Polls Expectations

The elections are just weeks away—May 9—and the political landscape is shifting in all sorts of interesting ways. On a recent visit to Manila, I made the following quick notes:

1. Most polls show that Davao Mayor, Rodrigo Duterte and Senator Grace Poe statistically tied. Unlike Donald Trump who has been under relentless pressure from his own party, Duterte seems capable of doing no wrong, at least among his rabid followers. Every sexist remark—such as his recent jokes on rape for which he refuses to apologize--every proto-fascist pronouncement of killing and eating the heart of so-called criminals, every vulgarity directed at opponents and every convoluted and contradictory policy pronouncement—whether on agriculture, crime, women’s rights, gay marriage or the West Philippine Sea dispute with China--seems only to increase his popularity and his press coverage. What’s surprising is his hold among the upper and middle classes—the so-called “A, B, and C” classes--who seem to be buying into the delusion of a kind of benevolent patriarch and dictator as the solution to the country’s ills. For example, stickers in the Southern Tagalog region are popping up saying “Duterte: Utak na may bayag, bayag na may utak” (Brains with balls, balls with brains). An intense social media campaign, the moneyed support of Davao businessmen and, it’s been rumored, millions given by Alan Peter Cayetano, his vice presidential candidate, along with money from Bongbong Marcos (who Duterte has praised), have further propelled his candidacy. Finally, he’s also made no secret of his sympathies for the Communist left, allowing the NPA to operate openly in Davao and collect their “revolutionary taxes.” He has also promised at least three cabinet positions to members of the Communist Party should he win.

Polls, however, can be deceiving. In the 2010 elections, billionaire developer Manny Villar was ahead in all the polls, only to fall to PNoy on Election Day. As of this writing, Duterte has been widely criticized for his outrageous jokes about an Australian rape victim that seems to excuse and encourage rape culture, which may well affect his standing in the polls.

 Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and running mate Senator Alan Peter Cayetano (Photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler.com)

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and running mate Senator Alan Peter Cayetano (Photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler.com)

2. Grace Poe began the campaign season beleaguered but well positioned. Initially leading in the polls, she has gone back and forth, leading, then behind, then tied with Duterte. The good news for Poe is that the Supreme Court has ruled in her favor, albeit by a slim majority, allowing her to run for office after setting aside several cases that had been filed to disqualify her from doing so. She’s been dogged by questions about her citizenship. Some claimed that she did not meet the residency requirements for someone who had been a former US citizen; others claimed that she was not a natural-born citizen, having been a foundling adopted by her movie star parents. The bad news for Poe: her husband’s allegiance to the Philippines has come under renewed scrutiny. Neil Llamanzares has not yet given up his US citizenship, and recent reports purport that as a former sergeant in the US Air Force, he also worked for Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC), the largest contractor for the CIA, the NSA and the Department of Defense to spy on the Philippines between 2004-2006. How true are these reports? Are they rumors, or do they raise red flags? No one has vetted these reports and Poe’s camp has not yet responded, as of this writing. Finally, Grace Poe enjoys the support of one of the staunchest Marcos cronies, Danding Cojuanco, and so, too, billionaires like Ramon Ang and Ricky Razon. They have been pumping money into her campaign, and questions have arisen as to how this might compromise her policies were she to win.

 Senator Grace Poe with running mate Senator Chiz Escudero (Photo by AFP/The Straits Times)

Senator Grace Poe with running mate Senator Chiz Escudero (Photo by AFP/The Straits Times)

3. Vice-President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay’s campaign has been fading fast. At this time last year, everyone thought that the presidency was his to lose, and he has clearly come close to doing just that. He has failed to defend himself convincingly in the face of intense investigations into his unexplained wealth in the Senate. The press has cast doubt on his rags-to-riches story to suggest instead that he is incurably corrupt. He’s also the head of a large political dynasty, as nearly every member of his immediate family is in political office. Earlier, he had claimed credit for the development of Makati, but most of his claims have been proved to be exaggerated if not outright falsehoods. Binay’s dimming prospects show how a combination of relentless Senate trials, social media campaigns and sub-par debate performances can counter even the most efficient political machinery in the country. It does not help that Binay is also perceived to be a kind of Manchurian candidate who enjoys the support of the Chinese, as indicated by his willingness to negotiate control of the islands in the West Philippine Sea. My favorite rumor--that Binay will win big once the Chinese pump enough money to buy votes and hack the Venezuelan-made voting machines.

