Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Cheated or Lost?

Okay, its close to eight months after the May 2004 Philippine Elections and a full year since the start of the political battle for the Philippine Presidency. This is old news, really. Recently, however it has been coming out as a topic of discussion in small circles.

So was Poe cheated or did he lose?

To Poe's myriad supporters, coming into the Election, they certainly had the numbers. He had a popular support that rivaled his long time friend, former President Estrada. Seemingly he was the man to beat and that Mrs. Arroyo was the challenger. Mr. Poe's supporters deluded themselves.

In December 2004, there were a number of aspiring candidates. Mr. Poe, President Arroyo, Senators de Castro, Lacson and Roco (the others showed poorly that we will not discuss them). The latter three without party support and thus without any organization to speak of except their small individual rag-tag band. Mr. Poe at the beginning of similarly did not have a party to speak of except the support of several leaders of various political parties--- small in comparison to Mrs. Arroyo's battle tested machinery Lakas (meaning strong in English) Party.

Let us discuss first Senators Lacson, de Castro and Roco. Senator Roco had a small organization that was in spite of its experience in previous elections was not huge enough to sustain a national campaign from the very beginning. True, their candidates came across to the public as idealistic--- they campaigned that politics was dirty and theirs was an organization to turn that around. To begin with, their party, Reporma (reform in English) biggest stumbling block was money. Who would support such rad-tag band? They could not covet support from business, they only had “idealism” (I say that rather loosely) and as much fuel that could be it can not print fliers, run an ad campaign, drive cars or buy airplane tickets nor could it pay for communications. It was an uphill battle for Senator Roco in spite of his high poll rating coming into the Elections.

Senator De Castro by his former profession of medial broadcaster is far well known. A first time Senator that in the three years of his office had not published any “major” well publicized law; in fact in the three years in office, he largely stayed away from the spotlight. He did not have a party--- he ran as an independent for Senator. He had good poll ratings--- much better than Poe or any of figures then attempting to run for the highest office. But he had friends in the Senate, friends closely allied to Mrs. Arroyo. Had he ran for president, it would certainly be a realignment of major factions and the search for funding because the Presidency is much about issues as much as resources. But could he have won? It is now mute and academic at this point, but he did have a shot--- far better than Poe did, Senator De Castro was the dark horse that could.

Senator Lacson at that time, was a member of a political party. He was a member of Laban (fight in English) Party that largely supported the government of Mrs. Corazon Aquino so many years before and was in December 2003, allied with Mr. Estrada's camp. Laban had deteriorated over the years so far from the mighty and influential party years before. He sought his party's nomination. But politics is a demanding and fickle mistress, especially the Philippine version.

Fernando Poe, Jr. --- a screen name no less had neither party nor experience in running government or a private enterprise (in spite of the fact he had a company himself). But he had three things going for him--- (1) he was well known because of his movies; (2) he had the backing of Estrada's inner political circle and thus the opposition party and (3) the seemingly unbeatable numbers he was showing. Like Estrada before him, he was seemingly the challenger to beat. However in spite of a coalition of parties whose faction leaders were jubilant in finding their second messiah, they did not the network of supporters lining behind them.

In December 2003, Mrs. Arroyo came into the campaign a distant third or fourth. Unpopular in the first place because of her politics, the state of the economy and because of her personality December 2003 must look like a dark time for her and the Lakas Party. But public perception could always be changed and seen the “light”. She was perceived to be the challenger, defending her “illegitimate” government. In those days, who would have thought she would still be president a year later? But the fact of the matter is, she was the challenger to beat.

What was going for her? For one thing, not since Ferdinand Marcos ran for reelection in the 1970s had the Philippines found itself having a sitting president run for a new term. (The 1987 Philippine Constitution only allows a president to run for one six year term but Mrs. Arroyo by sheer luck or careful twist of faith was appointed less than three years into Estrada's presidency thus provisions in the Charter allowed Arroyo to run for her presidency.)

We can also argue (though very weakly) that when Fidel Ramos ran--- he had Corazon Aquino's backing and that prior to the elections of 1992 he had already utilized the government's massive resources to make himself known through out the country and establish the network that would be his and Joe de Venecia's Lakas Party. Regardless of the case, Mrs. Arroyo had the backing of the Government's extensive resources at her disposal coming into the campaign. But she didn't need it--- her party's coffers and deep pockets and network would have given any opposition a run for their money but it would have been a far closer match.

Second, Mrs. Arroyo had a well tested battle machine in her Lakas Party and her generals (forgive the pun) Ramos, de Venecia etc--- are undoubtedly war masters of the highest caliber. Her party's extensive network from the local government up proved to play an important role for her. With a deep bench, extensive network, and battle tested generals with the expertise, professionalism and the resources to mount a campaign for the presidency, she in the opening moments of the 2004 Philippine Election Campaign was the champion to be defeated.

December 2003 proved to be an important month for the Philippine Elections. Behind the scenes there were power struggles. The lost of Senator Legarda of the Lakas Party to the Opposition and likewise Vice President Gingona's turnaround was not the coup the opposition taunted. Perception wise, it look good on TV--- or newspaper copy. But analyzing it, Legarda's only threw the opposition away from their game.

Senator Lacson at the time wanted his party--- and the opposition in general to select one candidate for the presidency. His camp also wanted Fernando Poe to join a party and together they run in a convention. Such a move would have professionalized and galvanized them. The opposition in traditional Philippine politics, chose Poe over Lacson without party caucus or convention. This would prove to be Poe's first mistake.

Why did they do it? First we can surmise that the Inner Circle did not believe Lacson to be a threat to them and that alienating the first time senator was not big deal. Second, they must have feared the man who could should he be chosen can not be controlled. The latter more than the former was the reason. Both camps had personal differences.

