MANILA - Aksyon Demokratiko vice-presidential candidate Willie Ong stood beside standard bearer Isko Moreno Domagoso as the Manila mayor climbed on the roof of their float cruising past throngs of cheering supporters in the Philippine capital.
The 58-year-old cardiologist waved and posed for pictures for about 6 hours before descending from their flatbed truck half-way their 9-hour route to the Manila city hall, admitting that keeping up with the Manila mayor's energy has been a challenge.
"Masyado lang kasing masipag itong presidente natin. Kaya niyang 9 hours sa motorcade, walang ihi-ihi, walang kain-kain, tubig lang, nakatayo the whole time. Ibang klase," Ong told ABS-CBN News in a February 9 interview.
(Our presidential candidate is too hardworking. He can participate in a motorcade for 9 hours without having to go to the toilet, without eating, just drinking water while standing the whole time. He's one of a kind.)
"Sabi naman ni Yorme, 'Pag kaya mo, sama. 'Pag hindi, pahinga na lang muna. Pag naka-recover ka na, balik ka ulit,'" he said.
(Yorme said, 'Join if you can. If not, you can rest. Once you've recovered, you can join again.')
'HINDI AKO SALING KET'
Ong, known for delivering his campaign speeches with a calm demeanor before punctuating it with gut punches, said he sees no need to be a boisterous candidate to convince voters that he deserves to become the Philippines' 15th vice president.
"Ready ako lumaban. Hindi ako saling ket dito," he said.
(I am ready to fight. I am not a minor player here.)
"I'm really ready to fight this. Ano pa bang fight ang gusto ninyo? Magsisisigaw ako? Hindi naman doon nakukuha 'yun," he said.
(I'm really ready to fight this. What kind of fight are you expecting? Do you want me to shout? That's not how you get votes.)
"Nakikita ninyo naman ako gaano ako kasipag and whatever happens, tuloy-tuloy tayo," he said.
(You can see how hardworking I am and whatever happens, I just keep on going.)
The firmness of Domagoso and Ong's tandem has been questioned since last year when several groups began pairing the Manila mayor with Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio instead of the cardiologist.
In 2021, several voters from Mindanao formed the Magka-ISSA Movement in support of Domagoso (IS) and Duterte (SA), citing track record in governance as one of the reasons why they support the 2 incumbent mayors.
The doctor said that while he was hurt with such efforts, he continues to soldier on at the Manila mayor's side, working hard to familiarize himself with the responsibilities of a vice president.
Aside from participating in motorcades nationwide, his schedule is also packed with daily briefings about points on national discourse such as the West Philippine Sea, corruption, foreign investment, and other pressing issues.
"Kapag senator kasi iisipin mo lang anong gusto mong batas, anong gagawin mong batas. Mas relaxed ka lang," said Ong, who first ran for senator in 2019.
(When you're running for senator, you just need to think about the laws you want to pass, the laws you want to work on. It's more relaxed.)
"Hindi katulad ng vice president, ang daming meetings so they are teaching you how to be president," he said.
(But when you're running for vice president, there are so many meetings because they are teaching you how to be president.)
'NO NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING'
Ong said he has easily picked up governance and political concepts in his training sessions, but has refused to engage in one common political tactic: negative campaigning.
"Ayoko ng (I don't like) negative campaigning," he said.
"Magaling ako magtiis. Nakita mo sa interview, lagi lang ako nagtitiis, upo lang, hindi ako naninira, hindi ako nagagalit," he said.
(I am good at enduring hardships. As you can see in interviews, I just endure, I just stay in my seat, I don't talk bad about others, I don't get mad.)
Harboring ill feelings against other parties will do no good, said the doctor, who has been open about his struggle and triumph against depression when he was in college.
"Oras na maging pulitiko ako, nagkaroon na ako ng ganti-ganti dito, masama loob ko dito, masisira ang kamada," he said.
(Once I start to act like a politician, become vengeful, harbor resentment, everything will crumble.)
"It will just be a war between me and a politician. It will not help kasi kailangan ng tao ng tulong (because the people need help). One day, I will need the help of any politician," he said.
Ong has repeatedly said that Domagoso convinced him to run for vice president by saying that he can help more poor people should he bag the second-highest position in the country, instead of just dishing free medical advice on social media.
If Domagoso wins the presidency, Ong was promised to be given control over the Department of Health.
The vice presidential candidate noted that long before the May elections, the Manila mayor already heeded his advice to procure COVID-19 drugs ahead of time, making the City of Manila one of the first areas to have these in-demand anti-viral medicines.
"Sabihin ninyo kulang sa experience [as a government official] pero ready naman ako mag-work at may tiwala naman ang tao sa akin," he said.
(Even if you say that I lack experience as a government official, I am ready to work and the people trust me.)
