I meant to post this op-ed earlier this week, as prep for a piece I wanted to write about Bro. Mike Velarde’s political clout for Inquirer Current. I wrote it more than six years ago, some time before I joined the Inquirer, so it was published as a contributed Commentary.
Tonight, Velarde will start giving hints about the 18 candidates he intends to support; perhaps this six-year-old thumbsucker may not prove all that outdated.
The myth of the El Shaddai vote
By John Nery
March 4, 2001
THIS much we can say about the political clout of Brother Mike Velarde and the El Shaddai religious movement: At best, it is untested; at worst, it is the political equivalent of faith-healing quackery. It requires an act of self-deception on the part of the alleged beneficiary.
To be sure, Brother Mike can summon huge crowds to assemble. Every Saturday, hundreds of thousands troop to the grounds of the Philippine International Convention Center, in what was once routinely referred to as the “reclaimed area,” to pray with him and listen to him.
A 1996 article in Asiaweek magazine called it right: “No church can contain the El Shaddai congregation. Soon, perhaps, no urban space will either.”
The crowds are still there every weekend, in that urban space bounded on the east by the Star City carnival grounds, on the south by the World Trade Center, on the north by the PICC, and on the west by the mammoth mausoleum known as Imelda Marcos’ Film Center of the Philippines.
The crowds are not limited to the Philippine setting. Any country with a sizable contingent of Filipino overseas contract workers has seen the El Shaddai phenomenon at work. In Hong Kong, for example, Chater Road, off Statue Square, right in the heart of the Special Administrative Region’s central business district, is usually closed to vehicular traffic every Sunday, and tens of thousands of El Shaddai devotees fill up the space from the legislative building to the posh hotels. (This is rather like closing off the intersection of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas in Makati City every Sunday, for the entire day.)
Brother Mike can also hold a crowd. In his bright and gaudy costumes, worn to make it easier for the throng to mark him, he holds the faithful in rapt attention. He is a master of rhetoric, able to poke fun at himself, able to meet the audience where they’re at, able to whip up the crowd to a frenzy. There is an undeniable “connect,” to use a slang word that is neither strictly English nor strictly Filipino, between Brother Mike and the El Shaddai faithful.
It is this double mix, of Brother Mike’s rapport with his audience and the consistently huge size of the crowds who come out to hear him, that make political players ecstatic with possibility.
In May 1992, Brother Mike telegraphed his support for Fidel Ramos using the rhetoric of stagecraft that his followers knew so well. (It was simplicity itself. He stood, he told Asiaweek, on Ramos’ side of the stage.) In May 1998, Brother Mike decided to wait until the last possible moment to signal his preference. Having invited the candidates to speak at an enormous assembly, he then told his candidate of choice, Vice President Joseph Estrada, to use a phrase already hallowed in El Shaddai practice. “Tiyak ‘yon,” meaning “That’s for certain,” was Brother Mike’s shorthand for divine guarantee, or a certainty foreordained by Scripture. Slip the phrase into your speech, Estrada was advised, and the faithful will know you are the one to vote for.
The moment Estrada said those words, the crowd went wild. They understood he was the anointed one.
It is now conventional wisdom to say that Estrada became the country’s 13th president with the help of the El Shaddai vote. However, in the light of the results of the Jan. 26, 2001 Pulse Asia survey conducted in Metro Manila, where about a quarter of the respondents said they would be influenced in their choice of senators by the endorsement of Brother Mike, it might be useful to revisit the 1998 election, and reconsider the power of Brother Mike’s endorsement.
If the surveys tracking Estrada’s candidacy and his performance in office were right, the actor-turned-president enjoyed a solid core of support from about a third of the voting population. This core remained steady through time — a legacy, perhaps, of his enduring popularity as a movie actor, as an underdog senator who voted against the mighty US bases, as a crime-busting vice president, as a close friend of fellow movie superstars Nora Aunor and Fernando Poe Jr.
It would be fair to say that these supporters would have voted for him even without an El Shaddai endorsement. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many El Shaddai devotees already formed part of his regular constituency. In the end, Estrada won 39.59 percent of the votes cast for president (but only 32.07 percent, or about a third, of the total number of registered voters).
To test this idea, one need only go one step down, to Brother Mike’s choice for vice president. Among the nine candidates, it was Francisco Tatad who ended up saying “Tiyak ‘yon!” But the Opus Dei stalwart, who in the Ramos years carried the fight against what the Catholic Church calls the contraceptive mentality, ended up a distant fifth. Only 748,830 voters chose him as their vice president, a woeful 2.86 percent of the votes cast for that office. One needs to multiply this number 17 times, to approximate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s winning total of 12,979,328 votes.
What happened? The El Shaddai bloc is variously estimated, but the minimum figure is usually set at two million votes, and the upper limit at eight million. So why the difference in the electoral fortunes of Estrada and Tatad? One likely explanation: A Brother Mike endorsement is the Dutch treat of Philippine politics. You can only get out of it what you bring into it. (The ability to think that somebody else paid for your food when you actually paid your own way requires remarkable powers of self-deception.)
This much seems certain: In May 1998, Brother Mike endorsed Estrada for president, but what he was really doing was preaching to the converted.