Published on July 5, 2016.
NOW THAT President Duterte has taken firm control of the reins of power, it is time to shift the focus from the epic of the 2016 elections and the melodrama of a tumultuous transition to the plain prose of governance. But allow me one more look back—this time at Miriam Defensor Santiago’s extraordinary presidential candidacy.
I have criticized the ex-senator in this column more than once, and through her office she has responded forcefully to some of the criticism. I was skeptical of her third presidential run; knowing that the historical record shows that a candidate wins the Philippine presidency on the first try or not at all, I was even suspicious of the motives behind her decision to run again. If she is ailing from cancer, and the surveys show her languishing at the bottom of the field, why even bother to run?
This is not to say that only candidates with a real shot at winning the main prize should throw their hats in the ring; I have voted for candidates who needed Biblical-scale miracles to win, including Jovito Salonga in 1992 and Raul Roco in both 1998 and 2004. But these candidates—Salonga with his running mate Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Roco and his 1998 vice presidential candidate Irene Santiago—seemed to me to represent not only the possible (I kept reminding myself that Salonga was the only senator to top the Senate race thrice, or that Roco was a top vote-getter in 1995 and an early survey favorite in 1998) but also the ideal.
They represented something larger than themselves, or their personal ambition. What did Miriam represent in 2016? It took me a long time to understand; it was only when she entered the debate hall in Dagupan for the third presidential debate, just a few weeks before Election Day, that I finally understood.
Published on May 17, 2016.
IN A wild, improbable campaign with many twists and turns, here is the final, improbable twist:
Rodrigo Duterte is Benigno Aquino III, part two.
The 2016 presidential election turned out to be the 2010 vote all over again. Duterte comes to the presidency with the same mandate, the same level of popular support, that Aquino enjoyed in 2010: Like Aquino, he rode a genuine groundswell to capture 15 million votes; like Aquino, he is comfortably ahead of the second-ranked candidate’s 9-million total; like Aquino, he led a field with at least four strong candidates. (Mar Roxas as the Joseph Estrada of 2016: another improbable turn.)
At this point, the reader who believed that the change-is-coming rhetoric of the Duterte campaign was code for anti-Aquino sentiment would be almost apoplectic. How can the tough-talking man-of-the-people be compared to the mild-mannered, out-of-touch elitist? Surely they are complete opposites!
Not in terms of electoral mandate, they’re not. Continue reading
Published on May 10, 2016.
Is support for presidential frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte a protest vote, against the Aquino administration? Yes, but also no. The idea that one single factor explains the surge of the controversial mayor of Davao City in the last six to eight weeks of the campaign period—a surge that as of this writing looks powerful enough to bring Duterte all the way to the Pasig River and into Malacañang—is (to borrow the language that critics of Duterte supporters like to use) lazy, even self-indulgent. This reductionist reading tells us more about the analyst than the phenomenon under analysis.
If the plan is to show disapproval of or outrage at the way the administration has mismanaged the MRT system in Metro Manila, or misjudged the immediate response to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban, or mishandled a secret operation that led to the death of 44 Special Action Force troopers in Mamasapano, the candidacy of Vice President Jejomar Binay would have served as an appropriate or adequate vehicle.
When Binay finally resigned from the Cabinet after failing to win President Aquino’s endorsement, he declared himself, in unmistakable terms, the leader of the opposition. In fact, he used the SAF 44 as literal backdrop, and called out the administration (correctly, in my view) for its many blunders.
But, one might argue, Binay was not only running in opposition; he was also proposing to turn the rest of the Philippines into Makati City, the central business district he has governed as mayor for two decades. Wouldn’t this vision thing undercut the protest-vote interpretation?
Published on May 3, 2016.
ALLOW ME, for the third time in nine years of column-writing, to list my choices for national positions at stake in the coming election—not as an endorsement but as an attempt at transparency. These are who I am voting for; weigh my opinion writing against my vote.
(To be sure, and as I hope I have proven over the years, voting for these candidates is no guarantee that they will be spared from criticism or their initiatives always assured of support. The true ideal of journalism is not neutrality, but independence from the people we cover or, indeed, vote for.)
I am voting for Leni Robredo for VP, for reasons I have already outlined in “Leni, ‘last man standing’.” She is the last person standing between us and the abyss: a Marcos restoration. It does not look likely, but I continue to hold out the hope that Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who forcefully reminded the public in the April 10 vice presidential debate of the true Marcos legacy, will somehow give way to her.
But I have not yet decided on who to vote for president.
