A consensus in the making

Even if the case that Sen. Richard “Dick” Gordon has filed against survey firms Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations (SWS) is, in the words of SWS President and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Mahar Mangahas, “ridiculously sloppy“, one of the more disturbingly resonant assertions that Gordon has advanced in his various tirades against surveys—when is he not working himself up into a histrionic fit over some other topic—is that these tend to condition the minds of voters.

It must be conceded, of course, that such a contention cannot be discarded out of hand—it would be foolish to insist that surveys have no impact whatsoever. Consider, by way of anecdotal data, the faith that not a few people have developed in the findings put out by the relatively unknown The Campaigns & Image Group (CIG), which professes to be an independent polling outfit catering to multinational companies and foreign investors. When journalist Ellen Tordesillas published the results of a CIG survey conducted from April 1 to April 5 in her blog, an astute commenter observed that CIG had been overefficient—after all, Tordesillas said she had received the findings from CIG on April 4. Unless CIG has managed to invent a time machine—in which case CIG owner Aniceto “Abbey” Canturias should be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physics posthaste—there are only two ways it could have produced its results one whole day before the survey period ended, neither of which helps the credibility of the company: the first is extrapolation, and the second is etchos.

There is also empirical evidence showing that opinion polls do affect the electorate, but the much-deplored bandwagon effect is only one of several effects that have been identified. There are studies indicating an underdog effect, which involves people adopting the minority view, while others suggest that there is a projection effect, which means that individuals project their intended vote onto their expectations regarding the outcome of the elections. None of these effects, each of which arises from the interaction of several factors, are necessarily mutually exclusive of the rest. In addition, as political scientists Richard Nadeau, Edouard Cloutier, and J.-H. Guay aver in their study on the bandwagon effect in Quebec, “Measuring a phenomenon is only a first step towards understanding it.”

In claiming that survey results somehow bamboozle voters into casting their ballots for the leading candidate, Gordon displays condescension toward, if not outright contempt of, the very people that he seeks to lead, including those who presently support him. To conceive of voters as essentially vassals to—and victims of—pre-election polls is to ignore their capacity for discernment and to deny them agency, reducing them from human beings to automatons. To think of the Filipino people as irredeemably stupid is to be irredeemably undeserving of the power to represent them.

Resorting to the most simplistic of arguments is not an especially surprising move from a senator who believes that the problems of Philippine basic education can be solved by giving every student an Amazon Kindle, as if academic excellence could somehow be caught, like a virus, from exposure to reading materials. One has to wonder, however, what happened to the man who was considerably more sober about unfavorable news in the 2007 elections. Whereas administration senatorial candidate Prospero Pichay accused major media organizations of trending in their reportage of unofficial quick counts, Gordon attributed the strong opposition showing to “widespread dissatisfaction”, saying, “Obviously there is resentment against this administration. The people are not satisfied. They are impatient, they want change…” It is precisely this long unsatisfied desire for meaningful change that makes the 2010 national and local elections so important.

One of the few true statements that the hardworking and prayerful Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has made over the course of a presidency distinguished by the widespread distrust it has elicited was this, from (what would seem to be) her last State of the Nation Address back in July: “There is much to do as head of state to the very last day.” What she has done since then has been to engage the country in a version of Spite and Malice, a form of competitive solitaire in which a player secures victory by discarding all of his or her cards—that is, whoever is left with nothing wins. Macapagal-Arroyo, however, follows a slightly different set of rules: in her last-ditch efforts to lay waste to the institutional system of the nation, she hopes to ensure that whoever wins in the contest to succeed her will be left with nothing.

These elections, then, do not merely constitute a routine exercise in citizenship, but as a referendum against one of the worst and most repressive regimes that the Philippines has seen in its short history, and the results of pre-election surveys, which have shown remarkable consistency and durability across several reputable polling firms and periods, ought to be understood not as a grand conspiracy to give one candidate an advantage over the rest, but as the manifestation of a broad consensus among individuals who, to borrow a phrase from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, can “think feelings and feel thoughtfully”, and are capable of choosing for themselves the person who can be best trusted to serve and to lead the country well.

