MANILA -- Otso Diretso senatorial candidates speak before several dozen elderly women at a run-down basketball court one hot summer morning, taking the fight for voters to the grassroots as they seek to prevent President Rodrigo Duterte's allies from dominating the legislature.
The opposition slate concedes that their rivals from Hugpong ng Pagbabago have both the money to fight a TV commercial war and the support of politicians who once welcomed Otso bets like Mar Roxas and Bam Aquino with marching bands and buffet spreads.
Halfway through the 90-day campaign, Otso Diretso has raised nearly P700,000 of the P8 million it sought from an online funding account and only 2 of the country's 1,634 mayors have publicly endorsed the slate.
Former Solicitor General and Otso bet Florin Hilbay, who takes pride in having risen from the Tondo slums, warned of the dangers of a legislature dominated by administration allies.
"Dahil kung kumpiyansa yung administrasyon na walang institusyon ang tatayo para lamang magtanong, then we will have a culture of impunity," Hilbay said.
(If the administration is confident that no institution will question it, then we will have a culture of impunity.)
"Mahihirapan ang mamamayan, mahihirapan ang media at ang dulo nito, kawawa ang taong bayan," he said.
(It will be hard for the people, for the media, and in the end, the people will suffer.)
A credible opposition provides the "balance" needed for a democracy to be strong, said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government.
"If everyone is part of the super majority, then you have to wonder: is everyone on board on every single policy?" he told ABS-CBN News.
Public awareness is "very important and very expensive," said Otso candidate Gary Alejano, a military rebel-turned-congressman. "Kaya nga nasa ground lang kami, nasa tao nakikipag-usap, but we can only cover as much."
(That's why we are on the ground, talking to people, but we can only cover as much.)
A senatorial candidate needs to spend some P500 million for a national campaign, according to a study by the Ateneo School of Government.
Of the Otso Diretso bets, only former Senator Mar Roxas comes from a family with several business holdings, including Cubao's Araneta Center. Only Roxas has a good chance of making it in the Senate race, out of the slate's 8 bets, according to a Feb. 24 to 28 Pulse Asia poll.
'WINNING HORSES' ADVANTAGE
Politicians source campaign funds mainly from businessmen, who "prefer to place their money on winning horses," said Mendoza.
"Some of them have that ruthless pragmatism that they don't want to be seen as not having bet on the winner," Mendoza said.
"I think it is part of our underdeveloped political culture that some people or some businesses feel that if they don't bet on the winning horse, they might face some kind of reprisal or some kind of disadvantage," he said.
Having a steady stream of advertisements, however, does not guarantee an election victory, political science professor Julio Teehankee said.
"Kahit ibuhos mo ang lahat ng resources mo sa air war, kung wala kang ground war, matatalo ka din, and vice versa," Teehankee said.
(Even if you pour all your resources for your air war, if you are not present in the ground war, you will still lose, and vice versa.)
"Mahalaga hindi lamang ang name recall, kung 'di pati ang makinarya. Kaakibat na ng makinarya ay pera so ang lamang talaga sa ganitong laro ay either sikat na o malaki ang pondo sa pagtakbo," he told DZMM.
(Machinery is as important as name recall. To have a machinery, you must have money. In this game, those who are either popular or rich have the upper hand.)
Sen. Bam Aquino, who slid to the 13th to 17th bracket in the most recent Pulse Asia poll, said the opposition needs to fight back with TV commercials of its own.
The six other Otso Diretso bets have so far failed to rank higher than 20th in surveys including Alejano, Hilbay, peace advocate Samira Gutoc, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal and former Quezon Rep Erin Tanada.
A black and white commercial posted on the slate's Facebook page has had nearly 8,000 reactions, including likes.
"On a national level, labanan kasi yan ng commercials e. Kailangan mo makipagcompete, you have to raise funds. That's the reality sa ano mang kampaniya," Aquino said.
(On a national level, it's a war of commercials. You have to compete, you have to raise funds. That's the reality of any campaign.)
"Dito maraming poster dito, pero sa buong Pilipinas, medyo dehado tayo. 'Yung mga giveaways, kulang kulang na din, may mga baller pa kami noon. Mas masagana noon. Ngayon medyo hirap tayo," he said.