My choice is between Mar Roxas and Grace Poe. Continue reading
Published on April 26, 2016.
HATS off to ABS-CBN for devoting three and a half hours of expensive Sunday prime time to the last presidential debate. Many viewers expected fireworks, especially after survey front-runner Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte provoked yet another controversy with his remarks about the 1989 gang rape of Australian lay missionary Jacqueline Hamill, but the five candidates for president stuck mostly to the issues as they understood them. This may have been partially because of the town hall format, which allowed the TV network to humanize pressing issues. But the end result was a civics lesson aired live.
I have seen complaints on social media about the debate being, well, boring, but cannot sympathize with the complainers. We all say we want a real, substantive discussion; now that we got one, just about, we complain about the lack of zing.
This is not to say that the other candidates should not have held Duterte to account for his gratuitous and self-indulgent remarks; that they didn’t was a risk they decided to take and which they may rue in the next two weeks.
I thought there was a lot for voters to consider; the dozen people or so I asked at the gym afterwards all thought the debate did not change anyone’s mind. That may well be, but I thought we learned even more about the candidates than we may have thought possible.
Published on April 19, 2016.
IN TWO debates one week apart, Rep. Leni Robredo has managed to consolidate solid performances with memorable closing statements. In public speaking as in persuasive writing, the point of greatest emphasis is often the close; it’s the last thing that’s heard, and (to use a musical metaphor) the right note can send the audience out through the swinging doors humming one’s tune. Robredo, Mar Roxas’ candidate for vice president, has done exactly that—not once, but twice.
In the CNN debate at the University of Santo Tomas on April 10, part of the Commission on Elections’ inspired game-changer of a debate series, the representative of Camarines Sur’s Third District exceeded the time limit for her closing statement, but just as host Pia Hontiveros was calling her out, managed to smuggle in the following sentence: “Sa amin pong anim (Among the six of us), may the best woman win.”
It was a resounding summation of her performance during the nearly-three-hour debate, which was a little tentative in the first hour, but increasingly confident and emphatic as time passed. It was a different kind of forceful from that displayed by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who repeatedly (and bravely) criticized Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for his family’s fabulous wealth and his pattern of absences from anticorruption hearings. Robredo had added her voice to the criticism (Sen. Antonio Trillanes did, too, at one point), but she was able to avoid sounding strident or glib. This she did in part by offering nuanced answers. Continue reading
Published on April 12, 2016.
ON THE day the campaign period for national positions started, I wrote “The case against Grace,” an attempt to write about the presidential candidates “from the point of view of their vulnerabilities.”
I phrased the objective this way, optimistically: “How can a candidate lose the presidential race? That is to say, which of a candidate’s weaknesses are election issues? I would like to worry this question in a new series of columns.”
It has been two months since that burst of optimism, however, and I have yet to follow through on the plan. Now, with the elections in 27 days, I’m afraid there’s time only for one omnibus column on Vice President Jejomar Binay, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, and former interior secretary Mar Roxas. What is the one weakness, the one election issue, that presents the most serious threat to their candidacy? This issue can be summarized in a simple image, or phrased in a single question—a nagging, even unanswerable question. Continue reading
Published on March 29, 2016.
READER, BEWARE. We’ve reached the point in the long national campaign when partisan exuberance threatens to overwhelm our news feeds, our timelines, even our analytical faculties.
I would be the last person to say that partisans or partisan sites cannot tell the truth; I only wish to add a word of caution. When claims are made, we must set aside the party balloons and campaign confetti, tune out the noise and the roar of the adrenalin rush, to test the statements.
For instance: In the wake of the second presidential debate, held on March 20 in vote-rich Cebu, some extravagant claims were made about a surge in Cebuano support for Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. As far as I can tell, these claims were based on anecdotal evidence—not untrustworthy in itself (as journalists we quickly learn that anecdotes can lead to stories) but subject to validation.
It may be that Duterte, who traces his roots to Cebu, is now riding a groundswell of support after his charismatic, entertaining turn at the debate; or is the indisputable beneficiary of the split between One Cebu and UNA, but we need facts to back those assertions.
When someone—an analyst, an advocate, an adviser—says Duterte will now win Cebu, we must ask: How do you define victory? Continue reading
Published on March 22, 2016.
FOR THE first time, a presidential debate in the Philippines matched the argumentative tone and reckless rancor of the current American format. Whether this is, in the end, a positive development for our democratic project is an open question.
