Looking For The Imperfect Candidate

With the official start of elections in two days, Filipinos are looking for the perfect candidate. The person would combine the integrity and compassion of Leni, the ruthlessness of Rody, the brand of Manny, the grit of Sara, the fearlessness of Ping, the charm of Isko and, while we are at it, the competence of Tim Cook and the wisdom of Solomon. Think Mother Theresa on steroids with a Harvard degree and a permit to carry.

Well good luck with that search.

 In an imperfect world we should instead be looking for the imperfect candidate. This person should be electable, somewhat competent, somewhat caring and somewhat honest. Elections are a contest for votes not for sainthood. 

The purists have framed next year’s elections as a fight between the “true” Opposition and the Administration, between good and evil. For them it is binary, you are either with me or against me. This is a Western, two-party concept, not applicable to a floating multi-party system as we have in the Philippines. Interestingly these same purists have welcomed into their tent personalities as ethically diverse as the Binays and Robredo.

This narrow approach to politics limits the addressable voter market. It does not appreciate that, one, politics is about addition and, two, the voters who count, the D and E crowd; do not care about party or ideological affiliations. They want food in their mouths, the imperative and dignity of a job, an education for their children, a roof over their heads, safe streets and hope for the future. They believe all politicians are corrupt and they can do nothing about it. The failure to appreciate this political dynamic explains the abject performance of Otso Diretso in 2016. 

After six years of extremism and noise, this country could use the predictability, civility, inclusiveness and quiet of the political center. The imperfect candidate understands this. He/she believes politics should not be about the incumbents and the challengers but about the Filipino. He/she will work with the best of what anybody offers regardless of provenance. He/she is pragmatic, forthright, will deal with the darkness and probably charge; but many will accept that as long the person delivers justice and, most important, on his promises.

Certificates of Candidacy have to be filed by Oct. 8, 2021. However substitutions may be allowed up to Nov. 15, 2021, the cut off for printing the ballots. Specifically:

  1. Candidates can file for only one elected position.
  2. Under Sec. 77 of the Election Code substitutions are allowed within the deadline provided the candidates are from the same party. However one can resign from one party and join another within the deadline.
  3. Substitution from death or disability may be allowed up to Election Day provided the alternate carries the same name as the substituted individual.

We will see the first pass of slates by Oct. 8. Depending on the field there could be a reshuffling of candidates as campaign managers, a la Ryder Cup, figure out the best match ups, President vs President, VP vs VP, Senate slates vs Senate slates. On current announcements the leading Presidential match ups are BBM vs Isko vs Pacquiao vs Ping. For VP it is PPRD vs Willie Ong vs Tito Sotto. We should see the final line-ups on Nov. 15.

I believe the Administration will realize – if it has not already – that BBM is not competitive against Isko. Even BBM seems unsure of his footing. He will need a Duterte to carry him at a time when the President’s ratings have declined double digits. With all due respect a BBM/D30 ticket looks like a stodgy, weary tandem with the baggage of COVID, the economy, crime and corruption. Pitted against them is a young, cool, energetic challenger offering hope and change to a voting demographic that is 30% aged 18-29 and over 9 million seniors who remember Martial Law and are facing the loss of their health benefits from Administration scandals. It is a choice between a grumpy, old uncle with a checkered past and a fresh, charging young gun.

The Administration needs Sara back in the starting line-up. This means, if we are to believe her, PPRD must step down (to Davao Mayor) with BBM sliding to number two to preserve the “solid north” of the Marcoses.

Isko has the momentum and the vibe. He has the compelling narrative of a “basurero” done good and he tells it well. He speaks the language of the poor and the young who make up over 80% of the vote.

Isko will have a Senatorial slate of eager and recognized names from media, entertainment and religious fundamentalists. They will make the Administration team of tired and tainted Cabinet members look like geriatric fuddy-duddies wondering where they are.

Isko could use more money. He will have the support of at least one business group that was disenfranchised by this Administration. A Manila port operator reportedly financed his mayoral run. Upset with Sara over the Velasco Speakership, Alan Cayetano and his financial backers, a mining family, could support Isko. As Isko gains traction serious money will follow. The U.S. financed his academic stints in the U.S. and Harvard early on. Foreign electoral donations are barred by law but who is looking.

