Cynthia Villar

Winner’s curse: How the opposition intimidated Team PNoy to take the low road to win in 2013 while leaving daang matuwid with no clear agenda or heir-apparent


In the Japanese martial art of Jujitsu one gains victory not by superior strength, but by using the force of one’s opponent against him. This is what the leader of the “friendly” opposition Vice President Jojo Binay did to the administration in the 2013 senatorial elections.

Having defeated President Aquino’s heir apparent Secretary Mar Roxas in the 2010 vice presidential derby, Binay’s unrivalled popularity while in office and his links to two of the most revered names in Philippine politics (Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and ex-president Joseph Estrada) made “winnability” foremost in Team PNoy’s mind in considering candidates for its 2013 senate slate.

Having experienced the “tyranny of numbers” in the lead up to the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona and in the subsequent push to have a number of its reform measures passed, the administration was not going to risk losing a majority of senate seats this time around. This caused the administration to take a “win at all costs” approach.

Its first move was to mend fences with its former rivals in the 2010 election. The entry of the Nacionalista Party’s standard bearers into the tent of Team PNoy spelled an about face for both parties. Senator Alan Peter Cayetano had started the TOPAK meme which maligned the president’s mental capacities. Senator Loren Legarda had called on him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation during the campaign. All that was swept under the rug as far as the administration was concerned.

After framing the contest between Messrs Aquino and Villar back in 2010 as one of “light v darkness”, the Villar’s were all of a sudden admitted among the “chosen ones” who would travel down the “Righteous Path” alongside the president. Not to worry, the administration said, since such a coalition was based on platforms, not personalities. Except that they avoided at every turn to define what that platform was.

When asked to identify the top 5 legislative proposals Team PNoy would push for if elected, its spokesman, Rep Miro Quimbo could only identify 4. “Let me get back to you on that” was his candid response. Unfortunately even the priorities he outlined didn’t figure in any formal policy document or in most of the endorsed candidates’ platforms.

When asked why there was no shared policy platform across Team PNoy, the undersecretary for strategy and communications, Manolo Quezon replied that midterms weren’t about policies but a referendum on the president. You either believe in him and his “chosen ones” or you don’t. So there you have it. The election was framed as a clash of personalities and their proxies, not as a contest of ideas, policies and visions for the country. Here’s what he said…

Consequently, the voters simply did what they have always done when faced with no real alternatives but the same old dynasties and incumbents: they went with those that connected with them on a deep emotional level, those with whom they felt a sense of shared destiny.

Due to the economic make-up of our electorate, that meant electing Nancy Binay even if she had no prior experience working in an official capacity in government. It also meant catapulting Grace Poe to pole position based on the memory of her deceased father and the playful use of her surname as an expression of respect.

Both these candidates scored high on our “trapo scale” dubbed the “pander-o-meter” based on an analysis of their personal platforms. Of course their policies were never scrutinised by the media. Neither did the intelligentsia perform its role in critically assessing the promises of each candidate (the absence of party-wide platforms made this task a lot more difficult than it should have been).

Health care reform, a key plank in Ms Binay’s platform was not given the kind of treatment it needed. She was never challenged on the feasibility of her proposals to provide free nutrition and medicine particularly to nursing mothers. In the case of Grace Poe, nobody noticed that her campaign was anchored on a coulda shoulda woulda basis committing her to nothing specific and nothing firm.

The candidates were allowed to promise the sun, moon and stars all the while pandering to the emotional pleasure zones of the electorate without the voice of reason being given an honest hearing. Social media was co-opted to suit the candidates’ purposes. There was no one calling them out on the false hopes and expectations that they were building.

Finally, in assessing the aftermath of Election 2013, what we will find is that although Team PNoy garnered a clear majority of seats that were up for grabs, it comes out the weaker party.

Sure, it now can boast of having a majority in both chambers of congress, but the political calculus facing its adherents will be daunting. Will they really pursue the tough and unpopular reforms that are needed to bring the country forward, especially now that the electoral bankability of the BInay dynasty remains utterly unassailable?

