MANILA, Philippines – For someone who once topped a senatorial race with 19 million votes, it seems easy for Mar Roxas to secure a Senate seat once again.
But a month before the May 13 elections, Roxas' campaign is hitting a roadblock. For the first time since he declared his candidacy last year, he was kicked out of the “Magic 12” or the so-called winners’ circle in the April Pulse Asia survey.
As he pressed palms in the homestretch, Roxas knew what he needed to do to arrest his decline.
“Tuloy-tuloy lang nakikita natin. Ang reaction sa atin ng ating mga kababayan, may mga nadidinig ako, ‘Ay matangkad pala sa personal!’ o may nadidinig ako – ikaw din siguro nadinig mo – ‘Ay pogi pala sa personal!’… So kung mas magpapakita tayo nang personal, baka mas madami ang makukumbinse,” Roxas told reporters in a market at San Pablo, Laguna on May 2.
(We have to keep on going. Some of our countrymen’s reactions include, ‘He’s taller in person!’ or I also heard – you probably heard it too – ‘He looks handsome in person!’… So if we will show ourselves in person, maybe we would be able to convince more people.)
He is self-aware. Roxas was missing in action in the campaign trail for almost 3 weeks, an absence that is unheard of for anyone battling the vaunted money and machinery of reelectionist senators and candidates backed by the administration.
But the stakes are much different for Roxas this time around. (READ: Roxas on lower survey ranking: 'Okay lang 'yan, family first’)
His priorities have clearly changed, now that he is the father of newborn twins Pepe and Pilar. Months before the elections, he even seemed ready to retire from public life, content with climbing mountains and cooking meals for his wife Korina Sanchez Roxas and Paolo, his son from a previous relationship.
Many of his relatives did not want him to run in the first place, remembering how vicious the 2016 presidential race was, with Roxas finishing second to the victor and then-Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte.
So when Roxas finally decided to run for senator, he had to be clear from the get-go: He has accepted his defeat 3 years ago, and he is “not here to re-do 2016.”
All of these greatly shaped the way Roxas is running his 2019 campaign: No more talks of continuing “Daang Matuwid” nor being the standard-bearer of the once-ruling Liberal Party he is no longer the president of.
Now, it’s simply all about “Mar Roxas, Ekonomista sa Senado(Mar, Economist in the Senate).”
This time, Roxas’ focus is himself.
Fighting back the trolls
Roxas’ initial reluctance to run, however, only meant he had to play catch up with his more formidable opponents in the Senate race, politicians who had been gearing up for the electoral fight during the months when Roxas retreated from all the political noise.
“Number one on the to-do list was to undo all the damage from 2016 in terms of fake news,” Roxas’ campaign director Abi Valte told Rappler. “And that was really, that was a wave that just hit us.”
Social media played a huge part in the battle for Malacañang in 2016, but the targeted attacks did not stop the moment Duterte was declared President. According to Valte, the lies being spread about Roxas online continued even during his political hiatus.
“Mar is still – whether he recognizes it or not – he is still a figure in Philippine politics. So I think...people were still watching out for him… So they never allowed him to get off their radar, even if the man was living his life. They were expecting him to return… And for him, because he was back to being a private citizen, he wasn't paying attention to these things,” said Valte in a mix of English and Filipino.
It required Roxas and his campaign team to change their mindset from 2016, back when many – not just the Roxas camp – thought lies on social media will die on their own. Politicians and strategists have since learned from the social media-driven presidential campaign of Duterte, under whose presidency saw the rise of government officials and propagandists alike using social media to vilify critics.
How then did the Roxas camp move to address the fake news about him that festered for the past 3 years? They tapped into his network of volunteers, who get instructions from headquarters about which anti-Roxas post to respond to and how to actually craft that response.
It’s a constant back and forth between the Roxas campaign team and the volunteers, who often talk about their agenda for the day or the week in a group chat. Actual meetings are held in Balay, LP’s longtime headquarters located within the compound in Cubao, Quezon City, developed by the Araneta clan.
According to a campaign insider, Roxas’ campaign team is a “mix of family, friends, and new blood” who are experts in their respective fields and who enjoy Roxas’ trust and confidence.
Many of them were part of Roxas’ presidential run, including Valte, who is in charge of the campaign’s daily operations, and Caloocan City 2nd District Representative Edgar Erice, who is named campaign manager, spokesperson, and is one of Roxas’ senior advisers.
Former Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda also remains a consultant and key adviser of Roxas. Roxas’ older sister Ria Roxas Ojeda retained her role from 2016 as overseer of campaign finance.
Korina also helps her husband’s campaign by going on her own palengke runs.
