How elections should not be won

Edwin Santiago, Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Politically speaking, midterm elections act as a barometer for the popularity of the incumbent president, a referendum on his policies and programs. President Rodrigo Duterte seems to have taken a keen involvement in the senatorial race, and understandably so.

The president and the senators are both elected at large, making their constituents the same and making the perceived association between the ratings of the president and the chance of victory of his candidates higher and tighter.

By the end of 2018, based on the Pulse Asia Ulat ng Bayan survey, Duterte’s net approval rating improved to 74 percent compared to 65 percent the previous quarter. His net trust ratings have also improved by year end to 70 percent from 63 percent in the previous quarter, which translates to more Filipino adults trusting him and fewer distrusting him.

Similarly, Duterte’s net satisfaction rating improved to 59 percent by the end of 2018, compared to 54 percent in the previous quarter, based on the social weather survey results from the Social Weather Station.

Depending on which political and public relations lens you use, the ratings may or may not be something to crow about. As they currently stand, the net approval and trust ratings should make Duterte happy given the upward movement from the previous results.

On the other hand, these numbers may also mean that the president has lost some political capital, considering that his net approval and net trust ratings have not recovered to what they were at their highest, at 85 percent by the end of June 2018.

Undoubtedly, his defenders will quickly point out that the current levels still surpass the highest received by any of the past three presidents (Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino), except for Aquino’s first quarter, which registered a net approval rating of 76 percent, compared to Duterte’s current rating of 74 percent.

These numbers matter because they gauge the general mood of the country towards the president; they measure public opinion. But politicians and—more likely—their strategists and advisers look at these to determine which direction their relationship with the incumbent president should go.

Favorable ratings—whether approval, trust or satisfaction—should mean a continued association with the president from those who are exposed as allies. For the more seasoned politicians, the high ratings of the president signal that an unfettered alliance with the president must be forged visibly, loudly, and immediately. The president, on the other hand, should look at these numbers as his political capital that would allow him to exact support for his programs and agenda.

During an election year, this shrewd calculation matters even more. It would seem that for as long as the numbers are sustained—even better if improved—candidates, like opportunistic pathogens taking advantage of a depressed immune system, will mouth the presidential line in exchange for riding on the president’s coat tails.

In such cases, a presidential endorsement of their election bid is an assumed quid pro quo. After all, getting his allies elected speaks volumes about the president’s political skills.

Can the president’s popularity rub off on the candidates he endorses? The latest senatoriable survey results do not look very promising for his favored candidates. What gives? Are we finally witnessing signs of political maturity where voters are more discerning and circumspect than to readily support candidates merely on the basis of a presidential endorsement? If yes, there is hope after all.

However, we should be extra wary and cautious. Given that a presidential endorsement may have lost its punch, how do we expect the candidates to woo the voters? Perhaps, alongside the traditional guns, goons and gold, they are going to engage the voters using the same political approach used by Duterte—populism.

Duterte and Estrada were included among the world leaders named in the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change among the “Populists in Power: 1990-2018,” released in November 2018. Hardly an impressive distinction.

The underlying narrative of populism is “us” versus “them,” or the conflict between the “people” (us) and the “elite” (them). The term “people” can refer to a particular class, ethnicity, or nationality.

Populists normally work on the collective anxieties of the people. They raise divisive issues to rile up fear and loathing. Estrada’s pro-poor stance struck a responsive chord from the masses, playing on their apprehensions that their economic conditions would get worse or that they would remain poor forever.

He ascribed this economic quagmire to the system that perpetuates a cycle of poverty, portraying himself as an anti-establishment hero. And because the establishment cannot be trusted, a direct connection with the supporters is best, without the need for political parties, civil society groups or even the media.

Populists also promise fantastic solutions that are generally unfulfillable. Obviously, social conditions such as zero drugs, zero crime, and zero corruption belong to the realm of a perfect world.

But the use of these storylines is very effective especially during times when people watch, hear and read stories about their ubiquitous presence in our society. They continue to be potent in rallying people and making them elect candidates who project themselves as champions of these causes.

Populists elevate issues to the level of a national crisis—and, therefore, to a state of national urgency—allowing them to present themselves as the messiah—the answer to the crisis—who will provide strong leadership. To a large extent, this is what got Duterte elected.

According to the study, populists “dismantle democratic checks and balances and ruthlessly subjugate any opposition from the get-go.”

In the movie “The American President,” the forerunner to the popular political TV series “The West Wing,”  the fictional president, in response to the constant attacks from his reelection challenger, said “whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, (he) is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and, telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

And if we continue to allow ourselves to be charmed with utopian visions by candidates who play on our feelings of despair and offer themselves as the solution, then, in the long run, we are harming our democratic ideals and institutions severely and, perhaps, permanently.

For the country’s sake, the elections should not be won that way.



This article was originally published in Image from The STAR/Miguel de Guzman.

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