Column: The 2010 race is set

Published on February 10, 2010

To the discussion of political first principles and the debates over policy details, engaged citizens must add one more task to their permanent to-do list: get down and dirty about the practice, the reality, of politics.

And the reality is: We already know who our next president will be. Or more precisely, who among a select five or six Filipinos will win the 2010 elections.

A look back at four pre-election surveys conducted by Social Weather Stations (December 1996, December 2002 and December 2008, plus a summary of its July 1991 poll) suggests to me that while the set of prospective presidential candidates for 2010 is still relatively loose, the subset of possible winners is very tight indeed.

I am of course wary of placing more weight on the survey results than they can (or were designed to) bear. But having followed previous campaigns closely, I would like to suggest the following reading that makes intuitive, practical, sense.

Let me begin by making two fundamental assumptions about our voting patterns for national elective office. First, it takes us a considerable amount of time to warm to prospective presidents (in other words, we are not ready for “overnight” candidacies for the presidency). And second, the way we choose our senators is distinctly different from the way we choose our presidents.

What these patterns mean is that, no matter how much I would like a Richard Gordon or an Aquilino Pimentel Jr. to succeed to the presidency, it won’t happen in 2010. It’s already too late in the day for them. (By the same token, it is much too late for the irrepressible Jojo Binay or the shameless Bayani Fernando to mount a credible run for Malacanang.)

In December 1996, the SWS found Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tied for first place in voters’ presidential preferences, at 17 percent each. Miriam Defensor Santiago ran a good second at 14 percent. Unless we live in an alternate universe, we know what happened in 1998: Estrada won with over 39 percent of the votes cast (and GMA won the vice-presidency, with a near-majority of 49.5 percent). Joe de Venecia placed a distant second to Estrada, with less than 16 percent of the vote. In the December 1996 survey, De Venecia had a measly 2 percent.

Given the embarrassment of candidacies (the three candidates who came immediately behind Estrada—-De Venecia, Raul Roco and Lito Osmena—-polled more votes together than did the popular former actor), Estrada’s victory was not only predicted and widely assumed; it was preordained.

* * *

Wasn’t Fernando Poe Jr.’s candidacy in 2004 an overnight phenomenon? In fact, no. He may have decided to run only in December 2003, but in December 2002 he was already a frontrunner. In that month’s survey, FPJ came in second with 21 percent to Roco’s 24 percent; Noli de Castro was third with 19, and GMA had 13 percent.

Ms Arroyo won the 2004 vote, of course, in what is now deeply contentious circumstances. (For the record, I agree with the claims of massive election fraud, but still think GMA won, by a squeaker. She should have been impeached in the House, however, if only for her to validate her mandate in the Senate.) To GMA’s near-40 percent, FPJ came second with 36.5 percent. (Ping Lacson, who got 6 percent in the December 2002 survey, came in third with almost 11 percent.)

* * *

The SWS survey of December 2008 presents a long list of possible presidential candidates; only seven are in the double-digits. The seven are: De Castro, 31 percent; Loren Legarda, 28; Manny Villar, 27; Francis Escudero, 19; Lacson, 14; Estrada, 11; and Mar Roxas, 10.

Based on the two similar surveys also conducted about a year and a half before elections, I would say that the 2010 race is in fact already set, and that the eventual winner can only come from this field of seven. (Six, actually, because it is clear as daylight that Estrada is constitutionally barred from running for President again.)

If we set the threshold at 13 percent (GMA’s rating in December 2002), then we would have to drop Roxas and maybe Lacson from the list, bringing us down to four. I hesitate to count out Roxas, though; 19.3 million Filipinos voted for him in 2004, the highest vote total in our history (higher even than Ferdinand Marcos’ manufactured vote in 1981).

Fidel Ramos won the first post-Marcos election, in 1992. The July 1991 voters’ preference survey (the earliest SWS conducted, I understand) did not of course predict that victory—-but it prepared us for it. Ramos placed first in a field of seven, followed by Jovito Salonga.

Salonga’s fate was a sad lesson in the politics of money and machinery. He ended up sixth, with a Lacson-size 10 percent of the vote. Santiago’s fall from grace in 1998 was even more abrupt; in her second run for the presidency, she who once trailed Estrada closely placed seventh out of 10, winning less than 3 percent of the vote.

These reversals of political fortune tell us (naturally enough) that De Castro, Legarda, Villar, Escudero, Lacson and Roxas cannot afford to take anything for granted. But the surveys as a whole do not suggest the reverse, that an “overnight” phenomenon like Sonny Trillanes will emerge out of nowhere.

It still can, of course, and having voted for Salonga once and Roco twice, I obviously believe in electoral miracles. But experience tells me this sort of thing happens only in Senate elections, when a voter has 12 votes to deploy, and some decidedly surprising candidates to choose from. For the presidency, however, we limit our choices early. We don’t like surprises.

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5 responses to “Column: The 2010 race is set

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