View this post on Instagram Morning Palengke Run in CALOOCAAAAAN! A post shared by Korina Sanchez-Roxas (@korina) on May 2, 2019 at 8:02pm PDT
Listening to the people
If 2016 is any indication, Roxas’ vast track record in public service is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the former congressman, senator, and Cabinet member who served 3 presidents can speak proudly of the Cheaper Medicines Law he championed and his role in the thriving BPO industry.
But the Zamboanga siege and the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda – two crises in 2013 that happened when Roxas was still interior chief – remain to be sore points for his 2019 senatorial run. (READ: Leyte town mayor backs Roxas' Senate bid: 'He was always there to help’)
There were perceptions that Roxas had to correct in his 2019 campaign, issues that he and his campaign team believe would be best addressed if he dedicated a lot of time talking to voters directly and more intimately. (READ: Roxas shares same anecdote on vendors' plight in Bacolod sorties)
“Correcting perception, or at least fighting fake news, takes time. That's not a handshake. It requires sitting down and talking and explaining. So his campaign has taken on a different form so far in the sense it tries to address that problem,” Valte said.
A little known part of Roxas’ campaign is the countless dialogues he has been holding with different sectors in the past weeks. From students consulting him about their theses to laborers who tell him about their tough working conditions, Roxas listens to them all and would post about them on Facebook.
But most of these talks are closed to media.
“Marami diyan nahihiya na ay mayroon palang [camera]. Hindi sila nakakapagsalita nang masyado… We want them to be in an environment where they can freely tell Mar, ‘Sir, alam niyo kasi ganito 'yong problem.’ We really want that conversation,” Valte.
(Many of them are get shy when there is a camera. They wouldn’t be able to speak… We want them to be in an environment where they can freely tell Mar, ‘Sir, you know, this is the problem.’ We really want that conversation.)
“So this is pretty much a listening-centric campaign,” she added.
Sticking to the message
It is within this context that Roxas has branded himself as a straightforward, no-frills technocrat who can help increase jobs, increase pay, and make sure the prices of goods remain affordable for the ordinary Filipino.
“He is an economist by training, so this time around, we wanted him to hew as closely to who he really is and what is his core strength. We believe ekonomista is it,” said Valte.
This campaign has shown the image of the tall Wharton graduate clad in his crisp blue shirt as he pressed flesh with market vendors across the country, a scene reminiscent of Roxas' 2004 Senate bid when his “Mr Palengke” commercials became a big hit among voters. (READ: Roxas is 'Mr Palengke' once again on 2019 campaign trail)
“‘Di naman ako nawala sa palengke, kaya pamilyar ako sa mga presyo, pamilyar ako sa logistics ng supply chain. Lamang, dahil sa aking mga katungkulan, nadala ako sa ibang mga isyu. Pero parati nakatuntong ako sa palengke, dahil alam ko, 'yan ang pinakaimportante sa bawat pamilyang Pilipino – kung paano nila pinagkakasya 'yung kanilang kakarampot na budget,” Roxas said in an ambush interview inside the Mabalacat Public Market in Pampanga on February 27.
(I never left the market, so that's why I'm still familiar with prices and the logistics of the supply chain. It's just that because of my other positions, I got involved with other issues as well. But I always step inside the market, because this is what's important to every Filipino family – how they can get by with their small budget.)
Roxas stripped off the usual campaign fanfare, with reporters following him no longer seeing even remnants of the big stage, huge crowds, and yellow confetti that defined his 2016 presidential bid.
He also stopped resorting to dancing with celebrities in his television advertisements, a lesson learned from 2016.
Now, Roxas’ campaign is more subdued, with the media invited to cover only one to two of Roxas’ market visits in a certain town or city. During these visits, Roxas would grant requests for selfies, hugs, and handshakes in between him asking the market vendors how much they were selling their products for
“If you wanted a Post-It to remind us [what this campaign is all about], it's really authenticity for him. It has to be him. So it might not be the conventional [way],” said Valte.
But this is not without its flaws.
Jean Encinas Franco, political science assistant professor from the University of the Philippines, said this is making it harder for the masses to relate to Roxas, the economist from the affluent Araneta family.
“What he is trying to say is, ‘I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m about policy’….That was the criticism against him in the first place compared to Duterte…. People are not interested in policy,” said Franco in a mix of English and Filipino.
“There’s no question that he fits that fold. Walang dissonance, mukhang talaga siya economist (There’s no dissonance there, he really looks like an economist). But can people really relate to someone who presents himself or herself as an economist?” she asked.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: The fact that Roxas has been going solo in his campaign even if he is part of the Otso Diretso senatorial ticket.
