Can Otso Diretso do a repeat of Robredo’s 2016 victory?

MANILA, Philippines – The odds are stacked against the 8-member senatorial ticket of the opposition coalition Otso Diretso – and they know it. 

The television ad that showed all 8 candidates together for the first time was very telling: a woman scoffs and says she knows only two from the slate. What follows is a montage of the opposition candidates intently listening to the woman and the rest of her family.

The message seems to be this: even if most of these Senate bets from the opposition are unknown, they know how to reach out and be worth the voter's time.

Pre-election surveys show only former interior secretary Mar Roxas and reelectionist Senator Bam Aquino are part of the so-called winners’ circle or Magic 12. The rest of Otso Diretso candidates are lagging behind. 

But Vice President Leni Robredo, chairperson of the once-ruling Liberal Party (LP) that is leading Otso Diretso into the battle for the Senate, remains hopeful. 

Robredo’s message in the run-up to the midterm elections has been consistent: if she managed a come-from-behind victory in the 2016 vice presidential polls, Otso Diretso can do the same in May 2019. (READ: Robredo urges voters: 2019 polls chance to 'make things right’)

“Kasi noong ako iyong kandidato, parang iyong mga kandidato din natin ngayon: tinitingnan ng lahat na walang pag-asa, hindi masyadong pinapansin dahil mababa sa surveys. Pero sa campaign period, nakaya namang humabol…. Confident naman ako na kapag nakilala iyong mga kandidato natin, talagang natatangi naman sila kumpara sa iba,” Robredo said on February 6 at the Ahon Laylayan Koalisyon NCR Assembly. 

(Because when I was the candidate, my situation then was similar to what they are going through now: viewed by everyone as a hopeless candidate, and who did not get much attention because I was down in the surveys. But during the campaign period, I was able to catch up…. I am confident that once the public knows who our candidates are, they will realize they are a cut above the rest.)

Despite running under the administration party then, Robredo’s electoral triumph in 2016 was hard-fought. She defeated 5 other incumbent senators in the race, but she was ahead to second placer Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr by just 263,473 votes. Marcos has since contested Robredo's victory before the Supreme Court (SC).

The race to the Senate for Otso Diretso won’t be any easier. 

LP no longer has the might of the national government behind it; the machinery won’t be so potent as before. Local leaders in the provinces who can help bring in the votes will be fewer. With the Duterte administration being hostile to the party and what remains of its allies, there won’t be a steady flow of campaign funds. 

But Otso Diretso’s candidates have a few tricks up their sleeves, hoping these would be enough to turn the odds into their favor. 

Gary Alejano

Alejano is an incumbent congressman of the Magdalo party. A member of the so-called “Magnificent 7” bloc in the House of Representatives, Alejano was the first and only person to file an impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte. He was among the soldiers who staged the 2003 Oakwood mutiny and the 2007 Manila Peninsula siege against then-president and now-Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Alejano hopes to defend the country’s rights over the West Philippine Sea if he becomes senator.

Bam Aquino

Aquino was a social entrepreneur and chairman of the National Youth Commission before being elected senator for the first time in 2013. He is known as a principal author of the Go Negosyo Act and the free tuition law. This reelectionist senator is belongs to the Aquino clan – the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr is his uncle while former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, LP president, is his cousin. He is expected to continue pushing for laws on entrepreneurship and education if he returns to the Senate.

Chel Diokno

Diokno is the son of ex-senator Jose "Pepe" Diokno, who is regarded as the father of human rights advocacy in the Philippines. The younger Diokno is the chairperson of the Free Legal Assistance Group and the founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law. A lawyer for the victims of extrajudicial killings under President Duterte’s drug war, he wants to bring the fight for justice to the halls of the Senate. He recently represented a group of Lumad who filed their petition with the Supreme Court to oppose the extension of martial law in Mindanao.

Samira Gutoc

Gutoc was once part of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, but she resigned after Duterte said he would take the blame for soldiers who commit rape while martial law is in effect. A fierce Maranao leader who was displaced by the Marawi siege, Gutoc had tearfully appealed to lawmakers at the Batasang Pambansa not to extend martial law in Mindanao. She hopes to champion the Muslim voice in the Senate. 

