Column: A president with only one-fifth of the votes

Published on January 19, 2016.

AT A corporate retreat of the UN Development Programme and its project partners in Tagaytay City last week, I had a chance to very briefly revisit an idea I first proposed in 2009, as a way to understand Philippine presidential elections.

In “The 20-percent presidency,” I offered five theses to frame my reading of the 2010 vote. The third thesis posited that “There are two kinds of presidential mandates: the 20-percent presidency and the 40-percent presidency.” I wrote: “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.)”

As we know, Benigno Aquino III won the 2010 contest, with about 43 percent of the vote. That made him the third post-Edsa president to secure a 40-percent mandate, after Joseph Estrada and Arroyo, and left Fidel Ramos (with 23 percent of the vote in 1992) as the only member of the exclusive 20-percent club.

Will Ramos induct a new member into the club after the May 9 vote?

It’s possible. While the latest Social Weather Stations survey, conducted from January 8 to 10, shows Vice President Jejomar Binay (at 31 percent) starting to break away from the pack (Grace Poe, Mar Roxas, and Rody Duterte are at 24, 21, and 20, respectively), it might still be prudent at this time to call the presidential race a tight contest. (“Starting to break away” might also be unconsciously biased language, suggesting momentum; I use it advisedly.)

Assuming that both Poe and Duterte survive their legal challenges, we can expect their candidacies to gain some traction, attracting old allies or new supporters. I would also expect some movement in the case of the missing Gerry Limlingan and Ebeng Baloloy, close aides of the Vice President’s, which would have an impact on both Binay’s campaign and Roxas’, too. If they surface against their will, their stories might affect Binay’s numbers negatively—tightening the race again.

(Of course, it is also possible that the Binay camp will introduce them to the public at an opportune time, a time of its own choosing, as part of its strategy.)

But the possibility that the presidential race of 2016 will end up as closely fought and evenly matched as that of 1992 exists. With only 2 percent of voting-age Filipinos remaining undecided, and Miriam Santiago’s support soft at 3 percent, the contest may go down to the wire. That could mean that the next president would earn a mandate at the polls of 25 percent or less, just one or two percentage points ahead of the runner-up.

That would carry serious implications for the radical program of someone like Duterte. He already argues that the presidency is not as powerful as it ought to be; a president with a 20-percent mandate may be even less to his taste, and would find overhauling the constitutional order even more difficult.

To be sure, one of Duterte’s two favorite presidents (the other is Arroyo) solved the mandate question in high style. Though elected with the slimmest proportion of the vote in Philippine history, Ramos displayed such extraordinary leadership in his first 100 days that, on the occasion of that milestone, half of all voters remembered having voted for him.

* * *

At the East West Center International Conference at the Manila Hotel, held over the weekend, I had the happy task of moderating the first plenary session: a panel discussion on the role of media and technology in building communities. I was joined by distinguished colleagues: Howie Severino, documentarist, TV anchor, and vice president for professional development of GMA; Karl Malakunas, Manila bureau chief and Asia-Pacific environment editor of Agence-France Presse; and Aya Lowe, Philippine correspondent for Singapore’s Channel News Asia.

We touched on many topics, and questions from the floor included heavy-duty themes like the adverse impact of Internet research on originality of content. Two comments from Malakunas in particular set me thinking.

In the age of Snapchat and Whisper, how do we define community? He spoke of the old-school definition, which includes a strong sense of place and a living tradition of local support, and then he noted how the pervasive use of “media and technology” changed the meaning of the word dramatically. I don’t know if my summary was helpful, but today we find ourselves part of useful communities online that are actually “temporary configurations of strangers”—for instance, the reviewers on Booking.com or the direction-givers on Waze.

Malakunas also warned against corporations and organizations fostering a false sense of community—“creating illusions of communities,” he said, which brought us back to concerns raised earlier by both Severino and Lowe. Is the Islamic State, for instance, a false community? In what way is the worldwide social media phenomenon that is AlDub Nation a true community? In the age of political propaganda and branded content, questions about the true meaning of community are worthy subjects of scholarly study. We hope the scholars and alumni of Honolulu’s famous East West Center were paying attention.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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