Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 12



“The truth has a way of changing plans.” INSURGENT, Chapter 3


Survey after survey, numbers are solidifying ex-senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s hold as a frontrunner in the presidential campaign. What is remarkable is Marcos breaching the 50% threshold in a multi-party system that produced presidents by mere plurality of votes. Perhaps the recent poll that shows Filipinos favor leaders to be strong (69%), honest (55%), intelligent (42%), morally upright (33%) and compassionate (19%) provides insight to these polling numbers.


Comparing the two top candidates, Marcos’ dominance in the surveys seems to dovetail with people’s perceptions that traits of strong and honest leadership trump intelligence, morally upright or compassionate traits for candidates. Surveys are also showing that 60% of Filipinos see graft and corruption as the most urgent national concern.


Vice president Leni Robredo is not doing well in surveys. Of course, hope springs eternal that the surveys could be wrong. Still, Robredo’s survey numbers are worrisome.


Two foreign policy issues (South China Sea and NPA insurgency) and graft and corruption could be driving these perceptions on leadership and trust issues. Marcos makes it clear that he will continue President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy towards China while Robredo wants the opposite. This distinction alone means that based on Duterte’s popularity, Marcos is benefitting from the president’s uncompromising resolve to pursue an independent foreign policy toward the superpowers.


These survey numbers are clearly subjective but the candidates themselves could be a factor not so much for what they promise in the campaign trail, but their stand or perceived stand on the issues. For example, Marcos is unequivocally supportive of the government’s efforts to combat the communist armed insurgency, drug war, and corruption. More specifically, Marcos wants the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) to take the lead in the negotiations.


Robredo, on the other hand, vowed during a forum in early November last year to abolish NTF-ELCAC as duplicative of other agencies’ efforts in the fight against the rebels. After an executive briefing from the NTF-ELCAC brass on their mandate, Robredo changed her tune and threw her support to the anti-insurgency body. Blowback from Leftist supporters made her clarify that she is still against red-tagging.


The decades’ old insurgency is really a much bigger issue. Recall that the older Marcos declared Martial Law precisely because of the New People’s Army’s push to overthrow the government in the early seventies. The emergency rule allowed Marcos to corral the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) including its Supremo/Founder, Jose Maria Sison. President Cory Aquino’s efforts to appease the Left allowed Sison and others to be freed. Aquino’s and succeeding administrations tried formal negotiations with the Left through its National Democratic Front (NDF) but failed.


During the 2016 presidential campaign, then candidate Duterte promised to bring the rebels back to the fold through peaceful means but that too failed. Sison wanted power sharing, a seat on the table but Duterte rebuffed him and declared an all-out war instead. He created the NTF-ELCA to spearhead the anti-insurgency campaign.


Filipinos, in general, are against the Reds as shown by surveys and national election results. This view is probably steeled by the governments failed peace talks with CPP-NPA-NDF reflecting insincerity on the rebels especially after the 1987 Constitution legalized the CPP. The constant news coverage of NPA ambuscades of police forces and lawless activities such as extortion, kidnapping are further reinforcing such unfavorable views. Thus, Robredo’s alliance with the Leftist groups is hurting her chances as shown by these survey results.


On the honesty trait, one would think based on social media postings that Robredo is more honest and intelligent compared to Marcos. But the opposite could be true based on the campaign strategy employed by the candidates. Robredo supporters and by association, Robredo herself, are coming across as being sanctimonious.


After being in public view for almost eight years, Robredo’s persona has been shaped by her criticisms of Duterte particularly on his handling of the drug war and the pandemic. Her trust ratings over the years have been steadily coming down for a variety of reasons. The most potent reason, perhaps, is her association with the Aquinos’ and the Yellows who are suspected to be funding her campaign.


Despite running as an independent, Robredo being the titular head of the Liberal Party, has inherited Aquino’s problems and the failure of the “Daang Matuwid” (Straight Path) approach. Graft and corruption exploded in the public view during Noynoy Aquino’s term when the pork barrel and its successor, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) were declared illegal. Robredo’s campaign promise to go after graft and corruption is not getting traction.


Meanwhile, Marcos has done well to manage his social media campaign. The years of vilifying the Marcoses by the Yellows is benefitting Bongbong Marcos who stayed away from confronting these issues. Instead, Marcos started his vlog to portray a different version of him and the Marcos family. Call it historical revisionism, Marcos has successfully marketed himself as a candidate with a vision to help the country recover from the pandemic and years of decline.


Both Robredo and Marcos were exposed to the covid-19 virus. Marcos tested positive, had severe covid symptoms and sought medical help. In his vlog, Marcos talked about how he got it, what symptoms he got, the frontliners who helped him, and how thankful and appreciative he was of the frontliners who helped keep him alive. His vlog comes across as an honest retelling of his covid experiences.


Contrast that with Robredo’s bout with covid. When she announced that her daughter Tricia, a physician, tested positive for covid-19 and was in quarantine, she too was in isolation because of exposure to her security aide who tested positive. Robredo, apparently, had to be treated intravenously for a few days because of severe classic covid symptoms (sore throat, high fever, chills, and lack of appetite) but never mentioned she tested positive for the virus earlier and just recovered.


Robredo had to dispel rumors that it was her daughter’s rumored failure to quarantine that got the vice president’s security aide infected. Robredo actually mentioned that the latest of her aides testing positive was the second. In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, she could have clarified if she received monoclonal IV treatment and whether she was exposed to her daughter prior to her aides turning positive. It’s a valid concern because if it was true, it would have reflected poorly on her.


Clearly, Robredo has not learned the lessons of Team Leni’s poor performance in the 2019 senatorial election. Filipino voters rejected them because of their elitist perception of Robredo’s highly educated and moralistic candidates. Yet, Robredo is following the same script of “being highly educated, well-mannered moral leader” because she wants to project herself as a good alternative to Duterte. Yet, her survey numbers are not catching up. (To be continued.)