The Long View: Machinery gave up the ghost


Machinery gave up the ghost
By Manuel L. Quezon III

MANILA, Philippines – Regardless of how the official counting turns out, the battle for a favorable public perception of the elections has been lost, by the Palace and by the Commission on Elections. Whether or not the Palace manages to eke out a “victory” by squeezing in additional Team Unity names into the Magic 12, only two of its senatorial candidates can claim an indubitable mandate. And the probable victory of those two, Joker Arroyo and Edgardo Angara, despite their affiliation with the administration, is a personal vindication, a public endorsement of their ultimate political independence.

Going into the elections, the Palace thundered that its machinery would win the day; but after election day, it’s been obvious that the machinery broke down. I asked a former campaign operative about this breakdown. He said:

Even in areas where local administration candidates didn’t face opposition rivals, they faced competition from parties affiliated with the ruling coalition: Kampi vs. Lakas, for example. This ate up resources and kept administration candidates from focusing on the national race (which local candidates hardly ever do, anyway, once the campaign period for local races begins).

And even if they had an easy time, administration-affiliated local candidates and their leaders knew the public pulse in their areas intimately. They knew the national mood, which is anti-administration. They knew that in local areas, the national mood is strongly felt. They knew better than to squander their authority and resources by insisting that the local electorate support an unwinnable administration senatorial slate.

And so they went through the motions, taking the Palace’s money and telling the people to vote Team Unity, though knowing full well that the voters would do otherwise. In other words, local leader after local leader knew, going into this year’s elections, that in national terms, the public mood was anti-administration, but they weren’t about to tell the Palace that, as no one wanted to be the bearer of bad news. Furthermore, to say so would have simply prompted the administration to divert resources to some other local leader willing to pander to the Palace’s expectations.

So they took the money, went through the motions, but didn’t pressure their electorates to toe the Palace line. These local leaders weren’t about to stick their necks out to gratify the Palace or alienate their followers. They concentrated on the election of their local candidates affiliated with the administration. And the electorates, especially in areas uncontested by the opposition, pragmatically went along with them, too. Why bother irritating the Palace or risking patronage over the next three years?

So the Palace proclaimed it would be 12-0; they told the local leaders, deliver; the leaders said, we would deliver, even though they knew they couldn’t, but no one would admit to the impossible, so they all went through the motions, fulfilling their obligations, but not risking their leadership, just to please the Palace.

The unsung hero here is Sergio Osmeña III, the campaign head of the Genuine Opposition who saw how the political landscape had changed, who marshaled the means to feel the public pulse, and thus identified the messages that resonated with the electorate. He met with skepticism and hostility from old-time operators, who resented his scientific approach to mounting a national campaign, his focusing on surveys and focus groups to see how the public really felt, what messages really mattered and what tactics gave the most bang for the buck.

He scrapped rallies, took a dim view of motorcades, focused on commercials and the tried-and-tested message of midterms: a vote for the opposition is a vote against the incumbent. Local voters could vote in Lakas or Kampi, or NPC or whatever, on the basis of who built the local infrastructure and attended to constituents’ needs; but local voters reserved their national votes to express their personal antipathies toward the administration; and in the case of candidates like Antonio Trillanes, their votes were very personal statements aimed at the Palace indeed.

As for the Comelec, it faced another kind of revolt from the ground. Media stood their ground, knowing full well the monkey business that took place in 2004, and so did organizations like Namfrel, under a new leadership eager to restore the organization’s credibility. Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos proclaimed the voter turnout at 70 percent to 80 percent; Namfrel debunked it: the implications being obvious to everyone (recall how on the eve of elections Newsbreak had identified an inflated official voter turnout figure as a camouflage for vote-padding). In Maguindanao, Namfrel volunteers refused to be kept in the dark: a combination of volunteer and media vigilance suddenly made it very much harder to cheat in Mindanao. And with local leaders in Luzon and the rest of the Visayas deciding not to bother enforcing an unpopular administration Senate slate, by all accounts, Cebu was left as the last bastion of “Garcification.” But even there, enough Cebuanos seem to have voted independently to moderate the influence the province’s votes might have on the national results. Which is not to say last-minute miracles of a sinister sort won’t be achieved for otherwise failed candidates like Mike Defensor, Prospero Pichay or even Miguel Zubiri. But their victory will always be tempered by public doubts.

When even a Palace booster like Tony Lopez states, without mincing words, that the President was subjected to a referendum and suffered a resounding defeat, the extent of the administration debacle is beyond debate. The President has two years left to try to govern, and maybe even less: for the 2010 race has begun, and she isn’t a candidate.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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