Florin Hilbay

Hilbay rose to public consciousness when he became solicitor general in 2014 under the previous administration. He had topped the Bar examinations in 1999 and is a constitutional law professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law. Known for his viral tweets attacking the Duterte administration, Hilbay is banking on his rags-to-riches story as a boy from Tondo to propel his Senate bid. 

Romy Macalintal

This 71-year-old is a veteran election law and known handling high-profile election cases, including those of Robredo, Arroyo, and boxing icon-turned-Senator Manny Pacquiao, among others. Election lawyers whom he faced in court are now endorsing his senatorial bid, and Macalintal is asking his former politician-clients to do the same. With the campaign slogan, “Save your last vote for me,” Macalintal will push for senior citizens' rights if he wins as senator. 

Mar Roxas 

Undoubtedly the most prominent in the Otso Diretso slate, Roxas declared his bid to run for senator only in October 2018. After losing the 2010 vice presidential race to Jejomar Binay and the 2016 presidential race to Duterte, Roxas retreated to private life, recording his travels around the country through his Facebook page. A former senator who was later appointed by former president Aquino as Interior secretary, Roxas said his senatorial bid as “Mar, aming ekonomista (Mar, our economist)” won’t be a mere re-do of his electoral campaign 3 years ago.

Erin Tañada

Tañada is no stranger to politics, having represented Quezon for 3 terms in the House, where he was also named deputy speaker. He is the scion of the illustrious Tañada clan: he is the grandson of former senator Lorenzo Tañada and the son of ex-senator Wigberto Tañada. Vowing to fight for farmers and laborers if he wins as senator, Tañada counts among his achievements as congressman the passage of the law extending the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in 2009. 

A push for issues-based politics

Senator Francis Pangilinan, Otso Diretso campaign manager, told Rappler that when the coalition finalized their slate in October 2018, the candidates’ individual advocacies were considered.

“Yes, it was a conscious, deliberate, calculated decision to bring in these candidates who all have issues that they will be carrying,” said Pangilinan, explaining that this is part of Otso Diretso’s direction to champion issues-based politics in the elections.

“We'd like to have electoral campaigns that are focused mainly on issues rather than personalities. That is part of the whole effort to move away from personality politics,” he said. 

Robredo previously said the opposition coalition would rather field only 8 persons instead of 12, as long as they ensure the quality of the candidates they would offer to the public. 

University of the Philippines professor Aries Arugay says Otso Diretso has so far successfully maintained the image that they are indeed opposition candidates. This is good for securing command vote for the coalition. 

“It seems they’re really united in so far as you won’t see any gray areas, where some of them are pro-admin. Because of that, they were really able to capture their command voters, those critical of the administration,” said Arugay.

But is that enough?  

“At the end, it’s a numbers game.... Those who are against the administration will really consider voting for them as a sign of their contempt or their disapproval of this presidency,” said Arugay. 

The battle for funds 

Because they are viewed as the critics of the Duterte administration, Pangilinan said it had been a challenge for them to gather resources for Otso Diretso.

Even with the pooled resources of the coalition members – LP, Magdalo, Akbayan, Aksyon Demokratiko, Tindig Pilipinas, other civil society groups – there won’t be enough to make solo television ads for each of the bets. This is in contrast to veteran politicians and incumbent senators who are topping the polls, and who have the money to print billboards and keep their ads airing on major networks.

“We just take to heart the political reality that there have been campaigns in the past where billions were spent but did not lead to victory. So money, resources alone will not spell victory. So that's one: how do we raise the necessary resources to launch a winning campaign?” Pangilinan said.

He said the coalition would only be able to produce campaign ads for the slate as a whole. Otherwise, the Otso Diretso candidates are left to their own devices. 

Only Roxas and Aquino, the seasoned politicians in the slate, have so far been able to produce their own campaign ads for national television. Alejano and Tañada were able to air radio ads as well. The rest have been relying heavily on social media and their door-to-door efforts in different provinces. 

And so Otso Diretso has been resorting to non-traditional means to raise funds and to make the public more aware of who they are and what they are advocating. 

During the pre-campaign period, several groups supporting Otso Diretso conducted fundraising activities to help certain candidates – from thousands-a-plate benefit dinners to a concert at the Music Museum headlined by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab and Celeste Legaspi.

The candidates themselves have also been busy attending not just senatorial debates, but different forums – from those sponsored by schools to small gatherings organized for residents of gated villages.