Secondly, the president does not have a clear, viable heir-apparent to challenge the Jojo Binay-Jinggoy Estrada machinery and name recall in 2016. Secretary Mar Roxas has not accepted his party’s draft to run perhaps due to his failure to define a narrative for his candidacy.

Only one of the Liberal Party’s three senatorial candidates is likely to win in this election, in large part due to the fact that he shares the same name as the president. Bam Aquino will be too young to contest the presidential elections in 2016 being a year shy of the minimum age requirement, repeating the fate of his late-uncle.

So that leaves the administration with a mere three years to cement its legacy before handing over the reins to its successor who is likely to come from the opposition. For failing to define its agenda and properly vet its allies prior to the elections, the administration now suffers the problem of having no clear mandate to implement whatever reforms it outlines afterwards.

The same thing happened following the 1986 people power uprising. Rather than develop a new breed of politicos based on principles and a common reform agenda, the revolutionary government of Cory Aquino accommodated and resuscitated the clans who ruled the country in the pre-Martial Law era allowing the children of its revolution to die in the ditches defending their cause.

Joseph Estrada once said that her government’s biggest mistake was letting guys like him back in (clever guy he truly is!). Only those like Jejomar Binay who were willing to “play by the rules” of the jungle survived.

Instead of taking the hard, difficult path of building a constituency for reform through principled, policy-driven politics and developing a new breed of politicians from inside its base, the second Aquino administration opted to go down the quick and easy path to success, just like the first.

For those that thought 2010 marked the beginning of an era of new politics, think again. The years 2010-16 might simply be an interlude, a case of trapo interrupted, where the country enjoyed a momentary respite from the worst forms of populist, predatory politics at the top, before old habits kicked in once again.

Image: courtesy of Rappler.com

Trapo Alert! Detecting political pandering, part 8

Panderometer

 

Featuring Nancy Binay, Tingting Cojuangco, Jamby Madrigal, Mitos Magsaysay and Cynthia Villar.

This is the eighth part in a series on the candidates for the senate in 2013. Just a recap: I am attempting through this series to have a serious discussion of the aspirants and their political platforms (or lack thereof). These are put through what I call the pander-o-meter to determine whether the policy detail they have released so far places them in either the reformist or populist columns. The following table details the range of possible scores a candidate can get and the equivalent meaning of each reading:

Introducing: the ‘Pander-o-meter’ or Trapo Scale

A reading of… …is equivalent to…

1-2

Low levels of pandering detected, generally reformist in nature

3

A mixed bag of proposals aimed at both pandering and reforming

4

Trapo alert! Approaching dangerous levels of pandering

5

Could be likened to a vote buying trapo

In part 1, I covered Juan Edgardo Angara, JrBenigno Aquino IV and Alan Peter Cayetano. In part 2, I covered Francis Escudero, Risa Hontiveros and Loren Legarda. In part 3, I covered Aquilino Pimentel IIIJoseph Victor Ejercito and Juan Ponce Enrile, Jr. In part 4, I covered Gregorio HonasanErnesto Maceda and Juan Miguel Zubiri. In part 5, I covered Teodoro Casiño, the candidates of Ang Kapatiran Party (John Carlos delos Reyes, Lito David and Mars Llasos), and the candidates of the Democratic Party of the Philippines (Bal Falcone, Christian Señeres and Greco Belgica). In part 6, I covered Grace Poe LlamanzaresEddie Villanueva and Richard Gordon. In part 7, I covered Jun Magsaysay, Edward Hagedorn, Antonio Trillanes, Samson Alcantara, Ramon Montaño and Ricardo Penson.

