“Yung mga boboto sa mga taong ’to, paki-unfriend ako please. Wala akong kaibigang bobo.” (Those who will vote for the following candidates, please unfriend me. I have no stupid friends.)
Vote-shaming. The statement above was shared as various memes on Facebook during the campaign season leading to the midterm elections. Bobo-shaming statements like this attempted to shame voters who are thought of as ill-informed and uneducated based on their unpopular choices, especially for the senatorial post. It was followed by a list of names, marked with a red line for emphasis, of senatorial candidates publicly declared as undeserving of a vote come May 13. The closer the election date got, the viler the posts became. As soon as the election results showed the dismal ranking of the opposition candidates, the vile memes turned into vicious attacks that gave a glimpse of an election culture that is both disconcerting and worrisome.
Plunder and graft case defendants. It is not difficult to see where the bobo sentiments came from. Of the 12 Hugpong-backed candidates, three have pending or have had plunder charges recently filed against them at the Sandiganbayan in the course of their political career. The names of re-elected senator Bong Revilla and losing senatorial re-electionists Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile stand out, having been charged with separate plunder and graft cases in 2014 for misuse of government funds. In 2014, the Office of the Ombudsman officially charged Revilla with plunder before the Sandiganbayan after he was accused of divesting his pork barrel funds through the bogus NGOs linked with Janet Napoles and earning kickbacks worth P224.5 million in return. He was also charged with 16 counts of graft in connection with the same multi-billion pork barrel scam. The anti-graft court acquitted Revilla in 2018 for the plunder case, allowing him to post bail, but the 16 counts of graft charges related to the same scam are still under trial. Estrada’s and Enrile’s plunder and graft cases stem from the accusation that they amassed P183 million and P172 million worth of kickbacks, respectively, for funneling their PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) to the same Napoles-linked bogus NGOs. Revilla managed to secure the 11th slot in the midterm elections but Estrada and Enrile, who are both out on bail for their existing plunder charges, failed in their bids.
Revilla won; Otso Diretso slate lost. If the midterm elections were any indication, the vote-shaming messages on various social media platforms intended to influence voters’ preference by shaming them did not help the opposition’s cause. One can boldly say it backfired on them. Most of the Hugpong-backed candidates who fared well in pre-election surveys did win eventually. Vote-shaming failed to turn the tables, so to speak. Revilla won, and while Enrile did not make it even to the top 20, Estrada did and — with the exception of outgoing senator Bam Aquino who was at the 14th spot — bested the entire opposition slate including Otso Diretso’s popular first-time senatorial candidate Chel Diokno and former senator and presidentiable Mar Roxas. Imee Marcos, whose entire campaign had her team fending off attacks that questioned the veracity of her educational background, won and got the eighth spot. The unexplained ill-gotten wealth of the Marcos family and the court convictions of former First Lady Imelda Marcos did not stop her from winning a coveted seat in Senate.
Negative campaigning did not help. The dismal results of the 2019 elections for Otso Diretso candidates make a good case for reflection especially with the win of Revilla, who just got out on bail a few months before the campaign, and Marcos, whose name alone ought to have had an impact on the votes cast for her. Post-election analysis points to the negative campaign ran by the opposition during the campaign season as a major contributing factor. In an interview with ABS-CBN (2019), political analyst Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform said that while downgrading opponents and promoting allies may be part of the campaign system, it should not end there. Negative campaigning alone diverts the political discourse away from the issue and overshadows an alternative platform offered by a candidate. Eventually, it fails to capture the interest of a voter along with the chance to impact his choice.
The negative campaign that dominated the May 2019 elections disenfranchised the D and E voters because they were singled out and chastised for their voting preferences without regard to the possibility that these preferences weren’t decided on overnight. Those who subscribed to negative campaigning thought they were shaming D and E voters for the way they think; they thought that a little insult coming from classes A, B, and C would “enlighten” these voters and help them make better choices overnight. In the end, it was bobo-shaming for the sake of shaming the poor, the unemployed, and the illiterate. It came out tasteless and arrogant, and left the masa disenfranchised for having been vilified, but mostly unheard.
Lessons learned. The elections were over before the inedible ink on everyone’s fingers was gone. While negative campaigning has always been part of the game, it sometimes does more harm than good because it draws attention to the criticism and drowns out the alternative candidate or platform being pushed forward. Running against the administration makes it trickier since the administration has all the machinery at hand and their reach is unlimited. Opposition candidates need to make sure that every limited attempt to be heard will yield a vote for them and not seething contempt. Seeing candidates with plunder and graft cases doing well at pre-election surveys should not be used as an excuse to vilify others. Instead, it must be taken as an opportunity to educate the voters without letup about the gravity of such charges. The May 2019 elections taught us that shaming, especially of the masa, does nothing to translate the act of shaming itself into votes. It does nothing except to shame.
Pilar Pajayon-Berse is a professor at the Political Science department of Ateneo de Manila University.