(We have lot of posters here in Metro Manila, but we are at a disadvantage if we're talking about the whole Philippines. We are also short on giveaways this year. Last elections, we even had ballers. We had more funds before, now we are having a hard time.)
Hugpong has been outdoing Otso in the sortie circuit, holding campaign rallies in much larger venues with entertainers in tow.
Since Roxas lost to Duterte in 2016, many Liberal Party members have switched allegiance to the PDP-Laban, nearly decimating the ruling party under former President Benigno Aquino III.
"Ayaw nilang ma-identify with us. Mahirap maglanding sa mga areas kasi 'yung mga local officials parang alanganin. Hindi katulad noon na halos buksan pa 'yung pinto ng kotse mo habang bumababa ka," said Roxas' campaign manager Edgar Erice said.
(They don't want to be identified with us. It's hard to land in areas where local officials are lukewarm. Unlike before, they even open your car's door once you step out of the vehicle.)
Gutoc said local officials refuse to host the opposition slate for fear of getting included in the government's so-called "narco-list" of officials with links to drug syndicates.
"Natatakot sila with the chilling effect. Ayaw nila masira ang kanilang IRA releasing at malista sila sa narco list," she said. The IRA or Internal Revenue Allotment refers to funding for local governments.
(They are afraid of its chilling effect. They don't want the release of their IRA to be affected, and they don't want to be included in the narco list.)
"Lumalapit talaga samin, nagsasabi talaga sila, takot sila," Alejano said.
(They approach us and tell us that they are really afraid.)
MAKING IT UP TO DUTERTE
Businessmen who also failed to donate to Duterte's 2016 presidential bid also have to double their efforts this year to show support for the popular President and his anointed candidates, said Wilson Lee Flores, newspaper columnist and an authority on the Chinese-Filipino community. Many politicians traditionally turn to wealthy Tsinoys for campaign donations during elections.
"Sigurado 'yan babawi sila ngayon, lalo na sobrang sikat ang presidente, sobrang sikat ang mga kandidato nila so malakas ang donation, I'm sure," Flores told ABS-CBN News.
(They will make it up to the President in this elections. I'm sure contributions are pouring in, especially now that the President is very popular and his anointed candidates are popular.)
"Kailangan kaibigan mo ang nasa gobyerno. Kung galit sa iyo, papahirapan ka, lahat ng sakit sa ulo," he said.
(You have to be friends with those in government. If they are mad at you, they will give you a hard time, all the headaches.)
This is also why businesses tend to donate more to those who are either seeking reelection or rating high in surveys.
"It doesn't matter kung opposition o hindi. Even administration candidates who are not ranking well find it hard to get funding," he said.
CROWD-SOURCED FUND RAISING
Campaign volunteers have launched "Project Makinig," a sounding board for voters' concerns and "Para sa Laban ng Otso Diretso or PASALODi, a fund-raising drive.
"Makinig" fields the slate's 8 candidates and several volunteers in public markets, plazas and residential areas to touch base with voters.
PASALODi, which started on Feb. 27, saw volunteers going from door to door seeking contributions.
"Anumang husay, karanasan, at paninindigan ang mayroon sila, mababalewala ito kung hindi sila kilala, kung hindi sila makakapagpatakbo ng isang pambansang kampanya," Liberal Party President and Otso Diretso Campaign Manager Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan said in a statement.
(No matter how experienced or principled a candidate is, it will all go to waste if he or she is not known or if he or she cannot mount a national campaign.)
At a recent sortie in Hong Kong, Otso Diretso said it got by from donations, including those from overseas Filipinos.
"We're invested in a people's campaign not only because of the lack of resources but also because we believe that that is the way a campaign should be done," Hilbay said.
"That is part of the principled campaign we are trying to run. Talagang tumataya kami sa mga tao (We are betting on the people)," he said.
Gutoc said domestic workers in Hong Kong helped pay for her trip.
"Napakalaking bagay po nung patak-patak dahil ang survival namin, isang kahig, isang tuka," Gutoc said.
(That's a big deal because we only get by one day at a time.)