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Nancy Binay (PDP-Laban-UNA)

The erstwhile assistant of the vice president is gaining the spotlight as she runs for public office for the first time. Having served on the board of her parent’s foundations, Ms Binay is planning to push for health and education services in the senate. Her television ads contain three pledges, which include:

  1. Providing better prenatal and post natal services
  2. Free medicine and nutritional supplements
  3. Education to employment services

It is not clear how her proposals would work. She has not released a detailed policy statement. Her web presence is fairly limited. Her Facebook page contains mostly photos of her and a guy I presume is her partner on the campaign trail. What knowledge we have of her policy prescriptions come from ads and news items.

Ms Binay is banking on the franchise of her family name to assure voters that her promises are backed up with years of assisting her parents in their charities and public service work. Much has been made of her unwillingness to debate Risa Hontiveros on health issues.

While Risa talks in the abstract of making healthcare “more universal” through a systemic reform of the health system, Nancy is using very specific and perhaps targeted health programs that “make it real” to voters. That and the very tangible example of what the Binays have done in Makati is why she seems to be appealing to voters despite the fact that this is her first time to claim the public spotlight.

Unfortunately, we do not know how her programs would be funded and how costly they might turn out to be. It is feasible to do these things in the City of Makati with its rich taxpayers footing the bill for their programs, but doing the same throughout the country will be a major challenge, something that the traditional media has not confronted her with. Indeed, the mainstream media have in a way given Ms Binay a free pass.

I am not saying that her programs cannot be done. All I am saying is that someone will have to foot the bill for them. And without sufficient information regarding how big these programs are intended to be and how they will be funded, we have to take her proposals with a grain of salt.

Pander-o-meter: 4 out of 5

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Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco (UNA)

This former governor, a history and national security buff, is running to create a peaceful end to the conflict in Mindanao and the settlement of the Sabah issue, her long-time passions. After listening to over forty minutes of her being interviewed on cable news regarding her plans, however, it is still not clear to me as to what her roadmap is for bringing this about.

It is such a shame, given her knowledge gained from scholastic and personal pursuits and involvement in the decades’ old peace process, that she is unable or unwilling to articulate a coherent roadmap for a long-term settlement of the conflict in the south. Pity as even her inclination as expressed in the interview tends to veer away from the current course taken by the administration in revamping the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Does that mean the present set up is fine? If so, then why is it that there still is no real peace in the south? What is her alternative plan?

These are serious questions that remain unanswered. She sort of excuses herself for not enunciating a response by saying that ordinary Filipinos are simply not interested in hearing it. That is simply condescending. If one is going to treat voters like children, so that instead of sharing the harsh realities and stark choices, one offers ear candy or things which they presumably want to hear as self-interested individuals, then one shouldn’t be surprised if they return the favour with an equal amount of disdain.

Pander-o-meter: 4 out of 5

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Jamby Madrigal (Liberal-Team PNoy)

Up to now Ms Madrigal’s website has a non-functioning tab for her “Platform”. In other words, she has not even bothered to inform us what her legislative agenda would be if she were to be given another chance to serve in the august chamber of the senate. What are we to make of this?

The only bit of information that exists is her stand on a number of issues from reproductive health to the promotion of eco-tourism. But that really is not nearly enough for us to know what exactly her plan is. Like I have said countless times in this space—it is not acceptable to merely mouth slogans or buzzwords in this campaign. For members of the voting public to support you, you have to provide very concrete measures to address important public policy issues. We know from the bills she has previously authored that Jamby stands for protecting the rights of women and children as well as the environment, so she should lay down an agenda to further those causes over the next six years.

It is not proper to merely use celebrities or gimmicks through social media to gain traction in a bid for a senate seat. There has to be substance. Unfortunately, despite taking some principled stances on certain issues, Ms Madrigal has failed to provide direction to her campaign by laying down a platform. It does not help that her party, the LP and Team PNoy has not come out with a unified stand on issues and a coherent agenda to implement over the course of the next congress. That has left a vacuum for each candidate to fill, which unfortunately Ms Madrigal to this day has failed to attend to.

