Amando Doronila is currently a visiting fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra. Having just returned from a visit to the Philippines, he gave an election update to a seminar at the ANU on 16 june 2004. Doronila’s insights of the currents of Philippine political tendencies were described last year by President Arroyo as “street smart and yet scholarly”.
With a post-mortem from a leading member of Poe's media bureau, I learned that Poe ran a campaign based mainly on charisma and the seemingly unshakeable belief of the opposition camp that his movie based popularity would carry him to a soft landing at the presidential palace. The charisma-driven campaign drew on a model from the successful presidential campaign of Poe's best friend in the film world, Joseph Estrada who won the 1998 presidency with a smashing 40 percent majority. Like Estrada, Poe is a second year high school drop-out. His meagre education qualifications became a sharp focus of criticism.
Estrada's model was of little help to Poe. Estrada's background of public service compensated for his modest educational assets. Poe has absolutely no previous public service experience. Estrada was a successful mayor of San Juan municipality, and went on to become a senator before being elected Vice President in 1992, and then chairman of President Ramos' Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. Estrada was outspoken in being a champion of the poor and projected himself as the "man of the masses," his basic populist constituency. Poe and his backers believed that Estrada's pro-poll mantle would fall on Poe.
However, identification with Estrada proved damaging to Poe. The comparison with Estrada's controversial record in the presidency, marred by impeachment and later trial on corruption and plunder charges, reminded many voters of Estrada's failings and reinforced criticism that Poe would repeat the incompetence of the Estrada administration.
According to insiders in Poe's media bureau, the KNP 1 coalition campaign was in disarray, deeply riven by disunity. There were two sets of campaign managers, one representing the heads of the three parties comprising the KNP coalition, and another with a direct line to Poe himself. The division was accented by the open split between Poe and rival opposition candidate Senator Lacson. Despite unity talks, the public split was so deep it was not bridged until election day and made a mockery of their campaign theme that the KNP was a party that stood for national unity. The fracture splintered the opposition votes.
Poe had an aversion to engage in public debates over his platform and policy, saying that debate was "divisive". Many times the media bureau urged him to go public, revealing and explaining his policy positions beyond the bland declaration that his platform was to provide breakfast, lunch and supper to the table of the poor. He was asked to undergo a mock press briefing in preparation for press conferences that would require explanation of his plans. The media bureau prepared 100 questions, including nasty ones. He never got around to it. During the three-month campaign he held no more than three brief press conferences notable for one-liners lifted from his popular movie roles.
The only time he talked about anything serious was a disaster. He mentioned "debt structuring," immediately rattling the business community which reacted to it as a "bad word" and interpreted it as debt repudiation. The governor of the Central Bank was prompted to calm the jittery business community with assurances that the country would honour its international credit commitments.
More damaging to Poe was that he engaged reporters covering his campaign in a running battle over reporting techniques that annoyed him. The media bureau official said, "it is not enough to have charisma, one has to explain what he has to offer in terms of programs." The charisma-based campaign, with "change" as its catch-word, faltered on Poe's failure to explain how he would be the agent of change and on lack of recognition that the 2004 campaign was being fought on public battleground different from that in 1998.
The opposition campaign grossly underestimated the change of voters' mood. According to a study 2 conducted by the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform on voters' behaviour, the Ateneo de Manila's Institute on Church and Social Issues (ICSI) concluded that today's voters "demand convincing proof of the candidate's capability and willingness to help them solve their problems. Thus, unlike in the 1998 elections where people voted for a candidate on the basis of his or her popularity, voters in 2004 put more weight on the so-called 'benefit factor'. They demanded a straight and honest answer to their question, Paano mo ako mapagsisilbihan? How will you serve me?" This question flowed from the masses' experience with Estrada whose populist rhetoric failed to produce concrete programs that lifted the poor from poverty. The ICSI said that "the failure of previous governments to deliver programs in response to this question has made the people cynical."
Poe's aversion to debate sprang from the view among his campaign advisers that, considering his inarticulateness in explaining complex issues, it was unwise to be trapped in a debate where his shortcomings might be exposed. The argument is that if one does not know anything, it is better to keep quiet. The more you talked, the more your ignorance will be exposed.
Moreover, Poe did not appreciate the importance of party mobilization. The KNP coalition was relatively weaker than the K-4 party machine 3 which was carefully built by Arroyo and her political leaders on the Lakas-CMD party and the Liberal Party whose infrastructure reached down to the local levels.
Contrary to the widely taken-for-granted belief that issues did not matter in 2004, the Arroyo campaign rode on the back of issues and programs out of necessity. Arroyo did not fall into the trap of fighting Poe in the charisma game, where she would easily lose. Poe wanted crowds to show proof of his popularity and reinforce the assumption that he was invincible. According to insiders in the Arroyo strategy group, her sorties in the provinces targeted small gatherings and local leaders, the real building blocks of the administration's party machine, where she could explain her programs and concrete efforts to implement them. By contrast, according to Poe's media bureau official, Poe would capriciously cancel appearances in his nationwide sortie if they did not bring large crowds.
Another marked contrast in strategy is that Arroyo planned on the worst case scenario, Poe on the best case assumption. By April, when Arroyo and Poe were tied, the KNP coalition was not only divided by internal squabbling, they were running out of funds. When campaign contributions stopped flowing, it was a sign the donors had begun to sense Poe's vulnerability and the improvement of Arroyo's chances of winning.
When the opposition was at the stage of sensing trouble, they began to look for an explanation for possible defeat, warning of unrest if they were cheated. Normally, in politics, the first symptom of impending defeat is the charge of election cheating before the voters have even gone to the polling stations.
In a paper 4 released after the election, the New York based Council on Foreign Relations warned that whatever the outcome of the polls, the winner will have little time to lose in addressing a number of serious challenges on several fronts: "long-term economic viability and social stability; competitiveness in the global economy; internal security; and ability to defend itself against growing transnational threats."
"The Philippines is not failing, but it is flailing. The most serious problems facing it today are some of the oldest: profound discrepancies in income and economic development within the country; endemic graft; and a minority population that has never been fully integrated into the broader society and economy. Some more recent problems, such as a daunting budget deficit, are equally difficult. These problems cannot be solved overnight, but a strong, clear national plan can improve the fiscal and security situations in the short term."