by Manuel L. Quezon III
ON his last day as a member of the cabinet, I overheard Manuel “Mar” Roxas II dispense this pearl of electoral wisdom: if, as you go around shaking hands during the campaign, you ask a voter, “will you vote for me?” and the voter gives a curt answer, say, “sure,” or, “yeah,” it means you have to come back and court that voter some more; only the voters who give longer, enthusiastic replies, such as, “of course! And we will win! Leave it to me!” can be considered safely in your camp.
My mother, recounting prewar politics, remembers that her grandfather, Eusebio Orense of Batangas, even after forty years of electoral success, still campaigned door-to-door.
Recently Rep. Teodoro Locsin, Jr. wrote to columnist Emil Jurado pointing out he wasn’t taking anything for granted in his first bid for reelection: “Don’t listen to the halfwit who told you that the three of us [Mayor Binay, Nestor Mercado, and Locsin] are sitting pretty. We are on our feet and getting darker and darker by the day because Jojo [Binay] keeps hammering in our ears Ninoy’s advice to politicians: ‘Until you are proclaimed the winner, you should be running scared.’ In politics, never take anything for granted.” One wonders why it took so long to put the tireless Binay in charge of the Poe campaign.
You have to be running scared until the vary last minute of the very last hour of the very last day of the campaign. It is the lack of this “fear factor” that has handicapped the Roco and Poe campaigns. Last December, when Raul Roco was still riding high in the surveys, and yet seemed strangely silent and even complacent, I asked one of his supporters why it seemed Roco wasn’t running scared. Ominously, the supporter couldn’t give a clear answer, and in the end admitted it really did seem his candidate wasn’t running scared. It was as if the Roco campaign was torn between trying to put together, somehow, a coalition of traditional politicians (hoping against hope), and gambling everything on a campaign based solely on the enthusiasm of his youthful supporters. In the end, Roco achieved neither, failing to get a critical mass of political operators or blaze a brave trail with a youthful guerrilla campaign.
Just as Roco started his campaign on the wrong foot by having a proclamation rally in which the youth and young professionals were conspicuously absent on the stage, Fernando Poe, Jr. got his campaign off to a bad start by failing to unify the opposition –when he was touting himself as the unifying candidate. It has been downhill ever since. Personally, I believe the efforts to derail his candidacy by questioning his citizenship only affected his upper class supporters and not his mass base. What has eroded his popularity is a combination of Poe’s weakness at the hustlings and disgust over the colossal intrigue among his political backers. In other words, what did Poe’s candidacy more harm was his refusing to debate the president and the unpopularity (among his supporters) of some of the more prominent figures in his campaign. They seemed far more interested in dividing up future spoils than in actually achieving victory. It should have been win now, fight among each other later.
Neither of the two leading opponents of the president, then, were perceived to be running scared. In contrast, the start of the president’s campaign was saddled by the problem of many of her own people being terrified of the opposition. The supposed certainty of a Poe victory cast such a shadow over the Palace that many were under the impression the president’s people were more interested in jumping ship than campaigning for six more years. This was actually beneficial to the president’s campaign because it rid her of the less reliable: the more opportunistic among them simply jumped ship and burned their bridges; others, such as the head of a cultural agency of the government, sent discreet feelers to kingpins of the opposition in the hope of keeping their jobs under the new, expected, dispensation.
The President herself set the tone by running scared and putting her organizational gifts to good use. Her first rally in Pampanga set the tone, and the rest of the campaign was devoted to turning the tables on her opponents by seizing the initiative on the campaign trail. Not the most charismatic of public speakers, the president dispensed with the usual speeches and decided on a variation of the “teach-ins” of the 1970s: small, intimate, discussions held in the provinces with her running mate as moderator showed the president in her best light and set her apart from her opponents, for example.
In the end, in contrast to the overconfidence of her opponents, the president showed grit and this proved to be infectious. The first campaign battle the president won was not in unleashing the machinery of Lakas, it was in seizing control of that machinery and getting it to work. In the beginning, the comment one Lakas councilor from Taguig made to me illustrated the problem of the ruling party: “my constituents tell me we will vote straight Lakas except don’t tell us who to vote for president.” President Arroyo went straight to the people, and her steady rise in the polls worked to reverse the skepticism of her party mates. She has been running scared, but running smart. In the end, this is what political leadership is all about. and that is something in which her opponents have proved to be woefully deficient.