, 39 percent did," Pangilinan said.
"That is our target market: the 61 percent, plus those who are disappointed with, na nagsisisi dahil sa kanilang naging ano [boto]. Malaking numero yan. Kailangan lang natin makumbinsi sila," he said.
(That is our target market: the 61 percent, plus those who are disappointed with, those who now regret having voted for the incumbent. That's a big number. We just have to convince them.)
"Kung bukas ang eleksyon, hindi mananalo ang 6 sa 8 [ng 'Otso Diretso']. Pero hindi bukas ang eleksyon," he said.
(If elections were to be held tomorrow, 6 out of 8 of our candidates won't win. But the election isn't going to be held tomorrow.)