Isko is a data nerd. He told me the first thing he looks at every morning are the COVID and crime statistics in Manila. This is his playbook: He believes he has Luzon ex-Ilocos Norte which accounts for more than half of the 62 million registered votes. Calabarzon alone houses the single most number of national voters. He is competitive in the Visayas (21% of the vote) where he is allegedly backed by the Roxas faction of the LP. Isko’s mother is a Waray so he can claim to be a favorite son. Team Leni could follow.

Cebu, the province with the most votes, is up for grabs. D30 did well there in 2016 but as President.

Isko could use some help in Mindanao (23% of the vote). He tried to enlist Grace as VP to leverage FPJ’s popularity in the South but it was awkward because Tito Sotto is practically family. Grace also figured she could probably not beat PPRD. She may revisit her decision if D30 and Sotto drop out. Then there is Pacquiao.

Manny will file his presidential CoC but, inshallah, he may still pivot. He should appreciate his brand alone cannot carry him through. He needs an organization, money beyond what he has, and a management team. He has the Pimentel half of the PDP Laban but even its accreditation is questionable. The VPship looks the more natural slot: It will enable him to learn the business with the promise of an Isko endorsement in 2028, serve the country in the Cabinet, gain stature in the comfort of the Vice-Presidency; and preserve his pocketbook for retirement. An Isko/Manny ticket would demographically be very competitive even against a Sara/BBM tandem. Willie Ong will then move to the Senate race where he ranked a respectable 17th in 2019.

Ping and Sotto will officially declare but must know their ticket will not fly. If Manny does not accept his VPship and Willie does not respond at the early polls, Isko could offer that position to Ping. Otherwise it could be a Cabinet position for him (DILG?) and Sotto (DFA?).

Leni is holding out but I think will not declare choosing instead to be Governor or Senator. She truly believes the challengers must run as one.

In short the race could be down to Sara/BBM versus an Isko led ticket, imperfect candidates against imperfect candidates.

The Challenges of the Opposition

The leading contenders, Sara excluded, have declared their intentions. They have foregone the low lying fruit of almost certain Senate and Mayoral seats for a grueling presidential run.

The good news for the challengers is the public is looking for change what with COVID, the economy and corruption. The bad news are the election imperatives and an electoral process that seems wired to favor the Administration-backed candidate.

There are four conditions needed to successfully run: Electability as gleaned by the polls, organization, money and a fair if not friendly electoral process.

Favorable polls are needed to show you can win, to discourage your opponents and their supporters, to raise money and to condition the public to accept your victory. The bigger the poll lead the easier the work becomes so candidates will inflate their numbers whenever they can.

But elections are not only about popularity, they are also about voter turn-out and numbers at the margin. Polls are often wrong because the respondents may not actually vote and in hotly contested elections it is the swing vote that counts. There are 50 states in the U.S. but elections are consistently decided by outcomes in only 5 states.

Bringing out the vote is therefore critical. Generally challengers need bigger turn-outs than do incumbents with an established political base. Also – and we are not quite suggesting it will happen – electoral fraud is more easily perpetrated with low voter numbers. One only has to win by one vote so the fewer the better. In May voter turn out will be dampened by restricted mobility, health controls and voter ineligibility. No jobs has forced many to leave their registered addresses and return to the province. They can re-register but this is cumbersome what with mobility restrictions and under-manned Government offices.

An organization is critical to voter turn out in what is called the ground game. The latter is about making it easier for your supporters to vote, making it difficult for your opponents’ followers to do so and watching over the count. Organizations are built over time through party affiliations and local Government networks. They can rarely be erected at short notice.

Organization needs money.

The COMELEC projects there will be 62 million registered voters. Assuming a high 75% turn-out, this means some 46 million will vote. In a three-sided contest, 40-45% should be enough to win or let’s call it 20 million votes. In 2016 Duterte won with around 17 million or 40% of the total. 

The election rules state each presidential and vice-presidential candidate cannot spend more than P10 per registered voter. Assuming 62 million voters this translates to P620 million for each of the aspirants or P1.2 billion per ticket. The bad economy means votes are now easier to come by (no pun intended). The going rate per vote I estimate is P1,000-2,000 jumping to as high as P5,000/vote in close fights. Assuming say P1,500 per vote this totals to P30 billion for 20 million winning votes. Throw in the messaging costs in the air game, the poll watchers, the logistics and the kitty for local officials in the ground game; and one is at P40-50 billion which is what it could take to win the Presidency and Vice-Presidency.

