The opposition lost. Not one of the Liberal Party (LP)-dominated “Otso Diretso” senatorial contenders made it to the 12 Senate seats up for grabs. Not even its frontrunner candidate Bam Aquino who was a reelectionist or Mar Roxas who topped the 2004 senatorial race (15 years ago!), both with outstanding legislative track records to their credit, made it against the other reelectionist senators and political newcomers who ran under the President’s ruling party The Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP–Laban) or under Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s regional party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP). To date, questions about the integrity of the 2019 midterm elections remain in public discourse.
Whether or not there was election manipulation or vote rigging, the results of the 2019 midterm elections painted a picture of a positive referendum on the performance of the country’s president. This is contrary to the opinion of some observers of Philippine politics who thought that the midterm elections could penalize the president, hence, picturing the electorate as punitive and the midterm elections as a protest vote against the president. But the opposition lost! Why did the opposition lose the senatorial race?
A confluence of factors can help explain why the opposition lost. One set of factors can be understood from the demand side (voters) and another from the supply side (parties and candidates) of the electoral competition.
To begin with, the race to the Senate was not highly contested. It was very divisive, yes, but not highly contested. Candidates did not feel obliged to be more responsive to voters and their preferences. There were 62 candidates who competed for the twelve seats in the Senate. But how many of these candidates participated in public debates?
Administration bets have obviously stayed clear from these debates, not because they were afraid or intimidated, but simply because they did not see any electoral value or add-ons in joining these debates. For the opposition, it was different. Lacking resources, the opposition saw the debates as gratis opportunities for electoral mileage. But without administration candidates in the debates to challenge or to respond to, the opposition could not present itself as better or strong contenders.
Due to the lack of resources and weak party institutionalization of the Liberal Party, Otso Diretso failed to microtarget voters for personalized mobilization. Yes, the LP had Project Makinig (PM), “a nationwide, technology-driven, door-to-door” listening campaign launched by the party in October 2018 that aimed at “re-connecting” the party with the people, especially at the grassroots. But how many voters did the party reach? How many did it mobilize? How many did it “re-connect” with? With its launch almost seven months before the midterm elections, the project was rather late.
The effort of the LP to focus its campaign strategies at grassroots organizing and personal contacting of select voters was commendable. But strategically, what impact did it make particularly in vote-rich provinces and regions in the country? Did the voting publics know about Project Makinig in the first place?
In terms of platforms, how different were the opposition candidates from the other contenders? Didn’t they promise better lives and a more peaceful Philippines just like the others? Didn’t they promise to work for social and economic justice, inclusive growth and development, and the country’s sovereignty like the others? With the same or similar platform and agenda, the voters often must settle for the candidate who is either popular or who they are familiar with. The endorsement of, and alliance with, the popular incumbent president sealed the victory of the administration candidates.
The opposition lost not just because they failed to microtarget voters, but more fatal than this omission was a campaign strategy to turn the senatorial race into a zero-sum game, intentionally or not. Worst, it was a zero-sum game between them, the opposition slate, and the popular president. With the President’s popularity across all classes of society, the opposition’s boat was definitely sinking, and its votes shrinking.
By defeating the administration bets and allies either through negative campaigning or shaming (as some political observers have surmised already), Otso Diretso thought that votes would automatically transfer to them. They were wrong. The negativity manifested itself strongly at the ballot box.
Turning the senatorial race into a zero-sum game weakened what was already a weak campaign strategy. The opposition identified multiple issues where each issue took many stances. Under such conditions, voters are more inclined to settle for the candidate whose stances are closest to their own. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the stage wherein voters can truly vote on issues. This is due to a lack of full information, which is either a problem of availability or accessibility of information, or both.
Without complete information (and ample time as well as the temperament to consume information judiciously) voters cannot decide on the basis of the actual salience of any issue to them. Hence, the voters often must settle for the candidate who is either popular or who they are familiar with. Again, it worked against the opposition.
A more alarming omission by the opposition was that it mistakenly focused more on its strategy and less on its strategic goals. The immediate goal of the senatorial race was to win votes. Administration bets and allies campaigned for votes. But the opposition campaigned for seats. What a huge difference!
So busy with defeating the President’s candidates, the opposition exhausted limited resources to persuade voters by offering a government and policy agenda that questioned and sought to replace the incumbent government’s priorities. It campaigned against the government’s war on drugs primarily due to human rights violation concerns, its “alliance” with China, the movement towards charter change and/or federalism, as well as the president’s misogynist remarks, among other things.
Doing so, they projected themselves as a group of people who could push for change. But they fell short of convincing the voting public that they were the right group to lead the charge. The combined effect of the president’s popularity and the relatively good economic performance of the country under his watch undermined the opposition candidates’ incentives to present themselves as leaders for change.
What seemed to have happened was that the government was “rewarded” instead of “punished” despite the “excesses” and “failures” that dominated the campaign discourse of the opposition.
And so, what is next for the opposition after the 2019 midterm elections? With only four opposition Senate members (with one still detained) left in the incoming 18th Congress, will the opposition make or break the Senate? What does the opposition need to do to (re)gain relevance in the synchronized national and local elections in 2022? They need to recalibrate. For example, they need to microtarget voters and match their strategy to context.
Diana J. Mendoza, PhD, is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University.