Column: Grace Poe’s path to victory

Published on August 25, 2015.

I want to deconstruct the instructively skewed political analysis of self-described “observer” Serge Osmeña, senator of the Republic, but this exercise will have to wait. Having started with a reading of Mar Roxas’ possible “path to victory,” and having followed that up with a look at Jojo Binay’s still very viable track, I am bound to consider Grace Poe’s own chances of winning.

Can Poe win? The objective answer is clear: Yes, she can. Will she win? As the current frontrunner, the odds are in her favor; if experience is any guide, however, it is in fact still too early to tell. We should have a better idea by early next year.

Reducing these banal facts to writing will strike many as an overbelaboring of the obvious. Surely the trends are clear? As recorded by both Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia, the trend lines since the second half of 2014 have been on the up and up for Poe, downward for Binay, a roller-coaster ride for Roxas. The smart money must be on Poe.

She topped the latest national election (2013, for the Senate) with the most number of votes in Philippine history: over 20 million. (The candidate who came in second was no slouch: Loren Legarda had placed first in two Senate elections, in 1998 and 2007, and in 2013 ran another formidable campaign.)

In a country that makes a fetish of “topnotchers,” Poe was an unexpected first placer. In the SWS’ final preelection survey, she was considered “safe”—that is, she was expected to win one of 12 Senate seats at stake. But in that final poll, she ranked only fifth, behind Legarda, Alan Cayetano and (tied for third and fourth) Chiz Escudero and Nancy Binay. The nature of her victory (the first to break the 20-million mark; a runaway 1.5 million votes ahead of Legarda; the only one with a majority of the votes cast) had two immediate outcomes: She became instant presidential timber, and her father’s historical standing as defeated presidential candidate in 2004 dramatically improved.

An aside: I think it is wrong to attribute Poe’s startling victory in 2013 singly to a residual vote for Fernando Poe Jr.; my argument can be read in “The sheer inadequacy of single-factor analyses” (Opinion, 5/21/13).

Since her election to the Senate, Poe has excelled in the art of the possible. She has thrown herself into the drudgery of legislative work; at the same time, she has readily taken part in various public forums. She is articulate in both Filipino and English, even forcefully so at times; yet she is unfailingly courteous in personal encounters or in televised public hearings. She obviously does her homework; but she has proven to be good at being spontaneous. She has close friends in the Senate, but knows how not to burn bridges—an underestimated asset, lost amid the stirring words and dramatic gestures that animate Philippine politics. In a word, she is how Osmeña would describe her and Rep. Leni Robredo: an “attractive” candidate, easy to sell.

Another aside: Her position on the Bangsamoro, post-Mamasapano, is puzzling to me; I had expected more empathy for the underdogs of history. I codified my disappointment in “Grace Poe’s unfortunately political report” (Opinion, 3/24/15).

Aside from topping the Senate race, unexpectedly running away from the pack, and taking to national politics like a natural, the senator enjoys one more asset, and it is capital. There are businessmen willing to bankroll her presidential run.

Can she lose? She has the twin disadvantages of a newcomer. She has not yet had time to plant firm roots for a nationwide network of her own, and she faces residency issues. (Because she is a foundling, her Filipino citizenship cannot be in question; the law is clear. But then again, the Supreme Court found a way to justify Renato Corona’s midnight appointment as chief justice, and Juan Ponce Enrile’s petition for bail in a nonbailable case.)

It is her independent status, however, that may prove to be the biggest hurdle. While allied with the governing Liberal Party coalition (she supports the Aquino administration’s reform agenda), and maintaining close ties with Joseph Estrada (one-third of the ruling troika of the political opposition), she has stuck determinedly to a position of independence. This allows her to criticize the administration for its failures of both imagination and implementation, while placing her in a position to redefine the meaning of the administration’s “straight path.” But without government machinery, or an entrenched national network, she will be forced to rely mainly on her popularity. (In the end, the Nationalist People’s Coalition will, as it usually does in a close election, allow its members to choose their own presidential candidates.)

This means that she can be the Estrada of 1998, and coast to victory; or the Miriam Defensor Santiago of 1992, and sputter at the end.

There is yet another hurdle. “In the Philippines, one either wins the presidency on the first try or not at all. Put another way: Nobody who has lost a presidential contest has even come close to winning the post the second time around.” I wrote that in 2009. The 2010 elections offered proof of another kind; Estrada’s second presidential campaign (unconstitutional, except to the Supreme Court at that time) ended up with about 1.5 million fewer votes than his first.

In that column—“A history lesson for Chiz” (Opinion, 11/3/09)—I offered words of caution: “A lesson in history [is] lying in wait for Sen. Chiz Escudero, as he pins his hope on some form of public clamor to redeem his radical decision, suddenly announced, to forsake all political parties in any pursuit of the presidency.”

In other words, and if history is any guide, Poe has only one chance to become president. Is it now, or later?

1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

One response to “Column: Grace Poe’s path to victory

  1. Pingback: Column: Duterte’s path to victory | John Nery | Newsstand

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