A few candidates like Pacquiao are wealthy but even his disclosed net worth, probably conservative, of P3.2 billion will not cut it. The Administration already has its multi-billion war chest on hand. Opposition candidates will have to raise their money from crowd funding, disenfranchised businessmen and capitalists who will do so but quietly. The Opposition needs to run as one to consolidate votes and finances.

Technology and social media will allow the Opposition to trim their air spend but access to the internet constrained rural areas will still require expensive traditional media. Physical rallies will be limited by health protocols all of which are controlled by the powers at be. The Opposition may have to focus on the denser communities with high wi-fi penetration rather than scour the countryside for pockets of votes. The cities are where COVID and the economy will have taken their toll and therefore represent more fertile ground for unhappy voters. The downside to this strategy is with limited Opposition oversight the rural areas will be open to dirty tricks. This is where the COMELEC comes in.

The COMELEC is the constitutional body tasked to supervise the elections. The COMELEC is composed of seven officials all of whom are tenured:

  1. Sheriff Abas, Chair – Sheriff was appointed by NoyNoy but as befits his name was designated head by Pres. Duterte upon the resignation of Andy Bautista. He retires in Feb. 2022
  2. Rowena Guanzon – Appointed by NoyNoy. She retires in Feb. 2022
  3. Antonio Kho *- San Beda. He retires in Feb. 2022.
  4. Amin Socorro Inting* – From Davao.
  5. Marlon Casquejo* – From Davao.
  6. Aimee Ampoloquio*- From Davao
  7. Michael Peloton* – From Davao. Reportedly a lawyer of Sen. Bong Go.  

 * Appointed by the President.

Five of the seven Commissioners were appointed by the President but this not unusual since presidents do appoint the COMELEC Commissioners. More of note is that four of the seven are from Davao. The other three are retiring in Feb. 2022. This will allow for complete takeover of our highest election body in what arguably is the most existential race in our history.

Winning an election requires a majority or plurality of votes, real or contrived. It is important therefore that voting, canvassing and transportation of completed returns is transparent and secure. The COMELEC’s budget for voting machines, etc. has just been significantly reduced. Add the challenges of COVID means COMELEC may have to rely more on manual counting and physical transportation of ballots rather than faster and more secure electronic transmission.

F2 Logistics, a firm supposedly owned by Dennis Uy, a businessman close to the President, won, probably fairly, the bid for “the nationwide warehousing, transport of forms, machines and other equipment for next year’s elections”. It is unclear whether F2’s services include the delivery of the completed ballots but that should happen naturally. The winning bid was lower than that of LBC Express, 2Go Express and Airspeed, all established operators. In business this is referred to possibly as a “loss leader” where one offers a service below cost for bigger profits elsewhere. McDonald’s sells it burgers for only 99 cents because it makes its money on the fries and drinks.

COMELEC interference in presidential elections is not new. The most famous instance was the “Hello, Garci” affair when there was an alleged conversation between a woman suspected of being GMA and Virgilio Garcillano, a COMELEC Commissioner, about a few million votes.

One last thing and this is not to stress you. Under Sec. 5 of the Election Code elections may be deferred for “serious causes such as violence, terrorism, ….force majeure and other analogous causes of such nature … to a date not later than 30 days after the cessation of such causes”.  The President recently extended the State of Calamity in the country until Sept. 12 2022 because of COVID. It is unsure whether this could justify the COMELEC postponing the May elections if such was necessary. 

Speaking Up Or Stepping Down

If you are seriously ill your doctor will prescribe what procedures need to be done. He will rarely inquire whether you can afford the treatment, whether you could lose your house, deprive your children of an education or deplete your bank account. That is not part of his Hippocratic Oath.

So with the IATF. As its ambitious name implies the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases Resolutions is mandated to eradicate COVID not to rescue the economy. Its job is to save medical lives not economic lives. Somebody with a higher pay grade – the President – has to make the bigger judgement whether the cure is worth the financial damage to the patient; and so far the President is going with the medical advise. The economy will just have to figure things out on its own.

Unfortunately it appears the medical prescription is not working. After 18 months of various alphabetical combinations, the COVID numbers are rising and worse than ever. 

The IATF has clearly run out of ideas. It has consistently been behind the curve. It is a one trick pony whose only solution and default is to lock down the country until a vaccine arrives which for reasons that you do not want me to get  started on, is now much delayed. The delay has meant the variant has now overtaken us. It has meant we will need to re-vaccinate the country even before the first vaccinations are completed. Even today, those who have been vaccinated once are told there are no vaccines for their second jab.