Roxas' absence in a majority of the slate's sorties has fuelled chatter that Otso Diretso is falling apart. He merely laughed this off in an interview at Bacolod City on March 12. But a month before that, Roxas was visibly irked when a reporter asked him why he launched his campaign in his hometown Capiz without Otso Diretso.
According to Valte, Roxas committed to appear with the rest of the opposition slate to only two events: During their proclamation rally in Naga City on February 13 and their miting de avance at the University of the Philippines Diliman on May 8. He also decided to show up with them during the slate’s 3rd visit to Cebu on April 28.
"The candidates of Otso Diretso are very different individually. We all have our different challenges. Ang iba sa amin nagpapakilala, 'di kilala ng tao. 'Yung iba sa amin, sa sobrang kilala, may trolls na nga… So iba-iba ang mga challenge namin. So kailangan naming tutukan ang hamon ng aming kampanya,” said Roxas said on February 13.
(Some of us are unknown, the people don't know them yet. Others, because they are so well-known, there are already trolls bothering them… So our challenges are different. We need to focus on the challenges of our respective campaigns.)
What he did not say at the time was that Pepe and Pilar were already born through a surrogate. Korina officially announced the birth of their twins only on February 21.
“You know, children have a strange way of taking over their parents' lives…. So a lot of that factored into why we couldn't commit to anything. Because we weren't sure when the twins would actually arrive, what would be needed, when they could be brought home,” Valte explained.
Roxas did invite Otso Diretso to his hometown Capiz in January, before the official campaign period started. He would also bring along several Otso Diretso candidates during his private dialogues with different sectors.
In Talisay City on April 28, for example, Roxas was joined by Otso Diretso bets Samira Gutoc and Romy Macalintal in a meeting with barangay health workers. Instead of talking about his platforms, Roxas’ speech focused on Gutoc’s track record as a women’s rights advocate and peacebuilder from Marawi City, and Macalintal’s push for senior citizens’ empowerment.
Macalintal himself said in a separate interview that Roxas’ absence in Otso Diretso’s sorties was a “strategy” whose purpose is to ensure Roxas will not overshadow the lesser known candidates in the slate.
Franco, however, believes Otso Diretso would have benefitted more had Roxas campaigned with them constantly. (READ: Roxas says solo campaign kickoff without Otso Diretso a non-issue)
“How can you overshadow? You can actually introduce them…. So now, you can’t help but wonder if Mar Roxas really wants to win, because he doesn’t go to Otso Diretso’s sorties. I mean, he does this listening tour, meeting with the people, and then he doesn’t allow the media to be there,” said Franco.
“Unless he's banking on the people who voted for him in 2016 would do so again in 2019,” she added.
Mar for the people
But beyond Roxas’ appearances with Otso Diretso – or his absence – critics have pointed out that he does not share the hardline stance that the rest of the opposition bets have taken against Duterte’s abusive policies.
“May history kasi sila eh (They have a history),” said Valte on Roxas and Duterte’s complicated relationship. “I think that's also a big difference between him and our other slate mates.”
Roxas and Duterte have known each other since their stints in Congress – Roxas as Capiz representative and Duterte as Davao City representative. When Roxas ran for vice president in 2010, Duterte campaigned aggressively for his friend in the Davao Region.
If Roxas’ senatorial run in 2019 is not a mere re-do of 2016, then it seems he wants to avoid going head-to-head against Duterte again, even if Roxas has been on the receiving end of the President’s many insults on the campaign trail.
Roxas himself said he spent a long time mulling over what kind of an opposition figure he would be in these elections.
“I really meditated about that. I really thought about that. And you know what, my answer is this: It’s not who I am against, it’s not what I’m against. It’s who I’m for, and that’s the people. And what I’m for, which is progress. That’s what I’m for,” Roxas said in a #TheLeaderIWant interview with Rappler back in February.
Roxas said he would not oppose just for the sake of opposing.
“I am for progress, I am for a vibrant economy, I am for creating more jobs and incomes and livelihoods, I am for unshackling the things that hold back our economy – that’s what I’m for. If you’re against that, [it] doesn’t matter to me what other political brand that you have,” said Roxas.
“If you’re for it, let’s work together so we can push it. Because at the end of the day, we need to create the incomes and jobs and livelihoods. Otherwise, kahirapan tayo (we’re stuck in poverty),” he added.
This is Mar Roxas in 2019 – a no-nonsense economist who hopes to leave the crazy past behind him. The question is, will voters buy it? – Rappler.com
*Photo of Roxas meeting with sectoral reepresentatives at a village gym in Barangay Villamonte, Bacolod City on March 13, 2019 by Marchel Espina/Rappler