Pander-o-meter: 3.5 out of 5

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Mitos Magsaysay (PMP-UNA)

This feisty representative from Zambales prides herself with being a “fiscalising” critic of the administration in Congress and vows to do the same if she reaches the upper house. In her bid to attract attention to herself, she runs the risk of being identified as a demagogue with no policy substance whatsoever.

But in fact, if you look at her record in Congress, you will find she has authored a number of significant bills that were passed by the lower house. One of these is an act creating a national student loan board to benefit poor students. If you study this bill closely, you will find that it has some very interesting features. The planned student loan system would be funded by a wage-based levy similar to Philhealth and SSS of anywhere from ½% to 4% of salaries based on a progressive scale (the higher the income, the larger the contribution which sounds complicated to administer). Student loans would be charged 5% annually and have a loan term of 5 years to pay.

I wonder which country Mrs Magsaysay had patterned her proposal after. If she had studied the Higher Education Contributions Scheme or HECS in Australia, she would have learned that five years is too short for student loans accumulated over four years of studies to be paid back. The cost of human capital should be amortised over the working life of an individual, which is at least 20 years.

Another thing is the interest rate. HECS does not charge any interest, or at least commercial rates of interest. It does however index the balance of the loan by about 2.5 per cent every year to keep up with inflation. In addition, a discount is offered for up-front payment of student fees.

The Australian model does not finance student loans with contributions from the working population, but from general appropriations and from repayments of students previously enrolled in the system. Repayments are conditioned on subsequent incomes being commensurate to what is expected of a university graduate. Payments are collected through the tax office in the form of mandatory deductions to one’s personal income. If the person earns less than the threshold, then no repayments are required.

(The recently concluded conference sponsored by the ASEAN and Australia was a forum where Philippine policy makers could have gained a better handle on these issues. Unfortunately, we did not participate in it.)

For this program to work, adequate funding has to be pumped into the coffers of the loan administration equal to the annual student fees collected by state universities and colleges for a number of years. This is until loan repayments from previous cohorts are sufficient to finance the loans of subsequent cohorts. Then the system could potentially be expanded to cover courses offered by private higher educational institutions. When years 11 and 12 are introduced in 2015 and 2016, and there are no incoming freshmen to SUCs, it would be an ideal time to bank some funds in preparation for the launch of the student loan board. I have detailed all this in a previous post.

Mrs Magsaysay has drawn much attention to herself as a firebrand, criticising the administration’s priorities at every turn. She criticises the president’s emphasis on Pantawid Pamilya which encourages primary school enrolment, while she says not enough money is spent boosting tertiary education. The two need not be in conflict, and she should realise this.

Pander-o-meter: 3 out of 5

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Cynthia Villar (Nacionalista-UNA)

Mrs Villar’s record in the lower house shows that she espouses the cause of the vulnerable in society, including seniors, children and women. She has also worked on updating the charters of UP and modernising the Philippine Normal University. When asked about the congressional investigation into nursing education in which she took the side of poorly performing providers rather than the needs of hapless graduates who could not meet the minimum requirements of the profession, she stumbled by denigrating the aspirations of those students, for which she later apologised.

Her platform consists of promoting livelihood programs for women and tree planting activities for environmental conservation purposes. She points to the work that she and her husband Senator Manuel Villar have started in their city in which she served as mayor as evidence that such programs work. It is not clear though exactly how these programs would work at the national level. Does she intend to mandate all local governments to imitate her own pet projects in Las Piñas? Or does she intend for a national agency like the DSWD to manage it? If so, where would the money to finance these programs come from?

This has been a recurring theme in this series. Candidates for the most part are not forthright about the intended size and scale of their proposals. My feeling is that we would need a fiscal sustainability law to force them to cost these and determine the source of funds for them. This would discipline candidates and parties when crafting their policies to provide full transparency and accountability. Without such information, the policies and programs that candidates present are simply pandering to the interests of targeted voters without any care given to their fiscal impact or sustainability.

Pander-o-meter: 4 out of 5

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The final instalment of this series will come in the form of a summary. Stay tuned!

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