This is what happens when one gets into a regulatory mode, when  one gets enamored with all the possible degrees of control. We have not learnt anything since March 15, 2020. It is still a work in progress, an experiment: “OK, that did not work so why not this way and see what happens?”. This must be what Dr. Victor Frankenstein must have felt when he started working on his monster. (The monster, incidentally, proceeds to kill Victor’s loved ones, Victor himself dies, the monster is so stricken with grief he disappears never to be found. We are not suggesting this grim outcome for the IATF but we digress.)

When the agency reimposed ECQ for the nth time on Aug. 15, I wrote that was neither the first nor the last time it would be imposing a severe lockdown on the country. Sure enough here we are one month later and we are still in jail. When we first started on this tortuous journey it was simply ECQ. Since then we have moved to MECQ, then GCQ, then back, then forth, and now to a subset of Alerts 1 to 5 with no idea what this all means either to the IATF or to ourselves. 

So Filipinos are stuck with the economic bill. It has not helped that some of those in charge have not only thrown this country under the bus but did so while ripping us off.

The business sector is tearing its hair out in frustration. It has communicated its concerns to the economic managers but Dominguez, Chua  & Co. simply throw their hands up. NEDA continues to issue dire warnings but the Palace is not listening. In their little huddles businessmen complain about the ineptitude and the corruption at the top but nobody has the courage to speak up in public. Nobody wants to be the messenger of bad tidings whose head will be whacked.

Health versus the economy is a tough call. The debate is not new. It is about weighing the trade-offs in an uncertain world. It means managing risks, not abolishing them. Unfortunately the matter has now been complicated by the elections: Politics has entered the equation.

The President now views everything in political terms. The most sincere warnings on corruption, on the effectivity of Government protocols, on the economic trade offs that endanger the existence of the Republic; are seen through a political prism where any criticism however constructive is suspected as a plot to discredit his Government. Perhaps it is a bunker mentality, a defensive reaction to accusations that are hitting too close to home; except it is unnecessary given, if one believes the polls, how popular is the President.

Which leaves the business sector with a conundrum.

On the one hand it can suffer in silence as it continues on its guerrilla strategy of not openly questioning Government directives but quietly reaching out to the secondary decision makers – the economic team, legislators, more moderate IATF members – hoping it will swell to a message to the President. So far that has not moved the needle. Malacanang and IATF’s insistence on zero COVID however unrealistic is unchanged from inception. As a result businesses are failing, people starving and children into their second year of distance non-learning.

Alternatively Business can take its case for a more balanced approach directly to the public. The message must be thoughtful, simple, studied and responsible. A weary and destitute nation could welcome such an initiative. This may work since politicians only respond to two things and one of that is public opinion especially in this election season. It is interesting that businesses will collectively spend billions to advertise their products and services but are reluctant to spend a fraction of that in a public campaign that could save their existence.

The effort cannot be conducted by one or even a group of companies alone since they risk being labeled as disruptive or, worse, subversive. Many industries are highly regulated. CEOs will rarely step up openly on matters with political innuendoes, real or imagined. It will take brave leadership but courage among businessmen is not their strong suit but who can blame them.

So it looks like we are stuck in a path of silent acquiescence and suffering which at some point will become irreversible. 

Ay Naku, Sara, Look What You Have Done!

The front runner, by far, for the Presidency of the Philippines just decided that certain things, like principles, are worth more.

Sara announced yesterday she is withdrawing from the race. She had earlier vowed she would do just that if her father ran for VP. Call it a curve ball or a you-know-what at Dad, this takes some chutzpah. She made it clear it is not family, just business. Ma’am, I love you already, say you will marry me.

Sara had earlier issued a statement where she ranted against the interference of her father in her political plans. In particular her father wanted to hoist Bong Go as her running mate or agree to field a daughter/father team. She objected to both. She insisted only one family member should run for the highest national offices.

My sources say Sara and her Dad subsequently met to iron their differences. The President reportedly agreed not to run for VP and that she would be free to select her ticket. In return her party, HNP, would “adopt” the Duterte faction of PDP-Laban. 

A few days later at a PDP-Laban convention the President reneged on this alleged understanding by accepting his party’s nomination for VP. So Sara stepped down.

There are those skeptical of the news claiming it is just another family ploy to throw opponents off guard. After years of messing with Filipinos’ minds, many have come to suspect anything that emanates from the Dutertes. 