Don’t get me wrong. As I told friends in TV5, the public witnessed the most unforgettable debate in Philippine political history because the network stood its ground. Congratulations are definitely in order.
The second PiliPinas debate, sanctioned by the Commission on Elections and held on the grounds of the University of the Philippines Cebu, made up for its much-delayed start with a riveting series of sharp exchanges between the four presidential candidates. Vice President Jejomar Binay and former interior secretary Mar Roxas, the two candidates with the most experience in national office, could reasonably claim that their rivals had “ganged up” on them—Binay for the allegations of corruption against him and his family, Roxas for the accusations of Aquino administration incompetence and Liberal Party insincerity.
But there were intense exchanges, too, between Roxas and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, between Roxas and Sen. Grace Poe, and between Binay and Poe. (Duterte had a few choice quips for Binay during the debate, but the most consequential exchange between the two longtime local executives took place before the debate started, when Duterte added his objection to Binay’s attempt to bring documents to the stage.)
Published on March 8, 2016.
A MONTH into the official campaign period, we can say confidently that there is real movement in the surveys and that the presidential race remains a tight one. This is the central paradox of the 2016 elections, and it may well be solved in the same way Zeno’s famous paradox was solved: by walking.
In the closest presidential contest since 1992, it may be the campaign which has logged the most kilometers, and put in the most hours on the road, that will win in the end.
The tightness of the race seems to me to be magnified by the composite nature of some of the voter allegiances. I have been puzzling over this aspect of the race for some time, but I do not know if I have found the right language with which to describe it. Consider this a first pass.
Let me start with the obvious: Each of the candidates has a core following, a base of support that will vote for them no matter what. If we anchor our count on the last eight Social Weather Stations surveys going back to November/December 2014, we can for purposes of discussion equate each candidate’s lowest rating as the size of his or her loyal base. In this view, both Vice President Jejomar Binay and Sen. Grace Poe have a support “floor” of 21 percent; we can extrapolate from this number and say that a fifth of voting-age survey respondents will vote for Binay and Poe, each, no matter what. Former interior secretary Mar Roxas has a floor of 15 percent, while Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte enjoys a core support of 11 percent. (In the first of these eight SWS surveys, Duterte actually registers only a 5-percent rating, but that poll was taken before the mayor became serious about his presidential ambitions.) Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has a support floor of 2 percent.
Published on March 1, 2016.
I HAVE many friends in Rappler, and I think highly of the work of a good many members of the Rappler staff. In fact, just three weeks or so ago, I found myself in the position of recommending a senior editor from the online-only news organization for a prestigious fellowship.
But I vigorously take issue with Rappler’s decision to sue Commission on Elections Chair Andy Bautista; the case is not only based on a highly selective reading of the facts, but also wrapped, self-justifyingly, deceivingly, in the mantle of freedom of the press and public interest.
What is essentially at issue here is Rappler’s unarticulated assumption that, because it is an online-only news organization, it deserves lead-organizer status in all three presidential debates. Continue reading
Published on February 23, 2016.
I wanted to devote today’s column to the astonishing handpicked hypocrisy of the Rappler lawsuit against Commission on Elections Chair Andy Bautista, but perhaps another day or another format. For now I wish to write about some of the sidelights I witnessed at the first presidential debate last Sunday in Cagayan de Oro.
Let me start at the beginning, and with a confession: When the program started, I was overcome by excitement. (I don’t think I am betraying confidences if I say that my seat mate in the front row, Comelec director James Jimenez, was uttering his “Oh, wows,” too.) The fact that all five presidential candidates were in attendance, standing at their No Bio, No Boto lecterns and ready to make the best case for themselves, inside a campus in my hometown and before a live TV and online audience, struck me as a small but significant victory for our imperfect democracy.
A top political strategist advising one of the presidential candidates described the series of Comelec debates (the next one is on March 20 in Cebu, the third on April 24 in Dagupan) as a “game changer.”
I do not know whether that is in fact the truth, but it has the potential to be true. The failure to attend last Sunday’s debate would have been damaging for any of the candidates, especially when one considers that that failure would have been witnessed by tens of millions of Filipinos who watched the show in their homes, at their workplaces (on their phones, according to some of the sales clerks in Centrio Mall), even (quite literally in the case of supporters of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte gathered in Divisoria in Cagayan de Oro) in the public square.
Published on February 16, 2016.
PROTOCOL AND prudence require the Vice President of the Philippines to be protected by a close-in security detail. Will these gentlemen be included in the list of 10 staff members each presidential candidate is allowed inside the venue of the first official presidential debate, in Cagayan de Oro City? Cavite Gov. Jonvic Remulla wanted to know.
