Popularity should not be enough

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

A candidate’s winnability cannot be anchored on his/her popularity as a public figure. It takes a combination of many factors to win the trust and confidence of our voters. But the first step is to create a strong connection with the electorate.

One major challenge for the candidate is to align his/her campaign messages to what the voters are aspiring for.

In 2016, then “Candidate Digong” was able to articulate the people’s sense of desperation and exasperation, which found embodiment in his very strong anticorruption and anti-illegal drugs message. Having been a local chief executive for more than two decades, President Duterte was perceived by people as a credible champion of populist politics. Through this, he earned their trust and respect, and was able to develop a deep connection with the masses.

In December 2018, Social Weather Stations (SWS) conducted a survey to determine the qualities that voters are looking for in senatorial candidates.

Forty-two percent of Filipinos said they wanted propoor senatorial aspirants. Out of this number, 22 percent preferred those who help the poor, and 20 percent those who help people in need. Though cited separately in the survey, desirable characteristics in candidates, such as having a compassionate and caring attitude toward the needy and marginalized, were also mentioned.

A quarter (25 percent) of Filipino voters, meanwhile, wanted a candidate who will not be corrupt, while 21 percent preferred those with good personal characteristics. Another 21 percent liked trustworthy candidates. Respondents mentioned generous, responsible and fair as among the good characteristics they were looking for. On the other hand, 14 percent were impressed with candidates who were able to fulfill campaign promises.

Interestingly, only 3 percent of the SWS respondents said they liked candidates who were bright or intelligent, and only 2 percent preferred those with plans for growth or vision for the country. Educational and professional background appeared to be given not much vital consideration.

These findings suggest that most voters want empathy and action to address their needs.

The candidates cannot rely merely on popularity or charisma; they need to exude characteristics that will make them stand out against their competitors. In other words, the overall character or persona of the senatorial aspirant matters. To voters, this relates directly to the performance of their duties and functions when they assume office.

We can also infer that most voters are inclined to be more emotional rather than rational. Specifically, Filipinos are looking for propoor, honest, compassionate and trustworthy candidates. Unfortunately, these qualities can be broad and abstract. In fact, anybody can claim or pretend to possess these traits.

Having these qualities in mind, senatorial candidates are bound to portray themselves as having a sincere and realistic propoor and anticorruption stance. Reelectionists, or former public officials, have the upper hand, because they can use their past accomplishments as senators or as public officials to highlight their “propoor” programs.

We expect our senatorial candidates to be truthful and sincere about their campaign agenda when they win. The bigger task, then, is how to transform their populist promises into actual institutional reforms, and not let them remain as mere political rhetoric after the elections.

On the other hand, the electorate should be keener and more cautious when it comes to choosing the right candidates, because they may end up seduced by the loud but empty sloganeering of many of our populist candidates. Continuing voter education and civic participation are essential to democratizing our electoral contests and reforming our political system.

It entails political maturity and critical discernment among voters to choose the right candidates that truly embody the leadership qualities they aspire for in their leaders. Let us hope that more voters will be empowered to support candidates who are propoor, trustworthy and incorruptible.

For the sake of this country’s future, elections should not be won by mere popularity.


This article was originally published in INQUIRER.net.

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