A reality check for the political opposition
Pulse Asia’s recent survey on senatorial preferences, conducted Sept. 1-7, some eight months before the midterm elections, shows that the Senate race is still very much the Duterte administration’s to lose.
Despite the continuing drop in President Duterte’s ratings over three quarters, the electoral situation is reminiscent, not of 2007, when opposition names dominated the list of senatorial preferences, but of 2013, when administration-friendly faces topped the list. And despite the unmistakable public anger over rising prices and worsening conditions, the Senate election math is still stacked against the opposition.
To be sure, the latest survey — like any other scientific poll — is only a snapshot of public opinion at a particular time. If the President’s ratings continue to drop, perhaps the polling fortunes of opposition candidates will see a spike.
But the reality is: Despite the chatter on Twitter and increasingly also on Facebook, the opposition remains very much the underdogs. Social media will continue to be a major source of image-shaping information; it will continue to be a cost-effective medium, especially for creating “buzz” that news organizations will find reason to cover; it will continue to serve as a resource for recruiting volunteers. But it will not decide the Senate elections; how can it, when the country’s internet penetration rate is still below 60 percent?
The old reliables remain the same: radio exposure, TV ads, on-the-ground hustle, TV news reports.
The comparable Pulse Asia survey in the 2007 election cycle — conducted from June 24 to July 8, 2006, with the results on senatorial preferences released on Sept. 1— was proof of President Gloria Arroyo’s post-Garci crisis of legitimacy. Of the 20 political personalities with a statistical chance of winning a Senate seat, only five were Arroyo allies. The actual vote was a debacle for the Arroyo administration: Only two of her allies won; the rest of the winners consisted of eight opposition and two independent candidates.
The comparable Pulse Asia survey in the 2013 cycle— conducted from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7, 2012—reflected the popularity of the incumbent president, Noynoy Aquino. Nine of the 15 personalities with a statistical chance of winning were identified with the administration. In the end, nine “Team PNoy” candidates won, vs three opposition candidates.
I should note that the 2007 Senate race consolidated the hold on the country’s political imagination of the two articulate spokesmen of the late actor and presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr.: Chiz Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano. It also made a star out of Sonny Trillanes, who was not even included in the June 24-July 8, 2006, poll. In 2013, the breakout candidate was Grace Poe; in the Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2012, survey, she ranked 19th, well out of the projected winners’ circle. She ended up topping the Senate race and becoming the first and only politician to win 20 million votes.
What these four had in common was precious political capital: public awareness. In the 2006 poll, Escudero already had an awareness rating of 93 percent; Cayetano started with 67 percent. The next Pulse Asia survey, conducted from Oct. 21 to Nov. 8, 2006, was the first to include Trillanes in the list; he ranked 51st — but had an awareness rating of 63 percent. Poe, in the 2012 survey referred to, started with 74 percent.
This basic fact is sobering news for some of the opposition’s most qualified prospective candidates in 2019: The likes of Erin Tañada, Chel Diokno, Barry Gutierrez, and Florin Hilbay have awareness ratings at 35 percent or below.
They can take heart from two facts: First, Vice President Leni Robredo’s initial standing, measured in the May 30-June 5, 2015, survey, about a year before the elections. Only 1 percent of survey respondents said they would vote for her. (I don’t have comparative data on public awareness ratings.) Second, a presidential or a vice presidential election is entirely different from a Senate race, because a voter in effect votes, not once, but 12 times.
They, and the rest of the opposition, can also make a wager, that a campaign directed against President Duterte’s excesses is not only what the nation needs; it is, counterintuitively perhaps, the one kind of campaign that will land them in the Senate. Unlike Aquino at the midpoint, President Duterte’s (still-considerable) popularity has been damaged by his policies (the killings, the kowtowing to China, the killjoy that is runaway inflation).
The opposition should also consider broadening its base, to include reform-minded reelectionist senators nominally with the majority, and personable and proven nationalists like Neri Colmenares. His 57-percent awareness rating is something to build on.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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