MANILA, Philippines – The mood was grim at the headquarters of the losing Otso Diretso senatorial ticket the day after the May 13 elections.
None of the 8 opposition bets won a Senate seat – an expected outcome given the odds stacked against the slate, but a scenario the candidates themselves and their loyal supporters were hoping until the very end would not happen.
Only two candidates – Samira Gutoc and Erin Tañada – faced the media on May 14 together with their campaign manager and Senator Kiko Pangilinan, and campaign spokesperson Barry Gutierrez.
The somber mood turned to cheers and applause after Gutoc and Tañada said the push for Otso Diretso’s platforms – spanning peace in Mindanao to the protection of farmers and laborers’ rights – will not end with the defeat of the candidates.
Pangilinan even said he aims to convince Otso Diretso to consider running again in 2022.
“My not-so-hidden agenda is to convince Samira, Erin, Pilo [Hilbay], Chel [Diokno] to continue with our efforts and our advocacies, and therefore, they are the new faces. They inspired a lot of people. The Otso Diretso candidates, inspired, captured the imagination of students and youth. It should not end there,” said the campaign manager on May 14.
Two weeks later, Pangilinan still has the same agenda – even if he took the once-ruling Liberal Party (LP) and the Otso Diretso bets by surprise by announcing his resignation as party president.
Pangilinan told Rappler he is set to meet with the candidates soon to have a “clearer sense of their plans” for 2022.
“I liken the May 2019 midterm election results to a basketball game at halftime and our Otso Diretso candidates, our team players. Our opponents have piled up points and we are trailing very far behind but we have a full second half ahead of us to get back the lead and emerge victorious in the end,” said Pangilinan.
It’s a silver lining that many Otso Diretso supporters shared on social media, with some users resorting to crafting possible slogans and jingles for the imagined campaign of their favorite opposition bets in 2022.
Gutoc, the feisty civic leader from war-torn Marawi City, has even floated the idea of Diokno – the human rights lawyer who finished the Senate race in 21st place with 6.3 million votes – gunning for no less than the presidency in 2022.
“[He has] all the things we want in a politician, very honorable, prinsipyado (principled)…He can mobilize as many forces, democracy forces in the community, grass roots,” Gutoc told ANC.
But this is easier said done.
After the gruelling 90-day campaign and the heartbreaking results of the elections, many of the Otso Diretso candidates just want to have some respite from the political noise. (READ: Mar Roxas on 2019 defeat: 'I don't know what comes next’)
The fight continues beyond the Senate
Still, most of the opposition senatorial bets delivered uplifting words to their dedicated supporters as they conceded defeat one by one.
A common message among the Otso Diretso candidates days after the May 13 elections was a reminder to their campaign volunteers that winning Senate seats is not the only means to serve the country.
“Sabi ko nga, marami namang paraan na tumulong at magmahal sa bayan. Ang mahalaga, ‘di ka mawawalan ng pag-asa, ‘di ka mawawalan ng pagmamahal sa kapwa tao mo,” said outgoing Senator Bam Aquino in a Rappler Talk interview.
(As I said, there are many other ways to serve and love the country. What’s important is that you do not lose hope and you do not stop loving your fellowmen.)
“At palagay ko, ‘yung paninibilhan, ‘di naman ‘yun exclusive sa Senado. May mga paraan naman na puwede kang tumulong pa rin, and I guess ang ibig sabihin lang nito, tutulong tayo sa ibang mga larangan,” Aquino added.
(And I think being of service is not exclusive to the Senate. There are other ways to help and I guess this only means we will be helping in other ways.)
The scion of the Aquino political clan finished just outside the Magic 12, landing in 14th place with more than 14 million votes. This is the first time in 80 years since the time of former Commonwealth president Manuel L. Quezon that the opposition failed to win a legislative seat during the elections.
Gutoc urged Otso Diretso’s supporters to join other advocacy-driven movements to make sure their efforts during the campaign will not be in vain.
"And I personally appeal to you to continue to support democracy movements, the poor people movements. Hindi po biro ang efforts na binigay ng mga volunteers namin para sa akin at sa Otso Diretso. Nag-all-[out] po kayo at hinding-hindi ko po ito malilimutan," said Gutoc.
(And I personally appeal to you to continue to support democracy movements, the poor people movements. The effort put in by our volunteers was no joke for me and the rest of Otso Diretso. You went all-out for us and I will never forget that.)
