The Long View
A campaign of attrition
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:48:00 04/18/2010
WHEN the great awakening and the great remembering last August led the country to dare to dream once more, it rendered the pragmatic calculations of those seeking the presidency obsolete overnight. Manuel Villar Jr. had achieved front-runner status “the 25-percent survey ratings that conventional wisdom said could create a bandwagon effect” precisely at a point when his percentage suddenly paled in comparison to the numbers achieved by Benigno Aquino III. When Manuel Roxas II declared his support for Aquino’s candidacy, it served as an aftershock, further rocking the political landscape. Tremor after tremor followed, from the collapse of Francis Escudero’s presidential bid to former President Estrada throwing his hat into the ring.
There were other factors that led to the change in landscape. The adoption of automated elections led to the filing of candidacies taking place in November instead of January, but the campaign’s official beginning in February was retained, leading to an artificial gap when filing was supposed to seamlessly shift to campaigning. The Supreme Court helped things along by deciding that so long as the official campaign period hadn’t started, no such thing as premature campaigning existed.
This provided an opening for candidates like Villar (awash with the resources required for such a gambit) to try to catch up, which he very nearly did, by means of flooding the airwaves with commercials. But success eluded him; he failed to overtake his leading rival, and worse, failed to maintain an upward trajectory in his rankings just as the limits on ad spending kicked in; his ratings continued to slide when the local races began, and with it, the mad scramble for local alliances.
As Villar pursued his blitzkrieg strategy, Aquino was hampered by the very nature of his campaign as one defined by self-control. He would not “and could not” make deals simply with anyone, since his is a fundamentally centrist campaign: hence the extreme Left and Right ended up with the Nacionalistas, and the utterly unredeemable, erstwhile stalwarts of the administration ended up slithering to the NP as well. Out of the good graces of the administration, Aquino could only be sure of the strictest application of the rules themselves subject to increasingly unusual reinterpretation and redefinition by the state’s institutions. And so he had to bow out of a televised debate as the old rule for premature campaigning would have kicked in between parts 1 and 2 of that debate: except the Supreme Court decided matters in an unexpected manner, leaving Aquino a no-show, ironically, because he had scrupulously abided by the rules.
As the front-runner, Aquino was thus in a less flexible position, tasked with safeguarding a formidable constituency, while cobbling together a coalition more inclined to hard-line attitudes than his easily accommodating rivals. At first this led to a campaign viewed as unwieldy because argumentative within; but in a few short months it started coming together just when his rivals’ campaigns began to founder and fray.
His rivals used this as an opportunity to chip away at his formidable numbers; if the main attack came from Villar, the other candidates too ended up targeting the fringes, like wolves circling a large and unwieldy flock, picking off the stragglers. Yet their combined efforts haven’t succeeded in dislodging Aquino from front-runner status: leading to the possibility that his momentum could increase. The possibility of an outright majority is not impossible it may even be probable as the bandwagon effect kicks in locally. Local leaders have to follow their voters’ national sentiments, and in many provincial areas Aquino’s lead has expanded to twice the percentages of his leading opponent.
This close to the end of the campaign, the only question remains whether anything can happen that could change the balance of forces. Two are generally discussed: the potential disqualification of Joseph Ejercito Estrada and the bowing out of the race of Gilberto Teodoro Jr. Neither, however, seems inclined to throw in the towel, having committed to the race and out of a dogged loyalty to their followers and close associates.
Estrada’s entering the fray was made possible by the Comelec, his political usefulness to the powers-that-be ranging from setting a potentially useful precedent for Ms Arroyo in the future and his upsetting everyone’s calculations in this campaign: except he has proven more harmful to Villar than Aquino. Whatever happens, Estrada has proven he will be an influential player past 2010.
There’s a kind of parallel between the campaigns of Aquino and Gilbert Teodoro Jr., in that both have strong constituencies known for their passion and ambivalent (at best) and hostile (at worst) attitude towards the political pros. Teodoro tried to redeem the Frankenstein coalition but was reduced to being a minor experiment, and a failed one. Yet his own political salvation may lie in being proven a patsy; a humiliating situation to be in but which has the sort of pathos that can actually fire up his genuine supporters and increase his standing.
Whether this will be enough to give him a future past 2010 depends on how he decides to go down to defeat: as the nominal standard-bearer of a coalition that demeaned him, or as someone who, better late than never, stood foursquare by his genuine supporters and denounced the President and her people who never even gave him a fighting chance. This will be the acid test of his leadership. He is halfway to redemption, but could still falter.
A mastery of terrain, they say, is the hallmark of the successful general as its equivalent, a keen eye for the dynamics of a campaign, is the hallmark of the successful candidate in the political arena. Aquino, in January, had predicted what has come to pass: that he would endure and be poised to achieve victory.