Overstated Popularity

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Overstated Popularity

by Manuel L. Quezon III


Manila’s been pondering a grim possibility. Joseph Estrada, former president, has hinted he might seek the presidency in 2010. It’s all conditional, of course: there is a constitutional prohibition against former presidents running for the presidency again; and he says he’ll only do it, if the opposition won’t coalesce around a single candidate. What’s interesting, though, is the insistence of Estrada’s drum-beaters, that he represents something unique.

The first big lie perpetrated by Estrada and his people wads the one maintaining that Estrada was entitled to being treated extra-special because he achieved “the biggest number of votes in Philippine history.” Time and again I’ve said what was wrong with that statement, but for the record I believe it is time to point it out again.

By the most generous estimates, Joseph Estrada got 40% of the popular vote. This means, first of all, that six out of ten voters voted against Estrada by voting for a different candidate; and that only 4 out of 10 Filipino voters felt Estrada should be President. This means there was a landslide against Estrada but a successful plurality in favor of him. The only conclusions that can be made from the percentages are as follows: an overwhelming majority of voters didn’t want Estrada as president; of this overwhelming majority, too many were fragmented as to who deserved to be president instead of Estrada; and that consequently, the stubborn minority remained cohesive enough to stay solid and give Estrada the presidency; that if the majority of voters are poor and from the masses, a majority of this majority still voted against the supposed idol of the poor; and that consequently, of the minority that voted for Estrada, only a minority of the poor voted for the man as well. Which means that the Estrada myths are just that. With our constantly expanding population, every president that wins a democratic election will be able to claim he had the largest number of votes “in Philippine history”; and Estrada apologists may claim he got such and such millions of votes, but what of the sixty percent, a far vaster number of voters, who felt Estrada did not deserve office? According to the different surveys conducted during Estrada’s presidency, he only made inroads into hostile territory to the extent of getting 10-20% of these people. What did prove remarkable, if memory serves me right, is that Estrada’s core constituency of 40% proved remarkably cohesive, staying with him through thick and thin. And yet one question failed to be addressed by the surveys: on opinion polls they sought the opinion of the general population, not of the actual voters; so one wonders if even the figures of those who remained loyal to Estrada can be relied upon. Of the Philippine presidents who won by pluralities, Estrada’s 40% was lower than Carlos P. Garcia’s in 1961 and only slightly higher than Fidel Ramos’s in 1992; his victory was historically significant in that, as I’ve argued before, it represented the bankruptcy of the middle forces that had lorded it over the political scene since 1986. Estrada’s victory was a victory for populism, a victory for Marcos loyalists, a victory of the strange union of the intelligentsia and traditional political operators, a victory of the metropolitan center against the forces of provincialism; but it was a victory that did not represent an absolute defeat for anyone except, again, I’d argue, Fidel Ramos and Lakas-NUCD.

Even if one plays by the numbers game of the Estrada camp, what do the numbers mean? 11 million voted for Estrada; let me presume that of that 11 million 3 million showed up at the height of Edsa III, the May 2001 revolt. the fact is that the 3 million represents slightly less than a quarter of Estrada’s constituency, which means that from June 1998 to May 2001, Estrada lost at least two thirds if not three fourths of his genuine constituency. What is worse, is that when those people were most needed the Estrada loyalists were not to be found. For a political leader, what matters is not just the number who vote for you, but who stick it out with you. Which is why presidents in the past tend to treat particular elections or issues as plebiscites, to reinforce and reemphasize their continuing mandate. From December to January 2001, the mandate of Estrada evaporated even as those opposed to him all along coalesced by commission or omission the majority of Filipinos who had decided to wait things out eventually decided to actively oppose Estrada or, by not doing anything, gave their tacit consent to those moving to either get Estrada to resign or evict him from the Palace altogether.

Eleven million who voted in 1998 versus 1 million who marched in 2001 versus 3 million that marched again to try to restore the 1998 status quo — the numbers only serve, upon closer scrutiny, to prove the bankruptcy of the Estrada cause, even as the numbers themselves serve as a damning condemnation of the anti-Estrada opposition. No one came out of Edsa II with his or her prestige enhanced except the country; every institution touched by Edsa II was tarnished. Bar none. The mainstream political opposition was hampered by the fact that Lakas-NUCD was considered every bit as disgusting as Estrada’s mafia; other oppositionists such as Raul Roco were tarred with the label of unbridled ambition that people mistrust; the Left seized the day and made hay out of political sunshine, but it is well to remember, despite the after fact triumphalism of the Left, that not until the senators voted against the opening of the 2nd envelope did the public overwhelmingly support their calls for mass action.

It was spontaneous combustion that saved the day for the opposition, it was spontaneous combustion that pushed Estrada against the wall, put the military in a tight spot, reinvigorated the Left, energized the politicians, saved the Church from looking silly in the pulpit. The rush of indignant people to the ranks of the anti-Estrada forces, and the fact that those who voted with their feet were mainly young people, with the implicit support of their parents, that has led to every group being able to claim credit for the removal of Estrada.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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