Perhaps the best example of this are Diokno and Tañada, who were back in court just two days after the midterm polls. The two lawyers attended the hearing on the 2005 Ortigas rubout case at the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 265.
Tañada also continues to voice his criticisms against President Rodrigo Duterte on Twitter, like when the latter implied being gay is a disease.
Mr. President, if you are gay, it doesn’t mean you are sick. You are like any other person that have choices in life. We should respect each other’s choices and not condemn people whose choices do not conform with yours. We should embrace them https://t.co/USbfT8jvoN — Erin Tañada (@erintanada) May 31, 2019
Diokno also stayed true to his message for his teary-eyed supporters on May 14, when he told them they should work together to get more people “woke” or more aware of the pressing problems ofthe country.
“Bukas na bukas, kailangan may iba pa tayong ma-woke. Kasi isipin natin, kung every day may ma-woke tayong isa, at the end of one year, ilan na ang mawo-woke natin? At the end of two years, doble pa. At the end of 3 years, ay, wala nang makakapigil sa ating ginagawa,” Diokno said.
(Tomorrow, we need to continue to make others woke. Because if you think about it, if we make one woke person a day, at the end of the one year, how many people would that be? At the end of two years, the number would double. At the end of 3 years, no one would be able to stop us.)
What went wrong?
And yet days after Diokno’s speech, two of the top generals of the LP-led Otso Diretso – Pangilinan and reelected Quezon City 6th District Representative Kit Belmonte – quit their posts as LP president and secretary-general, respectively.
They claimed command responsibility for Otso Diretso’s disappointing finish in the 2019 elections, though none of the LP stalwarts were putting the blame solely on them.
Still, the top-level resignations were a clear indication of a scrambling opposition under the presidency of Duterte, who continues to enjoy high trust and satisfaction ratings.
“I think the biggest miscalculation was they probably underestimated the popularity of the President, and that this popularity can have a spillover effect [on] the people he was endorsing,” said Jean Franco, political science assistant professor from the University of the Philippines-Diliman.
Pangilinan agreed, saying Otso Diretso failed to “effectively counter the administration’s bully tactics and dogged determination to shut out any opposition in the Senate by hook or by crook.”
Then there was the issue of messaging. Campaign spokesperson Gutierrez told Rappler there was “always a tension within the campaign” when it comes to what the candidates will be saying on the campaign trail: Do the Otso Diretso bets stick to their 8-point platform or do they respond to Duterte’s latest controversial statement?
“That was always a tension within the campaign, within strategy discussions in terms of messaging. But I really don't feel that it could be run any other way, honestly,” said Gutierrez.
Throughout the campaign, the Otso Diretso bets criticized Duterte more frequently compared to hitting the questionable track records of their administration-allied opponents, like pork-linked senatorial bets Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada, and Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos, the daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Now, Revilla and Marcos are senators-elect.
It’s off-message, if one were to consider that Otso Diretso’s main slogan was “Honesty sa Senado (Honesty in the Senate).” But Gutierrez argued the campaign team did not want the candidates to stop their true selves from speaking out either.
“People will say that's off-message kasi why are you attacking Duterte? But kasi feeling ko, 'yon talaga nararamdaman niya eh! 'Yon ang paniniwala niya and ako, ayokong sabihin 'yon sa mga kandidato. I don't want the candidates to package themselves na hindi sila eh,” said Gutierrez.
(People will say that’s off-message because why are you attacking Duterte? But I feel that’s really what the candidates were feeling! That’s what they really believed in, and for me, I don’t want to say otherwise to the candidates. I don’t want the candidates to package themselves into something they're not.)
“One of the reasons why they were chosen as the Otso Diretso standard-bearers in the first place was because of the very, very passionate positions they had on a lot of issues like Philippine territorial sovereignty or misogyny. And it's very, very unfair, I think, difficult – I’m not sure if it’s advisable – to tell these candidates, ‘Don’t be yourself. Don't speak too much about these things,’” he added.
Most of the Otso Diretso bets also did not have the kind of message discipline usually expected of candidates, owing to their inexperience in running a national campaign.
Still, can one blame a neophyte candidate from giving his or her comment on the latest controversy, especially if doing so would mean headlines being written about this statement?