TRADITIONAL MEDIA VS SOCIAL MEDIA
Ong rose to fame thanks to his medical vlogs that explain in layman's terms diseases and possible cures for the benefit of netizens who can neither afford prescription medicine nor consultation fees in hospitals.
He also used to be a frequent guest on televised medical programs before he first tried his luck at an elected post in 2019 when he ran for senator, landing just 6 spots below the cut despite being a neophyte candidate who is not part of a political dynasty.
"Noong 2019, ako lang mag-isa. Wala namang presidential campaign noon so more social media," he said.
(I was alone in 2019. There was no presidential campaign then so it was more about social media.)
"Wala akong sponsored Facebook ads. Pure engagement lang 'yun," he said.
(I didn't have sponsored Facebook ads. That's just pure engagement.)
"Virality lang ang habol ko kaya (I am just after virality so) I try to talk as direct as I can because that is the only weapon that I have," he said.
While Ong's Facebook page boasts of some 16 million followers, the cardiologist said he still has a difficult time securing slots on radio and television programs.
"Hindi din tayo makaikot kasi wala tayong perang pang gastos," he said, noting that he has been relying on his party's funds to produce campaign materials such as posters.
(We can't campaign on our own because we do not have funds.)
"Hindi ako tumatanggap pero nakakasama ako sa mga event ni Yorme. Pati sa mga coaster, sa mga calendar, nasasama ako so malaking tulong na rin," he said.
(I don't accept monetary donations but I get to join the Mayor's events. I'm also included in his coaster and calendars so it's a big help.)
But Ong underscored that this weakness can also be considered as one of his candidacy's strong points.
"Advantage ko hindi ako tumatanggap ng funds, hindi ako pulitiko and I don't treat politics as a business," he said.
(My advantage is I don't accept funds, I am not a politician and I don't treat politics as a business.)
"Makakadecide ako agad kasi hindi ako bayad sa malalaking negosyo, you know, the big businesses," he said.
(I can easily decide because I am not paid by large enterprises, you know, the big businesses.)
In pollster Pulse Asia's January 19-24, 2022 survey, Ong ranked 4th among vice presidential contenders with 5 percent of respondents supporting his candidacy. Most of his supporters come from the middle class (C) who live in Metro Manila and nearby provinces and cities.
Duterte-Carpio led the survey, conducted 2 to 3 weeks before the start of the national campaign period, with 50 percent, followed by Sen. Tito Sotto with 29 percent, and Sen. Kiko Pangilinan with 11 percent.
"Obviously, hindi tayo kino-cover kasi siguro mababa [sa survey] or whatever pero okay lang sa akin," Ong said, alleging that news items exclusively about him have been fewer compared to his rivals for the vice presidency.
(Obviously the media do not cover me so much maybe because I rank low in the surveys or whatever but that's okay with me.)
"May mga ads, may mga sponsored news. E wala nga ako noon so nagtitiyaga lang ako kung ano ang ibibigay ng media," he said.
(Others have ads and sponsored news. I don't have that so I just make do with whatever slot the media gives me.)
"Suwerte lang ako may Facebook akong sarili na nagagamit ko para maka-reach ng tao," he said.
(I'm just lucky that I have my own Facebook page that I can use to reach out to people.)
'JUST RUN AND RUN AND RUN'
While supporters of other candidates have been heckling Ong on his own social media pages, the doctor said he has learned to roll with these political punches.
"Bago ako tumakbo, 100 percent supporters ko yung page ko. Ang linis," he said.
(Before I ran for public office, comments on my page were 100 percent from supporters. It was so clean.)
"Noong first time ko pumasok, halos lahat nagalit. Nagalit yung DDS [Duterte Diehard Supporters], 'yung BBM [Bongbong Marcos], nagalit lahat all camps kasi sumama ako kay Isko," he said referring to supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte and former Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.
(But when I first announced that I was running, it seems everyone got mad. People from the DDS and BBM camps were angry that I joined Isko.)
"[Pero] nakita ko na kaya ko pala. Balewala kasi alam kong tama ang ginagawa ko," he said.
(But I realized that I can handle them. What they say means nothing because I know I'm doing the right thing.)
Ong acknowledged that despite his efforts to campaign for better health policies, several camps still perceive him to be a less viable contender compared to other seasoned politicians who are also vying for the vice presidency.
But the cardiologist, in his usual calm demeanor, noted that this doesn't make him less of a fighter.
"Hindi ako ganun kalakas... kapag nanghina na ako, 'pag pagod na ako, pahinga muna ako sandali pero I'll do my best," he said.
(I am not that strong... when I get tired, I just rest for a while, but I will still do my best.)
"I'm offering myself habang kaya ko pa (while I still can)... I'd just run and run and run. I'd get free exposure and one day I'm gonna win," he said.
"Maybe now, maybe in the future."