Remulla is the kind of natural politician who will stand up in the middle of a meeting to literally pick up a seat or two and bring them to the table, just to make sure women at the meeting are not left standing. The polished way he asked the question made his request—he wanted the security men to be added to the list—sound even more reasonable than it probably deserved to be perceived.
Are we making an exception for Vice President Jejomar Binay’s security men? Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez retorted immediately. Continue reading
Published on February 9, 2016.
EVEN A stranger passing through the Philippines must know that the official campaign period for national positions at stake in the May 2016 elections starts today. This might be a good time to review our readings of the major presidential candidates, but now from the point of view of their vulnerabilities. In the series of “path to victory” columns I wrote last year between Aug. 4 and Sept. 8, I did touch on the question of losing, but only briefly—and from the perspective of the respective campaigns.
How can a candidate lose the presidential race? That is to say, which of a candidate’s weaknesses are election issues? I would like to worry this question in a new series of columns. Let me start with Sen. Grace Poe, whose fate now rests with the Supreme Court.
In “Grace Poe’s path to victory” (Opinion, 8/25/15), I ventured that the 2013 Senate topnotcher had “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.)” Continue reading
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?
Published on January 12, 2016.
LET US, for the sake of argument, grant that Election Commissioner Rowena Guanzon is right about the sequence of events that led to her filing a comment, on behalf of the Commission on Elections, in the Supreme Court on Thursday. Does that justify her controversial conduct after Comelec Chair Andres Bautista demanded an explanation for her action?
Bautista issued a memorandum on Friday ordering Guanzon and the director of the agency’s legal department to cite “under whose authority the comment was filed.” He said he found Guanzon’s action “not only irregular but personally disrespectful”; he added that, if he found their answer unsatisfactory, he would be “constrained to inform the Supreme Court that the filing of the comment was unauthorized.” He gave them 24 hours.
To be scrupulously fair, Bautista late on Friday already told reporters that Guanzon had filed the comment without his clearance or that of the commission, and had affixed his signature without his having read the comment.
But, and again for the sake of argument, even if Bautista should not have been as forthcoming with the media (and who would want to argue that?), does the Comelec chair’s candor justify Guanzon’s scorched-earth response?
Published on January 5, 2016.
It’s been four months since Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte visited the Inquirer, and I see no reason to change my original view: He is deeply conflicted about running for the presidency. His increasingly scandalous conduct on the campaign trail—call it the politics of mutual outrage—confirms me in my view. He is looking for a way out.
I realize this reading runs against the grain. There is even a popular or at least trendy view that the famous mayor and his political brain trust masterminded the entire “Duterte-serye” of the last few months: The coyness of a now-on, now-off, now-maybe-perhaps-possibly-on-again campaign is thought to be deliberate, strategic.
“It keeps him in the news,” I have heard even news veterans say—as though being perpetually in the headlines and on TV newscasts in the last 18 months has been an unadulterated asset for, say, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. We should all be wary of imposing the frameworks we are most familiar with on reality. It doesn’t seem to me the case that his newsworthiness explains Duterte’s undeniable mass appeal. In the exact same way that American media initially misread the ridiculous Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign as fed by the oxygen they freely provided, we may have some members of the Philippine media who look at Duterte, not as the vanguard of a kind of insurgency, but as a creation of the news cycle. Continue reading
Published on November 10, 2015.
LIKE MANY other Filipinos, I went to register for my biometrics on the last possible day. It wasn’t the original plan, of course, and in fact I did go to the first special registration conducted in our barangay hall and also to another one held in a nearby mall. Both times, however, I was late; by the time I got in, the cut-off for the line had already been reached. No excuses—I should have gone months earlier, when it would have taken a few minutes, perhaps less than 10, to complete the entire exercise.
Instead, I ended up going to Quezon City Hall at dawn on Saturday, Oct. 31, where I waited in line for nine and a half hours. Like I said, no excuses.
But standing in line confirmed key lessons I learned from queueing for other purposes, in other places. I do not mean to place the hard-working staff of the Commission on Elections, or the staff of Quezon City Hall, under a harsh light; indeed, some of the lessons were confirmed by what they did, not by what they failed to do. I do want to offer constructive criticism, for the next time a government agency or a private institution needs to manage, and engage, a queuing crowd. Continue reading
Published on November 3, 2015.
I GOT the sense that the earth made an extra revolution or two last month; so much history was being made.