“A lot of them were struggling to gain awareness. So there was a tendency maybe, not doon lang sa candidates but maybe their own respective teams, to encourage them ‘pag mayroong issue, papatulan mo 'yan para makilala ka, which I can't really say mali from an individual candidate's perspective. Kasi kung ang awareness mo ay 5%, gusto mong umakyat, eh 'di siyempre papatulan mo kung anu-ano,” said Gutierrez.
(A lot of them were struggling to gain awareness. So there was a tendency not just for the candidates but maybe even their own respective teams to encourage them to speak up whenever there was an issue so that they would be known by the public, which I can't really say was wrong from an indidividual candidate's perspective. Because if your awareness is at 5% and you want to increase that, then of course you will respond to just about anything.)
But he conceded the downside to this was Otso Diretso’s target collective message was often missed by the candidates.
“In terms of 'yong lalabas na balita, mako-cover ang Otso Diretso but not for honesty. Ang strategy mo hindi 'yon ang lumabas, but for something else,” said Gutierrez.
(In terms of the news that will come out, Otso Diretso will be covered, but not for honesty. Something else will come out instead of the strategy you wanted to project.)
Lack of money, machinery
On top of that, Otso Diretso had to grapple with their perennial problems on the campaign trail: the lack of funds and the few politicians and donors willing to help them publicly. (READ: Afraid of Duterte, local leaders refuse to host Otso Diretso bets – Gutoc)
The lack of resources reflected not just on the late airing of the candidates’ television ads, but even on the way the individual campaign teams of the Otso Diretso bets gave advisories to the media.
The staff of one Otso Diretso senatorial candidate, for example, would advise reporters about the whereabouts of their principal only on the same day the event was already happening. By then, it was already too late for most news organizations to send a team to cover the candidate.
“Tingin ko a lot of the campaign teams, nagkakaroon ng multiple hats 'yong mga tao, kasi konti eh! Kasi sa totoo, wala silang budget. They did not have the money to pay for professional, full-time staff,” explained Gutierrez.
(I think in a lot of the campaign teams, the people wore multiple hats because there were so few of them! Because honestly, they didn’t have the budget. They did not have the money to pay for professional, full-time staff.)
The core team of the slate itself was also forced to plan Otso Diretso’s sorties on a weekly basis, compared to traditional senatorial campaigns where sorties and other events are mapped out months in advance.
“Ang problema, walang pera eh. Walang pumasok na pera (The problem was that there was no money. No funds came in). We were expecting the candidates would be able to raise some money and LP would be able to raise money, so magkakaroon ng ads. Hindi eh (so there would be ads. But this wasn’t the case),” said Gutierrez.
“Talagang week to week nagtatantsa kami ano'ng puwede nating mapondohan na activities. Maski 'yong sorties, mahirap (Every week, we would estimate what activities we would be able to fund. Even organizing the sorties was difficult)! We had a long-term strategy, but the problem is, we didn't have the resources to implement that strategy,” he added.
Despite the day-to-day struggles on the campaign, Otso Diretso remains thankful to the thousands of volunteers who stayed by their side. (READ: Will it be enough? Otso Diretso turns to volunteers to boost struggling campaign)
These volunteers were the “heart and spirit” of Otso Diretso’s uphill battle to the Senate. Among them were a cancer patient who knocked on doors to raise awareness for Otso Diretso, and a constitutionalist who diligently gave out flyers to commuters in Makati City. (READ: Short stories on the campaign trail: An Otso Diretso volunteer's account)
Pangilinan hopes their dedication will not wane in the coming years.
“Ang masasabi ko sa lahat: kayo ang tunay na diwa ng kampanya, at tinatawag kayo upang maging bagong dugo,” Pangilinan said in his letter addressed to the volunteers and which was posted on Facebook on May 30.
(This is what I can say to everyone: you are the true spirit of this campaign, and I am calling you to become new blood.)
“Lead the way, and we will be here, in lockstep, right behind you: to teach you the lessons we have learned the hard way, to empower you, and to serve as the best support system that we can be,” said Pangilinan.
For Gutierrez, Otso Diretso can still count a “victory of sorts” in the 2019 elections, in that they were able to draw a distinction between the opposition candidates' vision for the Philippines compared to that of the Duterte administration.
"It might not translate at this time to votes...but the important goal that was reached was to create that contrast, to draw a clear distinction," said Gutierrez.
"We are the opposition, this is what we stand for. If you don't agree with what is going on in our country, if you don't like the direction where it's going, support us." – Rappler.com