To the Comelec: Shut down The Manila Times

Promulgated last February 4, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Resolution No. 8758, which sets down the implementing rules and regulations of the long-dormant Republic Act No. 9006, also known as the Fair Election Act, has triggered a veritable firestorm of protests, primarily because of Section 36, which is quoted in full below:

Any mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent, or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office, or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate, political party, or party-list group, or organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period; Provided, that after he has filed his certificate of candidacy but before the campaign period, it shall be his obligation not to use his media work for premature election campaign or partisan political activity: Provided, finally, that any media practitioner who is an official of a political party or a member of the campaign staff of a candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof, shall not use his/her time or space to favor any candidate, political party, or party-list group, organization, and/or coalition thereof;

As sociologist Randy David pointed out in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column, the law, whatever its merits, is highly ambiguous, as “it is trying to cover in one paragraph a broad range of individuals and activities that are qualitatively different from one another“. How, for instance, is “campaign volunteer” to be defined? What about “mass media personality”? Does the law apply both to talents and to regular employees (the position taken by GMA-7), or just regular employees (the interpretation favored by ABS-CBN)? (More details on the reactions of the TV networks and individual celebrities may be found here.)

Compounding the confusion is the lack of consensus among the Comelec commissioners themselves, as revealed in the Philippine Star: Rene Sarmiento said that the law generally applies to politicians who are themselves involved in showbiz, Gregorio Larrazabal claimed that a close examination of the law would show that media personalities are not actually required to take a leave, and Nicodemo Ferrer declared that the poll body would come up with (additional?) rules for the purpose of clarification.

Amid this morass of conflicting opinions, it is of interest to note that, among the various political camps, the ruling party, Lakas-Kampi CMD, is alone in its approval of the Comelec resolution. Prospero Pichay, the campaign manager for the senatorial candidates of the administration, stated that the playing field would now be level as far as television was concerned, while Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary Ronaldo Puno took it one step further, saying that such a leveling would favor Gilbert Teodoro, who has been faring miserably in the presidential race, if the periodic surveys of the electorate are any indication.

It is undeniable that Teodoro has few celebrity endorsers—a consequence of the copyright infringement brouhaha involving former Rivermaya front-man Rico Blanco, perhaps?—but Pichay, Puno, and their ilk would do well to remember that their candidate enjoys the signal privilege of being practically endorsed by a nationally distributed broadsheet, The Manila Times, in its editorials. This means that the administration candidate is not supported merely by a columnist or two, which is the case for other candidates, but by an entire publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of readers daily.

As early as October of last year, in the wake of Ondoy, the Times hailed Teodoro, then secretary of the Department of National Defense (DND) and head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), for “an excellent job coordinating the rescue and relief efforts”, describing the disaster as a test that Teodoro passed “with grace and humility”. (I have shown elsewhere—and, to my mind, very convincingly—how preposterous such claims are.)

In December, the newspaper once more sung the praises of Teodoro:

Teodoro is a welcome presence in the political arena. Humble and self effacing, he speaks in measured and moderate tones. Foregoing bombast and oratory, he delivers well-organized, well-reasoned thoughts and statements on the issues. He refuses to stoop to personalities and mudslinging, preferring to speak on the issues, policies and the nitty-gritty of good governance.

If we read his mind, Teodoro could become the first bipartisan president in Philippine history. He could walk across the aisles to enlist the best minds in the opposition to join his government. He will cast a wider net to recruit nonparty members who share his core values and passion for public service.

Teodoro could also reach out to promising young men, women, ethnic leaders and reformed communists to join his government. He might make history by appointing naturalized Filipinos as key Palace aides. A Cabinet, after all, must be a mirror of the nation. It should include the principal members of the national family.

A government under President Teodoro could seek -peace with the communists and put an end to the New People’s Army insurgency. The next Malacañang resident could exert efforts to sign a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. President Teodoro will pursue a dialogue with all restive members of society—the rightists, the left-of-center and Church activists—in the name of reconciliation. But he will draw the line on terrorism and the Abu Sayyaf predators.

To give a final example, just last month, the Times seized upon a pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and turned it into an opportunity to fawn over Teodoro yet again:

Gilbert Teodoro is “winnable” even if current surveys do not indicate so. His ratings have risen in recent weeks and should pick up as the campaign formally starts and as more Filipinos get to know more about his integrity, character and competitive edge over his opponents.

Our fate is not in the stars or in the surveys but in ourselves—this is the message of the CBCP pastoral letter. By voting wisely, we get the President we deserve, the leader we need.

That the Times has all but explicitly announced that it backs Teodoro should be no surprise, of course, as it is owned by Dante A. Ang, formerly personal publicist to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and currently a member of Cabinet, serving as the chairman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.

