Column: The 20-percent presidency

Published on May 26, 2009

When it comes to everyone’s favorite pastime—no, not watching the latest Hayden Kho sex video but handicapping favorites in the equally rough-and-tumble world of presidential politics—everybody has an opinion. But this emphatically does not mean that one man’s guess is as good as any other’s. I say this not simply because I have a vested interest in professional commentary and political journalism; I say this because certain factors are already in play, and opinion that does not take them into account is worse than useless.

Political facts, of course, may be read differently. In the interest of greater accountability, I would like to advance the following five theses, with which I propose to frame my reading of 2010.

Thesis 1. Under our post-Marcos Constitution, we are unlikely to elect a majority president. Not impossible; just improbable. The nearest thing we had to a runaway winner since 1986 was the massively popular Joseph Estrada in 1998, and yet he received only 39 percent of the vote.

In part this is because our Constitution’s new-found conviction in pluralism encourages multiple candidates to contest the highest office—but without providing for a second, run-off election between the top two candidates, as in, say, the French system.

It is true that some presidential elections under the 1935 Constitution featured more than two viable candidates; in 1957, for instance, Jose Yulo (27 percent), Manuel Manahan (20 percent) and Claro M. Recto (8 percent) contested the presidency with Ramon Magsaysay’s successor; Carlos Garcia returned to Malacañang with 41 percent of the vote. But under the 1935 Constitution, the odds and the advantages were stacked in favor of the two dominant political parties.

Since 1986, all presidential elections have been multi-candidate races, with many candidates (all seven in 1992, seven of 10 in 1998, four of five in 2004) heavyweight political personalities. The most famous beneficiary of this pure first-past-the-post system is Fidel Ramos, who won the 1992 elections with only 23 percent of the vote.

Thesis 2. In 2010, and despite the even more prohibitive cost of a presidential campaign, more than two candidates will contest the presidency. In part this is explained by the imperatives of political positioning and the example of mid-term senators running for higher office. Senators Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero and Panfilo Lacson have very little to lose by running in 2010; they still have three years left in their term, and by throwing their hat in the ring they keep their names current and their 2013 options open. (I should include Sen. Manny Villar in this privileged list, because his Senate term ends in 2013 too, but he is currently threatened with expulsion by a suddenly resolute Senate.)

In part, too, we can look forward to a multi-candidate scramble in 2010 because the system does not only allow multiple candidacies, it positively enables them. Money is the only limit.

Thesis 3. There are two kinds of presidential mandate: the 20-percent presidency and the 40-percent presidency. The inevitable multi-candidate race in 2010 will follow either of two templates: the 1992 elections, which saw four evenly matched candidacies (with two more viable enough to end up with at least 10 percent of the vote), or the 2004 elections, which were marked by two candidacies of relatively equal strength. (With a little help from Garci, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won with 39 percent of the vote, against Fernando Poe Jr.’s 36 percent.)

It will probably take us until December this year or January next year to define, with any certainty, what kind of mandate will be at stake in the May elections.

But unless the political dynamics change, even the most popular candidate with the best-funded campaign in 2010 can look forward only to a 40-percent mandate at the most, not a majority vote.

Thesis 4. The election prospects of a johnny-come-lately like Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro hinge on a multiple-candidate scenario and a 20-percent mandate. I earlier misread Teodoro’s political affiliation; he is no longer with the Nationalist People’s Coalition but is firmly in President Arroyo’s camp. At any rate: Considering the President’s high negatives, a campaign by somebody like him (or, say, Bayani Fernando) can only succeed if the ratings of the current front-runners (Vice President Noli de Castro, Villar, Legarda, Escudero) continue to cluster together. In other words, somebody like Teodoro who has not yet figured prominently in the surveys can only, realistically, have a shot at becoming president if the threshold to Malacañang is as low as 1992—that is to say, around 20 percent. (Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago fought Ramos down to the wire, and garnered 19 percent of the vote.)

If the 2010 election resolves into an essentially two-person race, Teodoro (or Fernando) stands virtually no chance. At this late stage, a 40-percent goal is out of reach.

I would think the same limits apply to Lacson’s second presidential run, or to Sen. Richard Gordon’s first.

Thesis 5. The ambition of a consistent front-runner like De Castro or Villar posits a 40-percent mandate despite a multiple-candidate scenario. The list of preferred presidential candidates remains thick at the top—partly because survey respondents are allowed to name multiple preferences. The picture should become clearer when the survey questionnaires begin to require a single choice. But for De Castro and Villar, as well as Legarda and Escudero, and perhaps for Sen. Mar Roxas, the template to follow is 2004: convert a high-teens to mid-20’s rating into a 40-percent mandate.

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