The Philippine Star : Placeholders

14 October 2021

By FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno | The Philippine Star

The agony isn’t over yet.

There is a sense that what we see (from the certificates of candidacies filed) is not necessarily what we are going to get (given the magic of candidate substitutions). Suspense lingers in the air.

Indications of possible shuffling by way of candidate substitution are abundant. Things appear more volatile than any would admit.

Bato de la Rosa, presidential candidate of the “ruling” PDP-Laban, declared immediately after he filed his preference for having Sara Duterte run in his stead. Note that the senator was told he would be fielded as candidate only two hours before the deadline last Friday.

The ever-adept Lakas-NUCD, it turns out, had taken the precaution of filing candidacies for president and vice president on behalf of two relatively unknown individuals generally considered placeholders for weightier substitutes down the road. The party had earlier endorsed Sara Duterte for the presidency. The filing of certificates of candidacy leaves a backdoor open for the Davao City mayor to enter the game.

Two vice-presidential candidates – Willie Ong and Francis Pangilinan – have expressed their willingness to step aside to enable their principals to transact alliances. Their respective lead candidates – Isko Moreno and Leni Robredo – could possibly team up to form a stronger combination.

The possibility for such a recombination, however, has grown slimmer by the day as the relationship between the two major candidates grows more acrimonious. Leni partisans, Etta Rosales in particular, are responsible for the intrigue that Isko was Duterte’s “secret candidate.”

Overzealous Leni partisans have also mounted a campaign urging Isko to withdraw his candidacy. They should be shown the internal survey quoted by Aksyon Demokratiko Metro-Manila coordinator Egay Erice.

The quoted survey shows that if Leni withdraws, 90 percent of her voters will shift support to Isko Moreno. On the other hand, if Isko withdraws, most of his voters would migrate to either Sara Duterte or Bongbong Marcos.

Should Isko withdraw, Bongbong will have a highway to the presidency. The call for the Manila mayor to withdraw underscores the political naivety of Leni’s sanctimonious partisans.

The single most important factor animating Leni’s politics, it seems, is to stop Bongbong Marcos from becoming president. If she is true to that goal, she should withdraw in favor of Isko who has the better survey ratings.

Leni helped fuel speculations about candidate substitution by filing as an independent candidate. That is thought to give her greater flexibility in renegotiating alliances as the electoral campaign wears on. It also frees her from the baggage of the widely disdained LP.

To distinguish her candidacy from the Yellows, Leni chose pink as her campaign color, claiming this was the international color of protest. It is not. Red is the color of protest. There is some revisionism here.

Leni, by the way, appears to have been toying with candidate substitution efforts even before the deadline for filing. Presidential candidate Ping Lacson accused Leni of insidiously attempting to poach his running mate Tito Sotto under the cover of “unifying the opposition.”

Erice, a staunch Liberal before his recent defection to Aksyon, accuses the Vice President of “bordering on mental dishonesty” because she was preparing a run for the presidency even as she was pretending to be an honest broker in unifying non-Duterte forces. She was not negotiating with clean hands.

Sara, meanwhile, is in isolation in Davao City after testing positive for COVID-19 infection. She pleads for privacy. But that might not be possible, considering the large number of powerbrokers who have kept backdoors open for her to enter the game.

In the good old days, when voters actually wrote down the names of candidates on blank ballots, the deadline for filing candidacies happened a day before the formal start of the campaign period. Candidates may be substituted up to noon of Election Day only in the event of untimely death or disability.

Automated elections changed all that. Because the ballots, tailor-made for each municipality, had to be printed way in advance, the deadline for filing candidacies was advanced by many months. This put pressure on the political parties to make their candidate selections early. The remedy for that is to allow a period for candidate substitution.

The early filing deadline also created a funny situation where candidates who filed are not technically considered candidates until the onset of the campaign period. They are free to spend zillions in pre-campaign activities without being held accountable under campaign spending rules. This raises the real costs of mounting an electoral campaign because the actual campaign period stretches for over six months.

The intense pre-campaign activities could shape candidate standings in the preference surveys, making recalibration of candidate alliances attractive for political players. Up until the start of the campaign period, or even after it, we could see changes in the de facto slates of candidates.

Of course, the provisions for candidate substitution may be abused. But they may not be penalized. We all need the flexibility allowed by a very long actual campaign period.

As an afterthought, some legislators have proposed limiting the ability to replace candidates. But this is not the real issue here.

The real issue is that automated elections inadvertently made the political party system practically extinct. Parties are reduced to nothing more than vehicles-of-convenience for documentation purposes.

The present regime of electoral rules condemns our electoral democracy to personality-driven politics. We no longer demand vision and programs of government, not even intellectual competence, from those proposing to lead us.

Electoral democracy has become a vacuous game of icons and caricatures.