Notwithstanding the bewilderment and outrage that Resolution No. 8758 has caused, the Comelec seems determined to enforce it immediately and to the letter, considering that legal division chief Ferdinand Rafanan has threatened to file criminal cases against celebrities who endorse any candidate during the official campaign period but fail to take a leave of absence or resign from their jobs. If the Comelec wishes to demonstrate that it is serious about the implementation of the resolution, however shaky the legal grounds, then it could do no better than order The Manila Times to shut down. Should it fail to do so, but insist on cracking down on other entities and individuals, the Comelec will only reinforce the already prevalent perception that it is not, in fact, an independent body, but merely one of the many playthings at the disposal of our hardworking and prayerful iconoclast of a president.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

Truth and lice

Whatever else can be said about the adoption of Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan (Makabayan) senatorial candidates Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza by the Nacionalista Party (NP), it is definitely nothing less than an event for the history books. After all, Ocampo and Maza are militant leftists, while the NP is a party headed by real estate mogul and presidential candidate Manny Villar, and also includes Bongbong Marcos, the son and namesake of dictator Ferdinand, in its line-up for the Senate.

If I understand the official statements on the alliance correctly, Ocampo and Maza, as well as the members of Makabayan, view it as a significant opportunity to shift their revolutionary struggle onto the center of the national stage and into the limelight of public affairs. It may be useful to frame the situation in classical terms: Ocampo and Maza constitute the Trojan Horse of the Left, with which the walled city of Philippine politics, sitting high on its dung heap of graft and corruption, and gleaming with impunity, will be infiltrated, conquered, and rebuilt anew. Of course, one must admit that such an explanation is not quite adequate: to resort to it is to elide the fact that Ocampo and Maza were already mainstream politicians to begin with, as both have been serving in the Lower House of Congress as party-list representatives since 2001.

In any case, already the horse has begun to roll forward, as the NP agreed to integrate the Makabayan platform into its own, leading to the production and release of the document entitled, “In Response to the People’s Concerns“—a document strangely unavailable on the official NP web site as of this writing.

Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond “Mong” Palatino, in “Misunderestimating the Philippine Left“, one of the more recent commentaries on the issue, put it this way: “Villar’s brave decision to openly embrace a platform-based unity with the left has smashed the taboo in Philippine politics. From now on, the participation of the left will be expected in future electoral contests for top political posts.”

That a taboo exists at all, as may be inferred from the assertions Palatino makes in the essay, has to do with how (orthodox?) leftists have been spoken of by various “academics and commentators”, “liberal right-wingers”, and “apostates”: demonized all and sundry as destabilizers and terrorists, leftists suffer from “not [being] recognized as legitimate political players who can use valid political practices in the electoral arena”. This is a claim not without merit: surely it cannot be just to refuse the left a seat at the table of democracy on the basis of what Palatino refers to as its “past mistakes”—ones, he adds, that the extreme left has apologized for. To reduce the left to its history of bloody violence is itself an act of violence—such an act condemns the left always and forever to irrelevance, death, or both, and denies the transformative possibilities of ideological difference.

That said, I have to take exception to how Palatino read the motives of those attacking the NP-Makabayan alliance: “The anti-left gang is mad not because the left endorsed a presidential candidate. They are mad because the left has refused to endorse Noynoy Aquino.”

Tonyo Cruz has said in his Asian Correspondent blog that, “It is a matter of public record that Noynoy Aquino shut the door on Ocampo and Maza, despite the Makabayan coalition’s earnest overtures.Manila Standard Today columnist Jojo Robles, who recounted how Ocampo described his meeting with Aquino, thought it was “unfortunate that Noynoy Aquino and his traditionally bourgeois collection of yellow-clad supporters may have missed out on this major political development.” How, then, can Palatino’s statement make sense? If (a) Aquino and the Liberal Party rejected the left, and (b) the anti-left “gang”—whatever that might be, as I am not convinced it even exists—supports Aquino, how does one arrive at the conclusion that (c) the anti-left “gang” is angry at the left for not endorsing Aquino?

Furthermore, anti-left sentiments are hardly exclusive to any one political group: BANTAY Party-list, to cite one example, was founded precisely on such sentiments, and its leader, Jovito S. Palparan, is running as an independent candidate for senator.

It may well be accurate to say that I am guilty of nitpicking, but one would be wise to bear this in mind: where there are nits, there are lice—which is to say that more than simple logic is at stake.

If, as Palatino says, the left is treated unfairly when it is conceived of as a monolithic, hence totally reprehensible, entity, is he not doing the same thing by speaking of an anti-left “gang”, which he then uncritically equates with the Aquino camp? Does not the lack of self-reflexivity in his argument—the same lack that he decries as the “pathological narcissism” of the anti-left—register as disingenuous, as an instance of victimage?