 Vice President Jejomar Binay and running mate Senator Gringo Honasan (Source: Jejomar Binay's facebook page)

Vice President Jejomar Binay and running mate Senator Gringo Honasan (Source: Jejomar Binay's facebook page)

4. Contending for third place with Binay is Manuel “Mar” Roxas whose campaign has been seeking, and failing, to gain traction. Positioning himself as Mr. Daang Matuwid, Roxas has promised continuity with the programs of the current administration, where he has served as Secretary of the highly influential and powerful DILG (Department of Interior and Local Government). Although seen by his supporters as the most competent, level-headed and trustworthy candidate, Roxas suffers from several problems, both real and imagined. He’s seen widely—and perhaps unfairly--to have mis-handled several high-profile disasters in the last few years: the MNLF uprising in Zamboanga; the response to Yolanda/Haiyan at Leyte; mind-numbing, spirit-sucking traffic problems in the country’s major cities, including the hell-on-Earth known as the light rail system and the various rackets and schemes in Manila’s main airport terminal. Roxas is also regarded, rightly or wrongly, as an unfeeling technocrat, an Ivy League-educated former investment banker brought up in lap of luxury, who is more at ease giving orders than he is listening to and sympathizing with the masses. He is also married to Korina Sanchez, the well-known but widely despised newscaster of TV Patrol.

 Secretary Mar Roxas and running mate Congresswoman Leni Robredo (Camarines Sur, 3rd District) (Photo by Julliane Love De Jesus/Inquirer.net)

Secretary Mar Roxas and running mate Congresswoman Leni Robredo (Camarines Sur, 3rd District) (Photo by Julliane Love De Jesus/Inquirer.net)

5. Finally, there is Miriam Defensor-Santiago, brilliant, caustic and at one point a highly popular senator who almost won the presidency in 1992 against Marcos cousin and EDSA hero, Fidel V. Ramos. Her candidacy is most likely a token gesture designed to allow Bongbong Marcos to find a running mate in his quest for the vice-presidency. Stricken with stage-four lung cancer, Miriam claims to have recovered though that is doubtful. She is rarely seen on the campaign trail and has skipped out of two of the presidential debates. Polling at around 2-3 percent, she is almost at this point an afterthought.

 Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago with running mate Senator Bongbong Marcos (Photo by Niño Jesus Orbeta/Inquirer.net)

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago with running mate Senator Bongbong Marcos (Photo by Niño Jesus Orbeta/Inquirer.net)

6. As important as the presidential races are, the vice-presidential campaigns have been even more closely contested. Given the post-EDSA history of unseating at least one president, there is real fear that whoever is elected president may not, for a whole set of reasons, serve out his or her entire term. Or even if the new president did, the vice-president, elected separately from the president, has historically served as a kind of shadow chief executive, using the position to build up resources and shore up his following to capture the presidency in the next round of elections. In short, the next vice-president may well be the real or next president of the country.

As of this writing, Leni Robredo is slightly ahead in the polls. She is a congresswoman from Bicol and widow of the late and lamented cabinet secretary Jesse Robredo. Little known outside of her province, Robredo has lately come into her own with an outstanding performance in the vice-presidential debates. She combines a keen political intelligence with personal humility—choosing to take the bus, for instance, to commute home—and comes across as the only one with any kind of integrity. By contrast, Bongbong Marcos, who has been a close second in the polls, is arrogant and unrepentant, refusing to acknowledge, much less apologize, for the massive plunder and horrific violence of his father and mother’s regime. He continues to peddle the lie that the Marcos years were the best of times and had the EDSA uprising not happened, the Philippines would be well on its way to being another Singapore. The other VP candidates—Senator Chiz Escudero, son of another Marcos crony, whose voice resembles that of a cartoon character; Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, the anxious Robin to Duterte’s crime-busting Batman; former coup plotter and political know-nothing Gringo Honasan; and another coup plotter and Binay nemesis, Antonio Trillanes—have had less success in countering Bongbong, if not feeding into his ambitions. Only Robredo has actually stood up to him, demanding not just an apology, but the return of the stolen billions and at one point suggesting that he should be barred from office for being complicit in his father’s regime. Her courage has put her in good stead and it may well be one of the reasons why she is now ahead in the polls.

It is important to point out that there are also a number of senatorial and congressional positions at stake. In the case of the senatorial races, the usual celebrities and incumbents seem to hold sway, from Tito Sotto, the ruling chief of AlDub Nation, to Manny “gays-are-worse-than-animals” Pacqiuao, both of whom are polling very high thanks to constant TV exposure. Akbayan party list candidate, Risa Hontiveros seems on track to win one of the eight spots after having lost twice before; the other lefty candidate, Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna is within spitting distance of the (un)hateful eight, while well-known incumbents and former senators are likely to win, thanks to their money and machinery: Senators Frank Drilon; Sergio Osmeña III; Ralph Recto; Teofisto Guingona III; former Senators Ping Lacson, Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, Dick Gordon, Migz Zubiri; along with former Department of Justice head, Leila de Lima. The lone independent, Walden Bello, who enjoys some support in social media, seems to be struggling in the polls.

There are also local elections with hundreds of other positions up for grabs, from governors to mayors to board members. Given the general trend to devolve budgeting and political decision-making down to the local levels, and the never-ending bane of political dynasties, these local races are well worth watching for how they would either promote or stunt national policies; but that would entail a lot more time and resources to detail, which perhaps others can better muster. 


 Vicente L. Rafael

Vicente L. Rafael

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle. His most recent book is "Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation" (Duke University Press, 2016).