Two competing narratives are being offered by the presidential candidates. One is continuity, and variations of it.
The other is restoration.This narrative underlies the campaigns of Bongbong Marcos and Vice President Leni Robredo.
By Joey Salgado
A few months from now, we will be electing a new President. There are hundreds of other positions on the ballot, but only one is of consequence, and that is our choice for President. We will not only be electing a leader. We will be electing a government. We will not only be choosing who will lead us. We will be choosing how we will be led and governed.
We elect myths. Our choices are shaped by stories, by the power of stories and the power in stories. But these stories must also resonate with the voters. They should see themselves in these stories, see both the journey and the destination. The stories should be compelling enough to move voters in the direction of a candidate.
In 2016, the Duterte campaign told the story of a country gripped by fear, and a government out of touch with the sufferings of the common tao and helpless in the midst of a crime wave fuelled by drugs.
Unwittingly, media, the broadcast networks in particular, helped create the demand for a tough leader from the fringes of the political establishment. Primetime news during the campaign period bannered sensational stories of drug-induced crime, amplifying and giving third party affirmation to the Duterte narrative. The news presented the problem, the ads that aired during commercial breaks offered the solution. This ratings-driven partiality to sensational crime stories proved to be heaven sent for a fear-mongering candidate.
More than 16 million Filipinos voted to be governed with an iron hand, a malevolence - purely rhetorical and casually dispensed during the campaign - that even the rich and the middle class, the so-called thinking class, found attractive. It was seen as proof of authenticity.
But the results of the 2016 presidential election also revealed widespread disaffection with the Aquino administration and the political establishment as a whole. It uncorked a desire for real change, promised in 2010 and every presidential election since the restoration of democracy, but never delivered.
The new reality would set in quickly. Malevolence became official policy. Arrogance and intolerance infected all levels of government. We had an autocrat at the top, and mini-autocrats down the line. But the malevolence was selective. At its crosshairs were political enemies, also labelled enemies of the state. They include critics, activists, media personalities. Suspected street-level drug pushers and even innocent children became casualties of an unwinnable war on drugs. Elsewhere, it was business as usual.
The administration governed through intimidation and lurched from scandal to scandal. Yet trust and satisfaction ratings remained high. It had to take a pandemic for the myth to unravel.
So now, we are once again at a crossroads.
Two competing narratives are being offered by the presidential candidates.
One is, predictably, continuity, embodied in the campaign of the administration candidate Senator Christopher “Bong” Go. The other non-administration candidates are employing variations of the continuity narrative. They have dusted off the Duterte 2016 playbook, but tweaked it in a way that would make their candidacies appealing to the Duterte base while putting considerable distance between them and the incumbent’s not so palatable traits.
The other dominant narrative, however, is not change but restoration. This narrative underlies the campaigns of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Vice President Leni Robredo.
The son also rises?
The Marcos Jr. campaign seeks to restore to power a family ousted by the collective upheaval of February 1986 by offering the myth of a long-forgotten era, the New Society of 1972.
A fantasy land where roads are well-paved, government workers do mass calisthenics, and kids get free nutribuns. Everyone, including long-haired hippie freaks, are at their best behavior. The leaders love the poor so much that the First Lady dresses up in fineries for them to see beauty even as they live in slums.
This narrative is clearly meant to entice voters who were born after the Revolution of 1986, those who never experienced grinding poverty and the oppressive yoke of martial law. But they lived through decades of brownouts, water shortages, traffic gridlocks, economic crisis, political discord, dysfunctional governments, scandals. And they are also the products of an educational system that has failed miserably to set the record straight on the Marcos years.
For these voters, a return to this promised land of the true, good, and the beautiful is a golden ticket that will make this nation great again. Better than the impyerno we are in right now.
The latest survey showed Marcos, Jr. leading the presidential race. While this does not indicate certain victory, it has disturbing implications.
It may be interpreted as a further drift to the Right, a sustained preference for autocrats and their spawn. The subtext is more frightening: a willingness to yield certain rights, once deemed worth fighting for, in exchange for a promised deliverance.
This administration has spent the last five years stoking fear - of oligarchs, communists, and drug lords. The people are told that these enemies can be defeated. But they need to surrender some of their rights. The autocratic experiment may be paying dividends, just not for the present Palace occupant.
Former Vice President Jejomar Binay, a human rights lawyer during martial law, warned a year ago in his Manila Bulletin column that if left unchecked, these nefarious designs, especially the heavy-handed and militaristic response to the pandemic “could reshape, even mangle, our democracy and pave the way for future national leaderships armed with powers that institutionalize the curtailment of certain rights like due process and freedom of expression, and legitimize draconian measures against citizens.”
He wrote: “What worries many is that these questionable measures would outlive the pandemic that spawned them, becoming an integral part of our norms and laws over time. This is perhaps one of our greatest challenges: to ensure that our rights and liberties remain intact and protected in the midst of the pandemic. The cost of flagging vigilance would be enormous, as future generations might find themselves living in a society where the Constitution offers neither solace nor protection to the aggrieved.”
Rebranded Opposition Needs to Connect with Voters
The rebranded opposition, having traded confetti yellow for snuggly pink, is also promising a restoration.
They promise a return to the era of morality and decency in politics and government. The 2022 elections is being framed as a political armageddon of sorts, a contest between light and darkness, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end the reign of tyrants and dynasts.
There is nobility in this cause. But noble causes produce martyrs. You do not run in an election to make a statement. You run to win.
The rebranded opposition could be missing the opportunity to connect to voters on gut issues - the economic anxiety caused by the pandemic and government’s colossal failure to alleviate their suffering - or give them hope in a better future. By talking about values and virtues, they are making this an election about them, not about the voters.
Besides, the rebranded opposition, dominated by remnants of the Liberal Party, cannot honestly claim to be lily white. Their obsession with securing power at all cost provided the template for the abuse of government power and its selective use against political enemies. It is a template applied to super-sized proportions by the incumbent regime.
What we have been witnessing for the past five years is the culmination of decades of constant and intense battering of our democratic institutions. The Arroyo and Aquino administrations are among the worst offenders. But the latter stands out for cloaking its party’s power lust with the self-righteousness and hypocrisy that has led to its crippling defeat in the last two elections. We are a nation whose institutions have been weakened by human folly.
The rebranded opposition must offer more, must tell a more compelling story and connect with the voters on issues that really matter. They must reach out and get their hands dirty, not plantito and plantita dirty, but mass work dirty. Talk to the people, listen to the people, learn from the people.
Whatever the outcome, the 2022 elections will change our country forever.
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