For the members of any given minority to strive to overturn the regime that tyrannizes them is perhaps understandable, and yet what is gained if and when they accomplish exactly that? To succeed in turning over structures of oppression is certainly to redistribute power, so that what once was reviled becomes revered, but by no means does the oppression dissipate—rather, the instruments of torture simply change hands. To seek a reversal of terms is merely to honor, reinforce, and perpetuate such terms. Therefore, when a political project remains trapped in old categories, how can it claim to be truly revolutionary?

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

An open letter to Senator Dick Gordon

Dear Senator Gordon,

May this letter find you in good health. Forgive my presumptuousness in communicating with you in this manner, but the Internet is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen and voter such as myself can attempt to reach you.

Upon learning that you had entered the presidential race, I took it upon myself to study the contents of your campaign web site, and what I have found has made for interesting reading. That you are seeking to create meaningful changes in the country, as stated in your manifesto, resonates strongly with me—like many Filipinos, I look forward to the May 2010 polls as an important turning point for our nation, after nearly a decade under the present administration—and there is no doubt in my mind that, should you succeed in your bid, you will be able to accomplish most, if not all, of the goals that you will set for yourself. Although I cannot say that I will cast my vote for you, I do not see why you would not be able to make real your vision for a better Philippines. If there is something that even your harshest critics must say about you, it is that you do not lack the will or the fervor to see your plans through to the last detail—one need only check your long and distinguished public service record. You and your running mate, Mr. Bayani Fernando, are definitely capable of transformational leadership. For that, I respect your candidacy, as I will respect your presidency, should the electorate install you in Malacañan Palace.

The reason that I am writing to you is to express my concerns regarding Mr. Paul Farol, one of the bloggers for Asian Correspondent. I do not know if you are still connected with him professionally, but he claims in his Blogger profile to be one of your interns. Certainly, he is one of your most enthusiastic and most prominent online supporters. He has been wanting you to run for president since 2006, even setting up the Team Gordon 2010 blog out of his own volition, and was moved to the point of tears when he learned that you had filed your certificate of candidacy with the Commission on Elections last December 1. Such passion would warm the cockles of anyone’s heart, and I am sure that you are touched to have someone with the zeal of Mr. Farol on your side.

What I find disturbing—and I believe you should be similarly disturbed—is that Mr. Farol seems to have a personal vendetta against one of your opponents for the presidency, Senator Benigno “Noynoy” S. Aquino III, and has no qualms whatsoever in making a display of it, as evidenced by many of his online postings. For example, one of the updates in his Twitter account—his third, as the others were previously suspended—states that, “I caused the downfall of the Yellow Messiah… Now to find a tree to nail him to.” The use of such a violent image implies a depth of ill feeling—ill feeling that, in the absence of actual justification, would appear to be rooted solely in spite. Consider, for instance, how he responded to a comment on one of his blog entries: “Picking on Noynoy is just a hobby which I am not being paid for and would refuse to get paid for because IT IS SOOOO MUCH FUN.” As though that were not enough, Mr. Farol has also been trying to enlist others in his campaign of irrational hate, presumably with the end view of scoring political points on your behalf.

While I am not one to begrudge anyone his or her freedom of expression, I think you will agree with me when I say that Mr. Farol’s wanton exhibition of malice runs counter—strikingly so—to your vision of Bagumbayan, your expressed belief in the need to “do things, believe things, and think in new ways”. Mr. Farol’s vitriolic outpourings, then, are ultimately harmful to your campaign, positioned as it is precisely against traditional politics, one index of which is the very mudslinging that Mr. Farol is doing.

You yourself have said on your web site that, “What this country needs is not just a change OF men, but a change IN men.” As far as I am concerned, one of the best ways to demonstrate this change is to elevate the level of political discourse from senseless vituperation to civil, rational, merit-based, mature discussion. Therefore, I would like to suggest that you or one of your advisers get in touch with Mr. Farol, and remind him of the progressive values that you uphold, in order that he may support you more effectively and in better faith than he has thus far shown.

Granted, you have also exhorted Filipinos to “[not] let anyone tell you what that change is going to be”, but I am sure that you can convince the public of your worthiness to be president on the basis of your principles and achievements, and not at the expense of your rivals, as Mr. Farol seems to believe.

I trust that you will give this matter serious consideration, and that any steps you take will be decisive ones, steps toward the transformation that all Filipinos, regardless of their alliances, have come to expect of you.

Thank you for your time, and God bless your campaign.

*

(Added December 18, 2009: Paul Farol has informed me that he is not working for Senator Gordon, and that the Blogger profile to which I have linked is not his.)