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The true test of a Catholic vote

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I see that Brother Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai Catholic charismatic renewal movement is up to his favorite old trick again: preaching to the converted. With the usual fanfare, he named the first six senatorial candidates endorsed by the so-called White Vote, a bloc of Catholic Church-affiliated organizations, at a prayer assembly last Saturday. It is no coincidence that five of the six are doing well in the surveys.

JV Ejercito, Koko Pimentel, Cynthia Villar, Antonio Trillanes and Gringo Honasan rank among the Top 9 in the latest available Social Weather Stations survey; only Mitos Magsaysay is—as of that mid-March survey—statistically still outside the probable winners’ circle.

In other words, even without Velarde’s White Vote, five of the six candidates stand a good chance of winning a Senate seat. By a kind of political alchemy, many of these candidates will feel a sense of gratitude, perhaps even a sense of obligation, to Velarde for the endorsement—even if in fact they did not need it. It will be 1998 all over again.

That election year, Velarde famously endorsed Erap Estrada for president. He invited the popular actor and incumbent vice president to come over, told him to use a special phrase in his remarks—“Tiyak ’yon!,” meaning “That’s for certain” or “That’s guaranteed,” as in God’s promises—and then watched as the prayer assembly went wild. Estrada went on to win with 39.59 percent of the votes cast, with a vote total more than twice that of the nearest challenger.

But as I argued in 2001, in “The myth of the El Shaddai vote,” the first op-ed piece I ever wrote for the Inquirer, Estrada was actually on home turf:

“If the surveys tracking Estrada’s candidacy and his performance in office were right, the actor-turned-president enjoyed a solid core of support from about a third of the voting population. This core remained steady through time…. It would be fair to say that these supporters would have voted for him even without an El Shaddai endorsement. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many El Shaddai devotees already formed part of his regular constituency.”

The simplest way I could think of to test the effect of a Velarde endorsement was to consider the election results for his vice presidential choice. “Among the nine candidates, it was Francisco Tatad who ended up saying ‘Tiyak ’yon!’ But the Opus Dei stalwart, who in the Ramos years carried the fight against what the Catholic Church calls the contraceptive mentality, ended up a distant fifth. Only 748,830 voters chose him as their vice president, a woeful 2.86 percent of the votes cast for that office. One needs to multiply this number 17 times, to approximate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s winning total of 12,979,328 votes.”

In other words, Velarde’s endorsement did virtually nothing for Tatad. The vice presidential candidate had been badly lagging behind in the surveys; even with the endorsement, he ended up badly lagging behind in the elections.

My conclusion: “A Brother Mike endorsement is the Dutch treat of Philippine politics. You can only get out of it what you bring into it. (The ability to think that somebody else paid for your food when you actually paid your own way requires remarkable powers of self-deception.)”

Like I said: alchemy.

* * *

That the six candidates Velarde endorsed are the same first six names, out of nine, listed in the controversial “Team Buhay” tarp outside the Bacolod cathedral looks to me to be a deliberate decision. That the ones left out from that list are the three nonprominent candidates of Ang Kapatiran (AngKap), who may or may not be included in a second announcement, seems to me to be characteristic.

Characteristically pragmatic of Velarde, that is.

Of the nine Team Buhay candidates, JC de los Reyes, Marwil Llasos and Rizalito David need the most help. If a Velarde endorsement is worth anything, it should have been used to promote the AngKap candidates—right away, right now, with less than a month left before the elections. That they may or may not be included in a second announcement, to be made three weeks or even less before election day, undermines the very concept of an endorsement.

But when it comes to political endorsements, Velarde does not in fact act like a religious leader. (As the Inquirer noted in yesterday’s editorial, many of the White Vote Six do not meet Archbishop Soc Villegas’ stringent criteria.) Instead, he acts as a political player himself, with his own party-list groups and political interests to look after. Hence the pragmatic anointing of five almost-sure winners, whose aura of victory he can be certain to share in. “Tiyak ’yon.”

* * *

Is there a Catholic vote? If what we mean by that contentious phrase is a disciplined bloc of like-minded voters that will give a national candidate an outright victory—which is how most commentators seem to understand the term—then, no, there is no Catholic vote. (As the two Edsas remind us, there may be a Catholic veto: contingent, combustible, real. But that’s another column.)

If what we mean by the Catholic vote, however, is a disciplined bloc of like-minded voters that will give a national candidate a sizable number of votes—a few million votes, perhaps, comparable to the Iglesia ni Cristo’s numbers, and thus capable of shaping an election—then maybe there is one.

The true test of a Catholic vote, then, which the White Vote or an alternative parish-based lay initiative may or may not heed, lies in the number of votes expressly Catholic but obscure candidates like Lito David of AngKap can win. In 2010, half a million voted for him. If he or De los Reyes or Llasos can improve to approximate Alex Lacson’s 5.2 million votes three years ago, those extra votes may well shape elections yet to come.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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