The Long View: A campaign of attrition

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.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

9 thoughts on “The Long View: A campaign of attrition

  1. I think early on, the name of the game was defining a narrative for the campaign. Aquino and Villar were both playing to their strengths. Aquino had the legacy of honest government on his side and thus employed a good v evil narrative. While Villar had a record of leading both houses of congress and his life story to sell.

    The middle part of the campaign was all about bridging two gaps. There was the competency gap for Aquino, and the credibility gap for Villar. Taken on his own merits, Aquino seemed like a weak candidate, but given the strategy he took in selectively choosing the more reform-minded defectors rather than the transactional ones (who went to Villar), he has been able to build a balanced yet formidable team, while Villar simply tried to evade questions regarding his claims.

    As a result, approaching the tailend of the campaign, Aquino is ahead having bridged the competency gap, while Villar’s climb became unsustainable given his inability to bridge the credibility gap. It is beginning to dawn on the electorate now just who is more deserving at this point to take on the reins of power in Malacanang.

  2. Cusp,

    good insight on the competency vs. credibility gap. At the end of the day, credibility is the decisive factor.

  3. Dreams have a way of becoming reality without you knowing it. We all have heard the cautionary line of being careful in our wishing. Now that we seem to be very close to getting our wish, we need to consider if we had been careful enough in getting it.

    Hindus have long known this as karma: we all get what we try to get. Sometimes though, we are lost in a forest of unintended consequences that we forget that we embarked on the journey for the journey’s sake. We can never get back to the beginning and retrace our steps. We are where we need to be, whether we like it or not.

    Cynicism then is the often irrepressible feeling of being cheated of our due, whatever that means. And so the cynic stops dreaming, confusing realism with a narrow view of man’s predicament in a complex, often unpredictable world.

    We must continue to dream: dream-making is indispensable if we are to come together as a people and transform into reality our promise as a nation.

  4. From what I gather, Erap is the only presidential candidate gathering momentum. It may be too late to surpass Aquino, but he can surpass Villar. Given more time, Erap would be even able to surpass Aquino. Which only shows what a lousy set of presidential candidates we have. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.

    While I do agree that we should dream of what can be, there has to be some basis for dreaming. Otherwise, it would only be wishful thinking. We need to be inspired, as well, in order to persevere in our quest for our dreams. Pardon me, but there isn’t anyone who imparts inspiration. Unless one would attribute that to Erap’s still rather tenacious hold on the “masa”.

  5. doesn’t impart inspiration to whom? among the features of this cmpaign is that far fewer are undecided than compared to past presidential elections. that’s one reason the movement isn’t that dramatic anymore. and as for those who’ve been fired up as a result, as Malou Tiquia points out, what the percentages suggest is if elections had been held last week (from her presentation):
    AQUINO – 17.9M
    VILLAR – 12.1M
    ESTRADA – 9.2M
    TEODORO – 2.9M
    GORDON – 1.4M

    large constituencies for each.

  6. Manolo, I don’t think that’s an indication of an inspired campaign. There are lots of factors to reckon for that, possibly including more extensive, and more intense, media coverage.

    And by the way, it may be worth noting that the speakership of the house of representatives seems to be jinxed. Mitra, De Venecia and now, Villar, suffer the curse of the speakership. Even Nograles seems to be cursed, now stuck in no-man’s land, with the prospects of a political career possibly in ruins. Could that be a caveat for GMA?

  7. depends on your default attitude towards the aquino candidacy i suppose. anyway, with regards to the speakership, it’s why even the speakers who sought the presidency embarked on the senate too, and why the senate presidency is more of a useful stepping stone to the presidency. i’ve discussed this and other house-related dynamics here and in some other articles. the president herself of course has an entirely different approach requiring the house as a wedge for whatever she wants later.

  8. My attitude towards the Aquino candidacy is one of skepticism. I see nothing there to inspire me. I don’t think that many people do, except for the blind followers.

    On the other hand, we don’t have a pack of thoroughbreds in this race. More like a bunch of nags. So, with all of his shortcomings, Aquino could be the one-eyed among the blind.

    Simply because a good number of people seem to have made up their mind is no indication of an inspired electorate. It may only betray a dearth of choices. I saw Malou Tiquia last night, and she said that the situation is far from being cast in stone.

    Just the same, watch Erap. I think he will surprise a lot of people.

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