Public Lives

Voting independently of the surveys

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Preelection surveys do often take the form of self-fulfilling oracles. This happens when voters find the published results so compelling as to make them vote according to the predictions. The opposite, of course, can happen. Voters may react to survey results in such a way as to be motivated to prevent them from being realized in the elections. I would say that, in general, for all the lip service we pay to underdogs, our political culture tends to blindly favor winners and junk losers.

The best way to treat survey results is to view them as nothing more than portraits of public opinion at any given time. One may agree with the majority opinion or reject it. It is not necessarily superior to our own just because it is the opinion of the many. A conscientious voter would not allow the choices of others to determine his own, particularly if he does not know how these choices were arrived at.

But it is one thing to admonish voters not to be swayed by surveys. It is quite another to persuade supporters and financiers to keep faith with those who lag behind in the surveys.  This is never easy. In the final stages of a campaign, the natural inclination of parties and coalitions is to pour their remaining limited resources on candidates who have a fighting chance, as determined by the surveys.

Knowing how modern elections have turned into a battle for costly airtime, party operatives and electoral financiers usually decide to bet on their strongest candidates who might still make it to the winning circle. In the process, they leave the others to fend for themselves, though they may be superior to the “winners” in every other way.

It is a cruel game. Three weeks before the actual elections, a candidate is effectively pronounced a loser by modern prophets who interpret the will of the people ahead of the real voting. This makes surveys the self-fulfilling prophecies they should not be, and were not meant to be.

In contrast, everyone becomes interested in ensuring the victory of the survey frontrunners. This is the time for businessmen to buy extra goodwill by pouring additional funds into the campaign of the very people who least need help. More funds come the latter’s way for no better reason than because they are “sure winners”—again, as told by the surveys.  The extra funds allow them to purchase more television time and buy firmer assurances from the local operatives who determine whose name gets included in the sample ballots.

But help comes not just in the form of funds.  Some churches that pride themselves in being able to deliver solid votes that spell the difference between winning and losing are known to do their own surveys. From among those that actively court their support (and that’s usually every candidate), they pick their choices not on the basis of where candidates stand on issues, or how they measure up to moral requisites, but solely on grounds of “winnability.”  Everyone plays politics, but this is the “segurista” type of politics—a politics of opportunity rather than of principle.

This does not happen in societies where party affiliations are strong. Our system makes party affiliations almost irrelevant. Though they may campaign together, Filipino politicians, in practice, learn not to rely too much on what their parties can offer. For, in the end, what is at stake is not the party’s program or platform of government, but the fortunes of individual politicians. Accordingly, everyone has to find his own campaign resources, negotiate his own personal deals at the local level, and, in the worst of times, fall back on the steady support of family and friends to get the campaign going, especially in the last stretch of the campaign.

This accounts for why families have remained the main fulcrum of our political system. When a family has been in politics for some time, it is expected to have a stable network of loyal supporters bound by reciprocal ties of dependence and patronage. This network is as valuable to a politician as a loyal customer base is to a business entity. An influential political family does not maintain such a network or mobilize it just for the benefit of anybody. One needs to be a member or a close associate of the family to become worthy of its support.

It is difficult to say whether political families perform the functions of political parties because of the absence of a stable party system, or whether a strong party system has failed to evolve because of the enduring influence of the kin group in our society. I think both are true to the extent that they reflect the reality of a premodern society that is desperately trying to make its inherited modern institutions work.

We had a strong two-party system before martial law. Politics was very much the preserve of professionals, mostly lawyers explicitly trained to become part of the governing class. They were by no means free from the influences of the wealthy and the landed. But they did not mix family and politics into one undifferentiated brew. No one could assert the right to be a candidate by the sheer force of kinship, or celebrity status. One had to go through the complex vetting process of the party to be able to run for public office.

The Marcos dictatorship dismantled this system. By the time formal democracy was restored in 1986, the old parties had lost their prestige and legitimacy. Politics became more personality-oriented, and more receptive to celebrities and moneyed individuals. In this free-for-all atmosphere, survey firms have taken the place of political parties as arbiters of worthy candidacies.

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