On running for senator

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Greg B. Macabenta

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How does one win in a senatorial election where 63 candidates are fighting over 12 seats? The advertising geniuses at the watering holes in Makati insist that name recognition is vital. But the harsh reality may be that money, which is also known as “the root of all evil,” is the foundation of Philippine elections. No money. No votes.

Some idealists still hope in vain that a meaningful platform of government geared to public service, based on a sound ideology should influence the choice of candidates. But that doesn’t seem to apply in the Philippines. Cynical voters no longer believe the high-falutin’ promises of politicians. In the first place, there is no longer such a thing as an ideological underpinning for candidates, according to a senior citizen friend who longs for those days when senators were brilliant, respectable, dignified and were guided by principles and ideology.

“Candidates don’t stand for any party ideology or even a philosophy of governance,” explains my hoary friend, who still longs for the two-party system of old.”There was a time when there were only two dominant political parties, the Liberal Party and the Nacionalista Party. And they were guided by respective ideologies.”

According to him, there were also no political butterflies then, flitting from one party to the other, depending on who was in power.

Well…yes and no. In the 1965 presidential elections, Liberal Party Senate President Ferdinand Marcos flitted to the Nacionalista Party to become its official candidate against reelectionist President Diosdado Macapagal. Adds one pundit, Marcos made “butterflying” more rampant than “Noynoying.”

Well…yes. But Marcos did not invent the political butterfly or its fruity equivalent, the balimbing. This political reality has been around for a long time.

For instance, the Liberal Party broke away from the Nacionalista Party when Philippine independence from the United States became imminent (after the Japanese had been defeated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Philippine Commonwealth was reestablished). Senate President Manuel Roxas founded the Liberal Party and pushed for a presidential election, apparently to contest the high office then occupied by President Sergio Osmeña. Roxas won.

Indeed, political ambition was not a post-Marcos phenomenon. NP Congressman Jose Romero, had some harsh words for the Roxas “Liberal wing” at the opening of the convention that decided on the presidential election.

According to Wikipedia, Romero, who delivered the keynote speech, accused Roxas and his followers of “fanning the flames of discontent among the people, of capitalizing on the people’s hardship, and of minimizing the accomplishment of the [Osmeña] Administration. These men with the Messiah complex have been the bane of the country and of the world. This is the mentality that produces Hitlers and the Mussolinis, and (in) their desire to climb to power. they even want to destroy the party which placed them where they are today.”

“But, at least the two parties had distinct ideologies,” insists the hoary political observer.

Well…yes and no. The Nacionalista Party did have a distinct ideology because, having been founded in 1907, in the wake of the colonization of the Philippines by the United States, the NP actively campaigned for independence. But the stated ideology of the LP was pure motherhood and could have been crafted by the Boy Scouts.

According to Wikipedia, “The (LP) currently espouses liberalism as its main ideology. According to its values charter, the self-described values of the party are freedom, justice and solidarity (bayanihan).”

They could well have added the whole Boy Scout code: The LPs are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, brave, clean reverent.

“But, at least the candidates had distinct platforms of government which they enunciated during their campaigns,” persists the nostalgic political observer.

Well…yes and no. In the 1959 senatorial elections, LP candidate Estanislao A. Fernandez, Jr. had nothing to say for himself except about getting a Filipina named Lydia Dean acquitted in a criminal case, reportedly sparing her from death row.

Fernandez’s campaign slogan was: “Savior of Lydia Dean.” He won.

His party-mate and the only other LP senatorial candidate who won was a congressman from Batac, Ilocos Norte, named Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos also had motherhood promises in his campaign materials but depended more on film drama to communicate his purported brilliance. His campaign commercial showed him reviewing for the bar exams while in prison, accused of killing a political opponent. Marcos not only won, he was the highest vote-getter in that senatorial contest.

I clearly remember that because I wrote the script of that LP campaign film for Lamberto V. Avellana’s production company, Documentary, Inc. Incidentally, Bert also produced the NP campaign film and I also wrote the script — and I wasn’t even old enough to vote.

And talk about writing scripts, I wrote the screenplay of the bandit bio-pic, Nardong Putik, that revived the movie career of Ramon Revilla, Sr. and catapulted him to the Senate. Sadly, his detractors refer to his senatorial stint as being a perennial member of the “Committee on Silence,” whatever that means.

Did Revilla run on principles or ideology? Not at all. He literally won on the basis of putik (mud).

“But, at least, the senatorial candidates then had meaningful campaign promises that resonated with the voters,” my old friend insists, not showing any signs of giving up.

Well…yes. After all motherhood promises always resonate with the voters. Nothing could be more motherhood than Erap para sa Mahirap — although I can’t recall if he also used this line for his senatorial campaign (aside from his presidential campaign).

Another classic motherhood campaign promise made by a senatorial candidate was, “Ipaglalaban ko ang katarungan para sa mahihirap!” (I will fight for justice for the poor).

That promise got Juan R. Liwag elected to the Senate. It was coined by my boss at Advertising & Marketing Associates (AMA) Tony Cantero. I can never forget that because I produced the radio tags in Tagalog and all the major dialects, using Liwag himself.

(The trouble was, my assistant used a defective audio tape and the recording was spoiled. To avoid being fired, I re-recorded the spiel with radio personality Fernando Fernandez, imitating Liwag. That went on the air without Liwag knowing. Anyway, he won.).

“At least they did not have every Pedro, Juan and Pablo running for senator,” my hoary friend persists. “There weren’t 63 candidates then, unlike now. It was easier for the voters to make an intelligent choice.”

Well…yes and no. Easier choice, maybe. Intelligent choice, not necessarily There were also so-so senatorial candidates then — well below the caliber of Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tañada.

At any rate, assuming that name recognition is essential in winning a senatorial contest, a mnemonic device or memory aid like Otso Deretso (the slogan of the opposition slate) could help. But, so far based on the surveys, it looks like money and party machinery are the most important ingredients for victory.

I have a feeling that my hoary friend will wish for the good old days in vain.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.