Team Pilipinas was also launched. It is a group of volunteers for Otso Diretso’s campaign. Pangilinan’s instruction was to tell voters how each member of the slate will be able to help address the issues of high prices of goods, jobs, wages, and poverty.

“Of course, the challenge also is how to get your message across because he who finds the issue wins the war, right? He who is able to connect to the voter effectively will win,” said Pangilinan. 

LP conducted its face-to-face, volunteer-driven listening campaign called Project Makinig from October to December 2018, where the party literally knocked on the doors of Filipino households to know their aspirations for themselves and the rest of the country.

The second phase of Project Makinig – a persuasion campaign to cater specifically to the Otso Diretso candidates – is set to be launched on Tuesday, February 12.  

"Makinig 2.0 is our version of People Power, empowering ordinary citizens so that they are able to make the right choice for senators and empowering them to campaign for these choices," said Pangilinan in a statement.

"This campaign strategy of going house-to-house is a game-changer. It has not been done on a national scale," he added. 

Critical, not personal

What else can Otso Diretso do to boost their numbers? Be critical but not personal, suggested former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña. 

La Viña said because Otso Diretso is known to be a coalition of groups that criticize the administration, their core supporters would expect the candidates to go after the President himself. But La Viña said the opposition candidates should be more prudent. 

“The popularity of the President is number one [among the challenges they have to face]. So since they’re opposition and their core constituency is expecting them to criticize the President, they will do that. But that would alienate a big part of the population,” La Viña told Rappler.

“So what I would do is praise the President when he is right, and attack his policies when it’s wrong – policies, not the President,” he added. 

As an example, La Viña said Otso Diretso can continue slamming the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s war on drugs. But at the same time, the candidates must be able to clarify to voters that they support eradicating the drug problem in general, minus the bloody killings. 

“Anti-Duterte or not, you have to accept that he is a larger-than-life character. So if you attack Duterte and you’re not another larger-than-life character, it won’t be effective. It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” he said. 

Arugay also said the opposition slate must strive to “capture the imagination of the apathetic youth.” He said the candidates’ respective social media campaigns indicate the slate is trying to capture the swing votes among the younger generation, or those who are yet to decide who to vote for in May.

“How do they do that? They should not insult the intelligence of the voters just because they are apathetic. So don’t be condescending, but at the same time, don’t be patronizing,” said Arugay.

Both political analysts suggested Otso Diretso get guest candidates as well, since there are still 4 slots that the slate could accommodate. La Viña and Arugay said the opposition bets would benefit from the endorsement of other leading candidates.

“In other words, it’s about winning the elections, and if the approach is not addition, it will not make you win,” said La Viña. 

But guest candidates does not seem to be a priority for now. 

“This matter has not been discussed without coalition partners,” said Pangilinan. 

The alternatives to ‘trapos’?

But perhaps what Otso Diretso’s edge can be – if they successfully capitalize on it – is that they are the alternatives to the many “trapos” or traditional politicians running in the midterm elections.  

“They’re seen as very distant [from this administration]. I think they should capitalize on that. They need to expose what are the consequences of electing these politicians over and over again,” said Arugay.

Otso Diretso is going to kick off its campaign with a grand rally in Naga City, the bailiwick of opposition leader Robredo, on Wednesday, February 13.

The Vice President said it is only fitting the campaign launch will be held there, as Naga has shown throughout the years how wise voters can be in choosing the right leaders for them.

“Dito sa atin, kahit walang pera, may pag-asang manalo. Dito sa atin, kung sino iyong bumibili ng boto, siya iyong hindi nananalo. Dito sa atin, hindi natin pinapayagan na magkakamag-anak iyong kumakandidato,” said Robredo when she returned to her hometown on February 9.

(Here, even if we don’t have money, there’s a chance to win. Here, the person who buys votes does not win. Here, we don’t allow relatives to run.)

“At sana iyong maturity sa pagboto na iyon, mahawa natin iyong ating mga karatig-munisipyo. Kasi sa pagkakaroon ng empowered na electorate, doon napipilitan iyong pamahalaan na humusay,” she added.

(And I hope this maturity when it comes to voting will rub off to other municipalities. Because only when you have an empowered electorate will the government be forced to be excellent.)

Will Otso Diretso overcome the hurdles along the way? Only the next 3 months can tell. – Rappler.com

Photo of Otso Diretso supporters by Darren Langit/Rappler

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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