It just goes to show how little we know of Sara. She has successfully cultivated this privacy and mystery that for someone as popular as she is is a feat in itself. Yes, there is more to Sara than meets the eye. Lest we forget her father anointed her to run Davao rather than her brothers which speaks to her substance. The old man, if anything, is a good judge of character, will and ability; but this time he may have taken on too much. A strong-willed daughter is the bane of every father.

All of which, if not a sarswela, leaves the President in a lurch.

The President wants to extend his reach beyond 2022 to provide him and his band of Merry Men political and legal cover. The International Criminal Court in the Hague, for one, is waiting in the wings. The Plan was to either have Bong Go run for President or have Sara do so with Bong or her dad as VP. Now Go is probably unelectable even with D30 as his guardian angel; so out goes Plan A. Sara does not agree to either of the last two options so out goes Plans B & C. Now you understand why the President is annoyed.

PPRD has no viable proxy for President which leaves him with limited alternatives which are:

  1. Not run for VP – Sara will then agree to re-enter the race with good prospects of winning. However, while this will protect him, it will not protect his people many of whom have been up to no good and Sara knows this. She may not quite throw them under the bus but as she has done with her father’s people in Davao, she may not interfere once the political hyenas come looking for bodies to eat.
  1. Identify a candidate who can win with PPRD’s endorsement and resources – That is not easy. First, PPRD’s popularity, while high, is probably on the wane. The massive corruption if not with him but certainly around him, the disastrous management of COVID and the moribund economy must be taking a toll on his numbers. Second, there are few he can trust with his future. There is Bong Go but even he knows he cannot win and has in fact inhibited himself from running. With his baggage he would attract more scrutiny than he wants. Then there are the Marcoses. Bong Bong was barely competitive against Leni last time so he is no sure thing. Imee is lovely to watch but probably not there either. Lastly the President could recycle some candidate from the past but it may be too little too late.
  1. Work out a deal with the next President which could be Pacquiao or Isko- It is unclear how much bad blood has passed between Manny and the President what with the PDP-Laban blood letting; but in politics there are no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. Manny is a man of God so he would be good for his word. Isko is the other possibility but Duterte insults on his past may just have made things more expensive. Isko is pragmatic, he will deal. If Leni was to become President there would be nothing to talk about.

Sara’s announcement just threw the race wide open. Leni who it is said would not run if Sara was in; could now declare. Isko and Pacquiao will be similarly emboldened. Ironically this spread of the field could give the Administration candidate the opportunity to win the plurality of the vote. Sara dropping out could have the unintended consequence of giving the President what he wants at a cheaper price if he could just find a horse to back.

Without Sara the most competitive ticket would be a Isko/Pacquiao tandem but there is some sorting out to do as to who goes first. Here is a thought: What if Isko and Manny agreed to a power sharing arrangement where after say three years one would step down and allow the other to rule? Such an arrangement would of course be legally unenforceable.

Much as she is worthy of the Presidency, Leni should consider whether she is best off vying for what looks to be an unattainable prize or seeking say a Senate seat or, better yet, the near certainty of the Governorship of her province where she would make a difference albeit on a smaller scale.

Isko is reportedly all in for the presidency particularly if Sara bows out. He has allegedly teamed up with a faction of the Liberal Party which could deliver the Visayas vote. He could use a VP to carry Mindanao and absent Pacquiao that could be somebody like Grace. Her father, FPJ, still has a strong following in the south. However she would be going up against Tito Sotto who is practically family so that would be awkward.

Manny has the opposite problem: He has Mindanao and could be served by a partner for Luzon. Somebody like Vilma would be cool. Pacquiao could also use somebody with policy and management heft. Ping Lacson is a prospect if he agreed to forego the Presidency. Tito Sotto would have to be accommodated in this instance but in politics everything is negotiable.

Absent Sara, PPRD should seriously consider a rapprochement with Pacquiao. They were once together in PDP-Laban. A Manny/PPRD tandem would be hard to beat particularly if Isko should then decide the certainty of a Manila Mayorship would suit him better than the uncertainty of the Presidency.

The deadline for filing Certificates of Candidacy is Oct. 8 although there is a mechanism for replacements similar to what Duterte did when he took over the candidacy of Martin Dino in 2016.

The next four weeks should provide more clarity. Right now the candidates are preening to the public and to each other. 

Stay tuned.