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Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago says it’s premature for her fellow politicians to be declaring their plans for 2016 this early. Millions of her countrymen, concerned over unemployment, energy costs, crime, even where the next meal’s coming from and where to bed down for the night, are certainly in agreement with her.

Too much politics too early is among the most common complaints you’ll hear from Filipinos locked in the daily struggle with the usual ills Filipino flesh is heir to — and barely four months after typhoon Yolanda smashed into the Visayas, with the residents of ravaged communities yet to rebuild homes, livelihoods and lives, it does seem at least insensitive for the pols to be announcing their presidential and other ambitions in preparation for 2016.

And yet, although the two years between now and May that year seem long enough for anything to happen, the reality is that, if only for the frequency of elections in this country, politics and politicians have never been divorced from the daily lives of Filipinos.

Long before the 2013 elections — in fact as early as 2010 when he defeated Manuel Roxas II, Filipinos already knew that Vice-President Jejomar Binay intends to run for President in 2016, and, what’s more, that any rival any political formation puts up against him will have his or her work cut out for him/her.

As March brought the country to another long hot summer of discontent, apparently unfazed by Binay’s high approval and trust ratings that could translate into the millions of votes needed to elect him in 2016, Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano made known — through the media, of course — his presidential ambitions, with the caveat, however, that he would not run unless certain of winning.

That’s not as interesting as who the ruling Liberal Party will field in 2016. Will it be Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, 2013 senatorial election front-runner Grace Poe, or even Panfilo Lacson? The usual political analysts and media commentators don’t seem to have noticed it, but President Benigno Aquino III did name Lacson to the high-profile post of “Rehabilitation Czar” to oversee rehabilitation efforts in the typhoon-ravaged areas of the Visayas. Could it be in preparation for Lacson’s eventual designation as the administration candidate in 2016, when he shall have rebuilt his constituency enough to seriously challenge Binay for the Presidency?

On the other hand, how damaging to the Vice-President’s political ambitions was the Dasmariñas Village incident which involved his son, Makati Mayor “Jun-Jun” Binay, and his daughter Nancy, the senator?

Part of the reason for the early focus on an election that’s scheduled two years from now is logistical. The Commission on Elections can hardly cope with the preparations and conduct of Philippine elections which usually consist of so many posts that need to be filled every three years. But of even more significance is the Philippine political parties’ character as hardly more than groups of individuals who don’t share a common program of government, much less a shared vision of where to take the country once they’re in power, and how they intend to get there.

Every election in the Philippines is first and last waged at the personal rather than at the organizational or ideological plane. That makes the “winnability” of Senator Grace Poe, who not only topped the list of winning senatorial candidates last year, but who is also thought to have the personal and familial appeal so vital in winning Philippine elections, of special interest.

But a Philippine election is also about money, the number of votes a candidate can get depending, it is widely assumed, on his or her capacity to spend for advertising in various media, particularly television, as well as to crank out the streamers, fliers and sample ballots for distribution during rallies and while campaigning among one’s target constituencies — and, on election day itself, paying election watchers, and feeding the multitudes of campaign workers, sympathizers, and other campaign workers.

How much one can spend makes the difference between being declared a “nuisance” candidate or a “credible” one — and that’s official. For the Commission on Elections, that’s a standard that in effect excludes the less moneyed from running for elective posts in this rumored democracy.

Throughout it all — as the pols jockey for advantage, attempt to pass themselves off as statesmen, and paint each other black — the media serve not only as observers and transmitters of information; they also function as advocates. Campaigns, though disguised, do begin via the media years before an election, and that’s because a politician’s media presence is never so premature that it can’t help advance his political ambitions.

Because the media don’t only react, but can also proactively advance one’s political fortunes, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano has reportedly engaged the services of a PR organization to help him snag the Presidency. An expert PR practitioner can indeed assure a candidate sustained media presence, initially via stealth advertising, which, by the time the official campaign period comes around, can morph into open solicitations for votes. The next 24 months prior to the 2016 election are thus likely to see the intensification of the presence of prospective candidates in the media, laying the ground, as it were, for the 2016 contest.

By providing those involved in campaigns with spending money, and the unemployed jobs as campaign workers — or for that matter, by buying votes outright — Philippine elections are occasions for the redistribution of wealth and as temporary boosts to the economy. They also help sustain the Philippine media, and not only through political advertising, but also through the pre-arranged, public relations boosts disguised as legitimate reports, commentaries, and interviews with the politician who is footing the bill.

Among the many downsides of this reality is that in the communities, local politicians’ recognition of how crucial the media can be to their ambitions has been linked to the killing of journalists, the persistence of the blocktimer system, and attempts to control entire media organizations. It’s a pattern evident as well in national politics, where future aspirants for political office do still own, have enlarged their control over, or are currently in the market for, media organizations. From their standpoint preparing for 2016 this early may be premature, but it’s also sound politics.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
March 13, 2014

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