JOEL “Tesdaman” Villanueva was initially assessed by the LP coalition as a drag to the senatorial ticket, a most likely “ loser.” While names such as Guingona, Petilla and Lapid easily got past the early screening of the party’s gatekeepers, the Tesdaman was not seriously considered by the top LP leaders. The Tesdaman became so desperate that, at some point, he planned to move over to another camp. That camp initially said yes, but changed its mind and said there was no space for a probable loser like him.
Mr. Aquino, to be fair with him, showed pity on his former House colleague and begged the LP leadership to include the Tesdaman in the slate. Saling pusa, if you will. He was the last choice of the ruling coalition and his odds of winning were placed by the LP big guns at almost zero. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. He got the second-highest number of votes, the “miracle” of the 2016 elections. He performed better than the early polling leader, “Eat Bulaga” ’s Tito Sotto. How the Tesdaman got past the “Eat Bulaga” senator still perplexes pollsters and pundits.
It is, however, quite easy to find the keys that unlocked the potentials of his “miracle” campaign.
Mr. Villanueva “found favor”—that is how Christian groups like the JIL of Mr. Villanueva’s dad describe/express things that come their way—in the form of massive armies of unpaid volunteers that provided the steely backbone to his campaign. Tens of thousands of volunteers took time off from what they were doing to campaign house to house, hang streamers, do social-media messaging, pray in their churches for his victory and, on election day, distribute his sample ballots. Mainline Protestant and evangelical churches set aside animosities to line up behind the Tesdaman.
His supporters jestingly said their campaign was “always short on cash but overflowing with zeal and prayers.” In the Pampanga community where I move around, no one can beat the industry of Mr. Villanueva’s poster people. The zeal of his house-to-house campaigners was overwhelming and palpable.
I am a hopeless skeptic, especially when it comes to politics. I have this unmoved notion that all politics is transactional in nature. Unpaid volunteers do not exist. But in the case of the Tesdaman, it did exist, perhaps as an outlier. And those armies of dedicated volunteers proved to be more potent than the institutional—but compensated—campaigners at the grassroots of the well-known senatorial candidates.
What else could lift him from No. 14 in the early polling to his second place now?
We now go to The Digong.
The Roces family resurrected The Manila Times in 1986 and the timing of the first issue fell on the uncertain days after the February snap elections. The first issue had this banner headline— “A million came for Cory.” I wrote the story and it was about the mass of humanity that packed Luneta to listen to Mrs. Aquino’s appeal for the boycott of the crony firms identified with the late dictator.
I still remember the composition of that crowd. People from the A bracket to the CDE brackets that spilled over into the TM Kalaw area—all with that purposeful sense that a new day was coming and the dictator was at his end-days.
While the A attendees were chauffeured to Luneta, those from the slum areas of Tondo and Baseco marched into Rizal Park with their baon of tap water and cheap bread. There was both gaiety and intensity and the anticipation that an epochal shift in the country’s history would soon take place.
The crowd that packed Rizal Park to listen to Digong Duterte ‘s miting de avance spiel stirred in me a sense of déjà vu. I said to myself that I have seen that intense crowd before and that was during the first salvo of Mrs. Aquino’s boycott call. From A bracket to the CDE—all gathered to make political history. At the same place and with that same unwavering conviction to create change. I found it ironic that in 1986, Mrs. Aquino spoke for a nation tired and weary of Marcos. In 2016, Mr. Duterte’s voice articulated the collective grievance against Benigno Aquino 3rd, the 2nd Aquino President and unapologetic Social Darwinist and President of the 1 percent. And the son of Mrs. Aquino.
The story of the 2016 presidential elections was about the unflappable political warriors of Digong Duterte and their sheer determination to break the elite’s stranglehold on political power. Even Joe David Lapuz was aroused from his “ten mattresses” to make his pitch for The Digong. (Joe David Lapuz used to tell his Lyceum students that he opted out of the movement because he can’t survive the then Spartan life of the underground. I sleep, he said, on top of “ten mattresses.”)
Leni Robredo’s rise from kulelat in the early polling to her lofty standing in the vice-presidential count can be attributed to unpaid armies that campaigned for her as if she were a stand-alone candidate and not at all associated with the campaign of the hopeless Mr. Roxas. The campaign was framed this way: Leni or Bust. It went with a caveat: you are free to choose your presidential candidate. In middle-class villages in the Quezon City area, I saw such intense Leni or Bust campaigners. I saw them in many areas of Central Luzon. They campaigned, mostly probably, without tacit approval, and zero support, none whatsoever, from the Robredo camp.
Somebody has to expound on this story. On how armies of zealous volunteers defied traditional politics, then scored mind-boggling victories. That is the most important story of the 2016 campaign. Those planning to write about it in-depth can start with Exhibits A, B and C—The Digong, Leni Robredo and Joel Villanueva.