In the Philippines, the middle of October was the time for prospective candidates to file their certificates of candidacy for the 2016 elections. Despite the carnival-like atmosphere and the unprecedented number of applications for president, the filing period brought clarity to the country’s favorite pastime of politics.
Of the many words that filled the airwaves and the column inches and the digital pages, those of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte were the most awaited and the most analyzed. He had to decline the presidential draft that has been following him for the last several months not only once (at the start of the week) but twice (in the last hours of the filing period). On Monday, Oct. 12, he read a statement that repeated his many attempts to decline the draft, and then added: “We have a problem in the family, and in the order of things, you do what is closest to your heart.” (This was what he told the Inquirer last August.) Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Published on November 4, 2014.
I see that my good friend, the eminent scholar Jojo Abinales, has written a deliberately provocative think piece. I think he would be delighted to learn that I disagree with him. He enjoys a good argument, and I will give it to him.
In “It’s the barangays, stupid,” Abinales borrows an expression made famous by US President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team to highlight an important fact about the 2016 elections in the Philippines: “A glimpse at the balance of power across the nation shows that [Vice President Jejomar] Binay has a clear advantage over [Interior Secretary Mar] Roxas.” He means the balance of local power, in “the provinces and peripheries of the nation.” The Carvillean “stupid” part refers, I assume, to the obvious clearness of this advantage.
He lists the local clans and political blocs likely to support Binay; it is not an exhaustive list (the form dictates that it cannot be). But four to five paragraphs of prominent names do not an accurate political map make; it may or may not be true that “Davao City’s Rodrigo Duterte has not made his choice yet, although rumors are if Binay promises to respect his autonomy, the charismatic and popular mayor will surely vote UNA.” But even if Duterte did, how many of Davao’s 900,000-plus voters will vote with him? Abinales doesn’t show. Continue reading
Published on September 30, 2014.
Much has already been said about the incident involving Budget Secretary Butch Abad and a score of student protesters at the University of the Philippines the other week. Inquirer reporter Erika Sauler’s summary sentence, in a report she filed a few days after the incident, can serve as a helpful wrap-up: “As he exited the auditorium [and made his way] to his vehicle, a group of protesters from Stand UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP) ganged up on him, calling him a thief as they threw crumpled pieces of paper, placards and coins in his direction.” Other reports described one protester grabbing Abad by the collar.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue, whether the students were justified in their violent protest or not, the incident seems to me to demonstrate that words in fact have consequences in the real world. Continue reading
Published on August 19, 2014.
To many, Mar Roxas’ presidential ambition is a given. I think, however, that a certain ambivalence attends his desire to occupy the one office that exceeded his father’s grasp. My Exhibit A is Roxas’ failure to run for a Senate seat last year.
I understand that if he had done so, he would have forfeited his election protest against Vice President Jejomar Binay. Was this the actual consideration? It is hard to believe that he would have traded a probable campaign advantage in 2016 for the unlikely prospect of a belated election-tribunal victory.
The last time Roxas won a national election unequivocally, he turned heads. He topped the Senate race in 2004, becoming the first candidate in our history to garner more than 19 million votes. Mr. Palengke (a political persona based on his service as trade secretary in both the Estrada and the Arroyo administrations) was suddenly presidential timber. But that was 10 years ago—an entire geological age in political time. Continue reading
Published on June 24, 2014.
Malacañang may not be ready to admit it, but the 2016 campaign has already started in earnest. I would like to review certain assumptions I used in previous elections, to test whether they remain valid (as I obviously thought then) or they need updating. Continue reading
Yesterday, at a public function, a Cabinet secretary’s first words to me were, “Not now, Bam”–a playful, slightly imprecise reference to the following column, which was published on September 4, 2012.
Bam Aquino was my student at the Ateneo de Manila all of 17 years ago; he was, in a word, outstanding, the sort of student a teacher remembers long after the last papers have been marked. I still vividly remember the distinction he once proposed, just right after one particular class ended, between “convince” and “persuade”—the first was an appeal to reason, the second an appeal to the will—which I found a little too categorical for my taste then, but whose explanatory power I understand with greater clarity today.
Now Bam wants to run for the Senate; I have no doubt that he would excel in it—but I urge him not to run. Not next year, and not in 2016. Like many others, I believe that the Aquino family has sometimes served as history’s instrument; there is a family legacy we can all reference (even those critics who cannot stand the Aquinos can hold them accountable according to that legacy’s own terms). Continue reading