Column: Pacquiao vs Marx, or Funding a Senate run

Published on February 11, 2014.

It should have come as no surprise that, as he was scrambling up the ladder of worldwide fame with his thrilling boxing style, Manny Pacquiao also made up his mind to run for political office. He famously failed on his first try, when tiny Darlene Antonino-Custodio bested him in the congressional race to represent General Santos City, in 2007. But he is now on his second term as lawmaker, representing the province of Sarangani.

No surprise, because Pacquiao has a fighter’s killer instinct, and in creating his own political base (his wife is now also vice governor of the province) he was reaching for the jugular. In his view (I am hazarding a guess), the real source of staying power in Philippine society is not wealth, but political clout.

In other words, Pacquiao’s example stands Marx on his head: political power, not economic, is the true determinant.

The difference may only be a matter of nuance; Pacquiao can run a successful political campaign not only because of his celebrity but also because (despite recurring concerns about how he spends his money) he still earns about a billion pesos per fight. Perhaps he would formulate the relationship between capital and capitol according to the long experience of Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson, possibly his closest friend among Philippine politicians. The key lesson: The political consolidates the economic.

At least that is how I understand Pacquiao’s choice of a parallel career in politics.

What about those who would like to gain access to political power but do not have the financial resources to conduct viable electoral campaigns?

Last Saturday, during a break in a camping exercise (our sons are classmates in the fifth grade), I asked Bayan Muna’s Teddy Casiño what his plans were going forward (forward, that is, from his unsuccessful candidacy for the Senate last May). I had voted for him, and said so in my pre-election column, because I thought he would make a fine senator.

It was a short conversation, but it got me thinking. Concerns about his exact location on the political spectrum aside, I agree with him that the lack of the kind of campaign funding the well-heeled or the better-connected candidates enjoyed was crippling for a national campaign like his.

It is an unfortunate fact that a senatorial candidacy needs tens of millions of pesos, at the very least, just to be viable in a celebrity-obsessed, incumbent-friendly sprawling polity like ours. Most of the major forms of campaigning—the motorcade, the rally, the TV ad—are expensive. (It is instructive to watch a Senate slate’s motorcade wind its way to a campaign stop; it is an index of the candidates’ access, or lack of, to capital.)

What can a party-list group like Bayan Muna do, given such objective conditions? I raised the possibility of learning from Kickstarter.

Kickstarter bills itself as “the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.” Perhaps its most famous project (out of about 50,000 or so) is the initial $5 million raised from fans to produce the Veronica Mars movie. It doesn’t do political campaigns (and our election laws prohibit receiving campaign donations from foreigners), so it cannot serve as the platform by which, say, Casiño’s five million voters in 2013 can donate P20 each in 2016. But the principle is the same: crowd-funding through perhaps a specially created website with a mobile application, enabled by a micro-payment system.

Is this legal? I asked the Commission on Elections’ resident intellectual, James Jimenez, in general terms, and he answered, also in general terms: Nothing prevents a political party from raising funds the Kickstarter way. (To be sure, there are rules to follow, but if anything, donating small amounts through the Internet would be easier to track and document.)

Is this practical? A veteran campaigner and fund-raiser told me campaign supporters needed to be more comfortable with the idea, before it can take off, but said it was certainly viable.

Perhaps this is all a utopian pipe dream?

It is still early days, but the last I checked, the Philippines has an Internet penetration rate of about a third: That’s 30-plus million people. That’s also about the same number of Filipinos on Facebook. In terms of a potential pool of donors, then, the critical mass is there. But the problem with Kickstarter has always been that most basic of organizing tasks: building a support base, that can then be converted into potential donors.

This task, however, may be a source of advantage for a more disciplined group like Bayan Muna, or its ideological rival Akbayan, over flabbier political parties bound mainly by money and celebrity. Smaller is nimbler.

What about a newly formed organization like Solidarity Movement Philippines, with whose council members I discussed the shifting Philippine media landscape the other Saturday? Solidarity is a movement that seeks to encourage greater Catholic lay participation in Philippine elections. (Disclosure: My father sits on that council.)

For a fledgling group like Solidarity, digital media offer the tantalizing possibility of a great leveler. Much of our discussion necessarily revolved around the information-sharing potential of social media. Now I’m beginning to think I should have discussed the Kickstarter idea too.

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