By January, Lacson would mount his own campaign and in spite of having no clear shot of winning he would eventually prove critics wrong and amass close to four million votes and still finish a good third place after Poe's. He ran without party and without deep organization.

Mrs. Arroyo herself was a busy bee. Her campaign must have known that Senator De Castro was contemplating on running a campaign himself. All indications was that he was. It is a testimony to her and to her party's strategists to bring his voting bloc into their fold. When Poe's camp alienated Lacson's, Arroyo embraced De Castro. Her strategy of conquering by merger would be her first victory. She brought into her fold De Castro's “good image” to brighten her own and thus De Castro would carry her into the Palace.

Of course, people knew at the time this was a gamble that Vice Presidents always never carry Presidents in the Philippines--- but by reducing possible contenders and adding De Castro's supporters (even half of which) with her own that in itself was prize enough.

So why not Roco? Roco true had a large support base and his politics closely related to Arroyo's but they already had a falling out after Roco resigned from Arroyo's cabinet almost a year before December 2003. He had heavy political baggage that few wanted and could control. De Castro had no such thing because he doesn't really have ambition, he Arroyo's camp could deal with.

By January the political stage was being prepared and the next course was to form the Senatorial Line up. Here Mrs. Arroyo herself scored big again by importing from Mr. Estrada's camp stalwart Senator Miriam Santiago. It was ironic that Santiago would join Arroyo's camp because Arroyo's backer Fidel Ramos and the former had to this day been bitter rivals. But Santiago had inside information--- she didn't like Poe's campaign, on hindsight this was the principal reason she jumped ship and joined Arroyo with the supposed blessing of the former's good friend jailed ex-President Estrada.

It is true that Senators campaign on their own but the very big names both party amassed was enough. This of course does not necessarily sway voters--- the battle for the presidency is different though related as the final numbers would show--- Arroyo kept her party's majority in the Senate at a comfortable distance to keep her legislative agenda on line.

February was when the campaign heated up and with battle lines drawn in the sand very clearly. Allegations and questions regarding Poe's campaign were up in the air. Was it the Lakas Party machinery behind that dirty trick? Was he a Filipino citizen or American? Though it came to a dubious conclusion, Poe's name had been tarnished. Conspiracy Theorist would love to answer that but regardless, the mere allegation was enough to damage the Poe camp in favour of Arroyo's. The flow of money started tickle and dry up for the Poe camp while Arroyo's was getting a whole sea of it. Though people still liked him, they now questioned whether he was fit for the presidency.

The allegations did two things for Mrs. Arroyo, as we mentioned Poe's resource stream started to dry out and with supporters leaving him and brining with them their money, it was starting to look bad for Poe. Second, this exodus of resources also assured the President of the extensive Lakas network of Congressmen and Local Government officials who vowed to support her.

By the end of February, Mrs. Arroyo's poll numbers where higher and Poe's falling.
March came and the campaign heated up together with the Summer Heat. Lacson was doing well--- stable and well enough for him to stay afloat. Roco like Poe was losing steam because of fading resources. Arroyo's machinery proved to be useful. The network was carrying her throughout the country.

Then bad news again for Poe. The Poe camp had a falling out with the Media. Several times during the course of the campaign by stress or because of other factors Poe and his circle attacked the media for various reasons. It was another mistake that forced already a national media (who by the way were mostly middle class and higher income voters) to paint him in a bad light.

Several reports from the field also point to what a Poe campaign rally was--- huge crowds (because of the stars) and not enough campaign propaganda. Poe was reported at the time shouting out lines from his films without coherence or message. When ambushed by Reporters in the field about national issues, Poe would decline and say that he would study it.

Lakas took advantage of this. They highlighted the differences between their candidate and Poe. Mrs. Arroyo was addressing the nation's problems. Poe didn't even know what they were. To top it off, Arroyo wanted to talk about the issues in a national debate, Poe's camp didn't want a debate. The latter's argument was that they had the poll numbers in their favour and no sane candidate would give another air time with who they perceived to be the candidate to beat.

Perhaps they didn't want Poe who came across by March 2004 as someone who didn't know what to do to lose even more votes should they had that debate. Or maybe they were so arrogant in their perception that they could win by rallying the lower classes of society. Perhaps they failed to read a study or dismissed outright a study by a reputable local university that discovered that the poor did think about who they vote for and why.

In April 2004, there were already rumours of breakdown of cohesion in the Poe camp, particularly with their media bureau. They themselves had been fighting for their various factions and positions. The Poe Political Machine was coming apart in the crucial and final days of the campaign.

By this time, Senator Raul Roco had effectively bowed out of the race by leaving at the same crucial moment because of health reasons--- ending his chances and that of his party for any sort of power.

That left Senator Lacson who had greatly benefited from the Roco's exist and The Poe Camp's near implosion had won close to four million votes. He finished a surprising third place. For a first timer and without organization he did pretty good.

By May 2004, Mrs. Arroyo had a comfortable lead that brought six more years in office. She had campaigned effectively in the Visayas and the Mindanao areas, regions that together equaled Luzon Island's voter population.

What gave Mrs. Arroyo and extended term? Conspiracy Theorist could always argue that Mrs. Arroyo had used government resources to rig the elections. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she did not. Even if she “did” (used very loosely), she and her party had played the game well. Their team was battle tested, were professional in carrying out the Campaign, leaving no stone unturned. They turned invited people in instead of turning them away, they had deep party bench that gave them a very comfortable majority in both houses of Congress and support from the local governments. They had money and organization and all this brought them over the top. They ran a very good professional campaign.

Mr. Poe and his camp had only themselves to blame for losing their Campaign because the other side played the game better than they did.