MANILA -- Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III held off a campaign sortie, placing calls instead from his Makati residence to small radio stations operating in remote towns to haggle over 30-second ad placements.
Using some subtle persuasion, he booked discounts bringing down the cost to P200 per spot from around P2,000, saving money in the final stretch of the senatorial campaign.
“More or less I’m happy... my girls can’t do it,” he told ABS-CBN News, touting his bargaining savvy.
Coming off a loss in 2016, Osmeña is again running as an independent, seeking to make everything count in what he said would be his final senatorial run.
He is also facing a disqualification case over allegedly unreported campaign expenses in the past.
The Commission on Elections has yet to rule on the petition, but included him in the official list of senatorial candidates.
As in previous elections, Osmeña is running his own campaign, backed by a core group of 4 women, insisting he had no need for professional PR strategists.
“Why? That’s a simple thing,” he said.
For years, Osmeña’s strategy, which involved well-timed media ads and solid survey indicators, yielded victories.
For a long time, radio was the most effective way to reach Filipinos so Osmeña gave a lot of attention to this medium. But its importance has since declined with the rise first of television, followed by the internet and social media, especially in urban areas and among the youth.
Osmeña, who spent 18 years in the Senate, served as former President Benigno Aquino III’s campaign coordinator in 2010, while running his own senatorial campaign as well.
In 2007, Osmeña stood as campaign manager of the opposition’s senatorial ticket, which won 7 out of 12 seats.
But his unbeaten senatorial run hit a wall in 2016, a loss he blamed on alleged electronic cheating. He finished 14th, missing the cut by more than 1.4 million votes.
The former senator has since tweaked his strategy and embraced a familiar tool in today’s campaign arsenal: internet and social media.
The 75-year-old Osmeña, one of the oldest senatorial candidates in May, decided to teach himself new tricks.
“I’m concentrating more on social media and I don’t know if I’m being effective or not, but I have a lot of social media presence,” he said.
Social media, particularly Facebook, provides a more dynamic and relatively cheaper complementary campaign platform.
A 2018 UK-based report showed that around 67 million Filipinos were spending almost 4 hours daily on Facebook, an online population candidates such as Osmeña hope to tap.
How to capture their attention in this unfamiliar online territory was the initial challenge for Osmeña, who admitted that promoting old bills he helped pass into laws didn’t generate much interest.
“That was the wrong approach,” said the former senator, who authored laws such as those that liberalized retail trade in the Philippines and improved government procurement processes.
So, he talked about love life — and pizza. A video posted on Facebook by his wife, Bettina Osmeña, got 3.2 million views.
“Remember this — a guy who makes you skip pizza is not ‘the one,’” he advised his niece in a January video that went viral on Facebook.
“I started doing a lot of things that had nothing to do with politics and so, that got me a lot of social media attention,” he recalled, admitting this might not necessarily translate into votes.
“I don’t know, I just don’t know,” he said.
Osmeña considers himself a maverick, who “can state what I want on any subject under the sun.”
Independent candidates enjoy the advantage of not having to toe a political party’s line, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
By law, those who can afford it also can spend up to P5 for every registered voter when candidates tied to political parties are limited to P3 per voter.
Casiple described Osmeña as more of a “senior senator,” whose opinion wielded heavy influence when he was still with the upper house, than a political “maverick.”
“Yan yung mga bastonero. Pag di sila pumayag sa mga bills, yung mga junior senators, nagkaka-problema,” Casiple said.
(When they refuse to agree to certain bills, it becomes a problem for junior senators.)
Candidates such as Osmeña can afford to run as an independent because of available campaign resources, political network, and popularity — or what others call political brand equity.
Part of Osmeña’s strategy packages him as someone who would be independent-minded should he win.
“It’s very important to have an independent Senate, not pro-Duterte, not anti-Duterte, but independent,” he said.
The current batch of senators has been “all friendly” to President Rodrigo Duterte, he said, citing issues such as proposals to shift to federalism “that will require their independence more than anything else.”
“They were scared of him so you have people like (Sonny) Angara, JV (Ejercito)... who were kowtowing to Hugpong because they did not want to be seen as anti-Duterte,” he said. “But I guess they were just playing safe.”
Angara and Ejercito are among the senatorial candidates endorsed by Hugpong ng Pagbabago, the regional party of the president’s daughter.
Osmeña said he was supporting the president’s campaign against illegal drugs but was not in favor of extra-judicial killings.
“It’s not really solving anything because he’s getting the small fry,” he said of the bloody drug war.
An Osmeña victory would also mean one less support for the president’s federalism initiative in the Senate.
“I’m against his federalism because I don’t think it will work, and I told him that already, even before the 2016 elections,” he said.
With his provincial radio ads settled, Osmeña returned to the campaign trail Thursday for some old-fashioned meet-and-greet with employees at the Manila city hall and a short visit to Mayor Joseph Estrada.
The candidate, though present on social media, preferred to woo voters in the flesh.