The May 2016 elections are looking to be different.
Unlike in the past where the choice was effectively between two, barring the disqualification of a number of candidates, today we have four contenders all of whom are competitive in some fashion.
For once in a long time, we are not in a crisis. On the contrary we are in a state of relative (if not absolute) calm. This time the issues are not defining like dictatorship vs. democracy or corruption vs. integrity, they are about toughness vs. blandness and ideology vs. expediency.
The terms of engagement shifted with the entry of Mayor Duterte in the race. He has singly altered the nature of the national discourse in the process consuming most of the political oxygen. He raises questions about the value of due process, about the sanctity of liberal ideals like innocent until proven guilty, principles which are at the core of what we have long held to be true. He is the political maverick who wants to upend the system and the people do not necessarily disagree with him (The Duterte phenomenon is in fact not particular to us. Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen in France are behaving similarly with success).
The dissatisfaction of voters with the status quo is ironic given the Administration’s strides in fighting corruption, in the economy, in Daang Matuwid. Despite being anointed the Chosen One, Mar Roxas is fourth in the polls. Despite his personal popularity, the impact of PNoy’s endorsement has been muted. What is the hidden national malaise that the Administration does not get?
One answer is the nation’s economic progress has not proportionately benefitted the poor. Thus it is interesting that PNoy & Co. score least well in Metro Manila even as it is here that the economy has “performed” best: Our last 6 years’ so called economic prosperity has been almost entirely an urban affair.
More to the point, our economic growth has been a “ 1% phenomenon” where only the rich have benefitted while burdening the poor with the costs of growth -urban congestion, pollution and displacement. The average man who spends one fourth of his waking hours commuting to work could not care less that his country is the darling of the investment community.
So what is the new electoral landscape?
One, with three of the four contenders considered honest, corruption is not the burning issue it once was. This has benefitted Binay who is happy to fly under the radar while he quietly does his thing.
Two, with corruption off the table, unbeknownst to the Liberal Party, its beloved Daang Matuwid has become dated as a political brand. Like a worn pair of jeans, it is still a staple in the political wardrobe but it is last season’s fashion. Voters do not want a hand-me-down vision, they want change. Mar badly needs an upgrade, a Daang Matuwid 2.0
Three, voters are looking for populist solutions. The Administration has erred by refusing to endorse an income tax cut. It argues this will reduce revenues by P27 billion (less than 1% of the budget) while forgetting it will stimulate consumption and VAT as well encouraging more compliance. In a tight race it is issues like these that could spell the difference.
Four, the challenge is to be the toughest candidate in the group. So we have a farcical situation where Duterte cannot say enough about how many people he has murdered while LP Speaker Belmonte challenges him to name names. Meanwhile Mar and Digong are contesting who gets to slap whom. Excuse me, sirs, is there an adult in the room?
Five, voters are not passionate about any candidate or issue. Even the disqualification cases against leading contenders Poe and Duterte have surprisingly failed to generate a groundswell among their supporters. Nobody has taken to the streets. Knowing this, those who have the power to bully candidates have done so without fear of a public backlash.It also means the presidential outcome could hinge on a few key plays.
Lastly, the national conversation has become a race to the bottom. There is a premium to uttering the most outlandish pronouncements knowing these will become tomorrow’s headlines. The squeaky wheel gets the attention. Traditional and social media are at fault for encouraging this debasement of the discourse.
We are at the start of the campaign season but already it is shaping to be shallow and noisy. Yet there are serious issues to be addressed in this country – the growing inequality in wealth, the breakdown in our cities, El Nino and food and water security, peace and order- but nobody is listening. We would rather be entertained. So we should not be disappointed if we get a leader not to our liking but the one we deserve.