Published on August 4, 2015.
CAN MAR Roxas win? The objective answer is yes. Will he? The most realistic answer is: It’s too early to tell.
I find myself belaboring these obvious points, because the theory—or the narrative, if you will—that Roxas is a sure loser is making the rounds again. (For a couple of days after President Aquino endorsed Roxas as the Liberal Party candidate for president in the 2016 elections, the news and social media environment for Roxas turned decidedly favorable. Call it the endorsement bump.) But some of the same people who thrill to the possibility of a Miriam Defensor Santiago presidential run (which would be her third), or declare confidently that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has the right strategy and enough money to lay claim to the presidency, sweepingly discount Roxas’ chances because of his “low” ratings. But in the June 2015 Social Weather Stations survey, only 4 percent of the respondents saw Santiago as one of the three best leaders to succeed President Aquino, while only 3 percent listed Marcos. About a fifth of the respondents, or 21 percent, included Roxas in their list.
Okay. Maybe those pulling for their personal favorites or impressed by the inside baseball of Marcos’ prospective candidacy (the dynamics here remind me of the confident projection, by journalists in the know, that Ramon Mitra would win the presidency in 1992) would cite Santiago or Marcos despite their numbers (truly woeful, considering that survey respondents could name up to three “best leaders” to succeed Mr. Aquino).
But what about Grace Poe, who topped that June survey with 42 percent, or Jojo Binay, who despite struggling with corruption allegations since last year still came in second, with 34 percent? Or Rody Duterte, who seemingly from nowhere ended up statistically tied with Roxas, with 20 percent? Can Roxas win against them?
I would like to take a shot at an answer, but first, some clearing of the ground:
I did not vote for Roxas in 2010 (I voted for Loren Legarda), and have written columns describing his arrogant demeanor in the Senate (“The ‘bully’ in Mar Roxas,” 10/2/07) and criticizing his earlier attempt to continue the administration’s Straight Path (“Roxas, making up for one bad call,” 8/19/14). I have argued, counterfactually, that Philippine history might have been markedly different if Jaime Cardinal Sin had not stopped Gloria Arroyo from contesting the presidency in 1998, and suggested that the same mistake should not be made regarding Poe (“Cardinal Sin’s biggest mistake?”, 2/25/14). All the same, I was greatly disappointed by Poe’s committee report on the Mamasapano tragedy, and said so (“Grace Poe’s unfortunately political report,” 3/24/15). I have also criticized the Binay family’s frequent resort to populist politics (“The irresponsible populism of the Binay camp,” 3/17/15). In addition to last week’s column disputing the notion that Mr. Aquino has lost political clout in his last year in office (“Aquino a lame duck?”, 7/28/15), I have also written down the considerations I am using in offering any analysis about the coming vote (“Five assumptions about 2016,” 6/24/14).
Can Roxas win? It is foolish to discount the chances of an experienced politician who topped the Senate elections in 2004, his first national race. (He became the first candidate to gain over 19 million votes in Philippine history, in the process eclipsing the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ dubious 18-million vote total in the ersatz 1981 elections). It is impractical to dismiss the chances of a candidate who garnered almost 15 million votes in his second national race in 2010, losing by only half a million votes to the eventual winner. It is irresponsible to belittle the chances of an independently wealthy standard-bearer, who can raise from his own family the half-a-billion pesos the law allows him to spend for a presidential campaign.
But isn’t he damaged goods, because of the loss to Binay or the post-“Yolanda” controversy or the abysmal state of the MRT?
Everybody loves a winner, but the Philippine electorate has been very forgiving about losers: Marcos Jr. lost in 1995, his first Senate run; he won on his second try, in 2010. Santiago and Juan Ponce Enrile were punished by voters in the aftermath of the Estrada impeachment trial; they lost their Senate seats in 2001. They were back, however, by the next election. What this means is that Roxas’ loss to Binay in 2010 is not a guarantee of future losses.
Survey results from the areas most affected by Yolanda have been surprisingly robust for the Aquino administration; if we take these numbers as a proxy for Roxas’ performance, he has a good base in Eastern and Central Visayas (which he dominated in 2010).
As for the MRT: Well, I cannot think of a good excuse for the state it is in, and as transportation secretary at a crucial time, Roxas must bear part of the responsibility.
Will he win? That depends, of course, but—in one of those twists of history—he can learn from his political rival. In 2010, Vice President Binay ran a disciplined campaign that depended on a network of alliances and relied on steady progress throughout the entire election cycle. At the time of the filing of certificates of candidacy, Binay was polling a mere 10 percent, compared to 43 percent for Roxas and 32 percent for Legarda. By the time of the final survey before the election, Binay had pulled even with Roxas, at 37 percent. My theory: It was only at that point that his alliances, sensing victory, spelled the difference.