Who will win the presidential election?
Judging by the latest Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations surveys, released just days ago, Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte looks unbeatable — or not.
He leads second-ranked Sen. Grace Poe by 12 percentage points in the Pulse poll, and 9 points in SWS’s survey. With the margin of error and based on 54 million voters, Duterte’s extrapolated lead exceeds 5 million votes.
Around the same week in April 2010, then-Sen. Benigno Aquino III led Sen. Manuel Villar by 12 percentage points in SWS’s poll. The lead swelled to 22 points in the last poll, as Villar lost support and Estrada gained slightly.
But don’t discount late rallies. In the 2010 vice-presidential race, then Sen. Mar Roxas saw his commanding lead of 14 points in mid-April vanish in early May, as then-Makati Mayor and eventual VP winner Jejomar Binay caught up.
The dynamic that wins elections
If Duterte wins, it may affirm the crucial election role played by an apparent dynamic between the personalities and reputations of presidentiables, and the paramount national concerns of the nation prevailing during the campaign and election.
This dynamic seems to have influenced in a crucial way who wins the polls, at least in the past three decades since Philippine democracy was restored. Let’s take a stroll along presidential memory lane and see how this dynamic works.
It involves two key factors. One is widely assumed to be the main reason voters choose their favored candidate: personality. We elect the presidentiable whose qualities we find most appealing and impressive. This perceived character supposedly trumps issues and platforms, which most voters don’t know much about anyway.
So Duterte wins support among people wowed by tough talk, while Poe attracts those seeking a kindly, wholesome leader. Binay appeals to voters who want tried, steady and fatherly hands, while Roxas’s brainy, cultivated manner has yet to catch on.
It’s not as simple as that, however. In fact, issues do count, and the traits that eventually woo the bulk of voters are determined by the paramount concerns of the citizenry.
That’s the other key factor in the dynamic: the overarching problems or issues facing Filipinos pondering whom to elect.
In sum, the candidates who gain the most support are those whose traits and qualities are seen to be most effective in addressing the main national concerns at each election.
Hence, voters pick candidates not just because they like or admire them as persons. Rather, we elect leaders because their reputed personalities are most suited to addressing our paramount concerns.
What worries you shapes whom you like
This correlation between what bothers Filipinos and what kind of leader we elect is seen in election after election, pretty much without fail, at least since 1986.
Back then, the overriding national concern was having a government Filipinos can trust and support. The Marcos regime had lost credibility and stability amid mounting economic woes and political unrest since the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr.
At the time, the opposition had to choose between two aspirants: the patriot’s widow Corazon Aquino and veteran politician Salvador Laurel. The latter eventually gave way and agreed to be Cory’s running mate.
Based on the dynamic between national concerns and candidates’ character, pitting the widow against the dictator was the right move. Filipinos unhappy with Marcos might not have warmed to another politico like Laurel. Rather, voters went for Cory precisely because she was so unlike the consummate, seasoned strongman they want out.
Moving to 1992, the biggest concerns then were the destabilization and coup plots against the first Aquino administration, and its economic miscues, especially the debilitating frequent long brownouts.
Then-Defense Secretary and former Armed Forces Chief Fidel Ramos and former crime-busting judge and immigration commissioner Miriam Defensor-Santiago were the leading candidates.
Again, with instability and misgovernance bothering the electorate, power-hungry politicians were not in favor, like then-House of Representatives Speaker and ruling party presidentiable Ramon Mitra.
Instead, candidates with little political baggage, like Ramos and Santiago, appealed. Ramos eventually won, with Cory’s endorsement and public admiration and gratitude for his defense of her presidency against several coup attempts.
Six years later in 1998, brownouts were history, along with coup plots. But the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis devastated the economy, jacked up prices, and pushed poverty and unemployment to excruciating levels.
In this economic disaster zone, the poor sought a champion to look out of their welfare, and action star-turned-VP Joseph Estrada fit the bill. He won by landslide against rivals seen by most Filipinos as self-serving traditional politicians or “trapos,” especially ruling party standard-bearer and then-House Speaker Jose de Venecia.
Corruption scandals led to Estrada’s ouster in 2001, replaced by her VP Gloria Arroyo. Come 2004, voters had different things on their mind when faced with another politician vs. moviestar choice.
By then, recovery and agricultural development had slashed poverty by about 2 million people. And after the Estrada presidency, voters were more wary of putting inexperienced action stars at the helm of the nation.
So while Arroyo did not have her top opponent Fernando Poe, Jr.’s movie popularity, her proven expertise and experience in government was the winning personality for the largest number of voters, not another matinee idol.
Public support for Arroyo crashed, however, over allegations of election fraud and corruption in public projects. Thus, in the 2010 elections, the nation again sought a trustworthy, honest leader, untainted by graft.
Benigno Aquino III was thrust into that role, helped by the surge in public adulation during the nationally televised wake and interment of his mother Cory in July 2009. And like Estrada and Arroyo, he won with about 40 percent of the vote.
Sadly for the nation and Aquino’s endorsed successor, the escalation of crime and corruption under him has become the paramount national concern today (see http://www.manilatimes.net/how-to-slash-crime-in-six-months/255547/). Faced with this alarming lawlessness, many voters now want a tough enforcer. We may well get one.