[OPINION] When the opposition says it will tap volunteers

The opposition coalition led by the Liberal Party is going to rely on volunteers to do its campaign. The organization and many of its candidates don’t have decent kitties – “walang pera” was the phrase Vice President Leni Robredo used.  

On the sidelines of an event in Legazpi City on October 28, the VP was delighted to share that, within a day of announcing the party’s need for volunteers, “more than a thousand” signed up. 

Instinctively, my reaction was: campaigns are not as simple as that. In the last 31 years, when the country conducted 10 senatorial elections, there was only one candidate I remember who won on the back of volunteerism: Rene Saguisag.  

The human rights lawyer from San Beda had the most endearing and effective campaign slogan: “Ampunin si Saguisag (Adopt Saguisag)." The idea was: here’s a decent, qualified, principled man, who doesn’t have money to burn, but would surely serve you. Can you send him to the Senate by spreading the word about him and helping his campaign in cash or in kind?  

In a 2016 newspaper column, Saguisag recalled: 

Tony Gonzalez of Mondragon gave seed money of a million, which I didn’t need or use, and returned it after the polls. And I had donors all over the land, many, unknown to me. One plastered Sultan Kudarat with my posters, unknown to me, and the donor, Joe Lago or Lagon, never asked for anything. Others bought local newspaper space or radio slots, unknown to me. Others made streamers, decals, whatever, without telling me. All projected: Adopt Rene, or Ampunin si Saguisag. A winning line. Kin, friends, classmates, the human rights community, strangers, et al. supported me. Even certain KBL figures. 

For ordinary voters who couldn’t sponsor ads or campaign paraphernalia, there were organizers who handled a “Piso Para kay Saguisag (A Peso for Saguisag)" drive in specific regions. They gave the voters the feeling of empowerment: your one peso, combined with the one peso of thousands of other supporters, can help Saguisag’s campaign operations in your area.  

Even those regional organizers were doing that on voluntary basis – they were consultants of paying senatorial candidates, and they decided to hinge Saguisag on their grassroots work for free. They, too, were “adopting” him.  

Of the 54 candidates in that 1987 senatorial race, he finished 8th, with almost 11 million votes.  

I see at least one opposition bet now trying to copy the Saguisag tack, asking to be “adopted” by the voters and be spared their one peso each.  

The opposition coalition, though, has to remember that there were factors that worked together to make the Saguisag campaign succeed, which may be lacking now, at least for some of them.  

For one, it was the 1987 polls – fresh from the February 1986 Edsa People Power Revolt that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Saguisag was a candidate of the sitting president. He was one of 8 bets of the Liberal Party among the 24 fielded by the Laban coalition.

For another, he and everyone else on the slate were being carried by the so-called Cory Magic when it was at its most potent. (Of the 24 Laban bets, 22 won – the two other seats went to the opposition’s Joseph Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile). Saguisag didn’t seek a second term anymore.

u2018PEOPLEu2019S CAMPAIGN.u2019 Supporters carry images of the 7 senatorial bets of the Oposisyon Koalisyon on October 24, 2018. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

u2018PEOPLEu2019S CAMPAIGN.u2019 Supporters carry images of the 7 senatorial bets of the Oposisyon Koalisyon on October 24, 2018.

Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

In 2019, the Oposisyon Koalisyon is being pushed by a VP Robredo that has only recently become aggressive and forceful in her messaging against the abuses of President Duterte and his government. 

While to us her and Duterte’s contrast is clear, the general adult population doesn’t seem to appreciate it. As of the 3rd quarter of this year – 5 months before the senatorial campaign kicks off – Duterte has a net trust rating of +62, while Robredo has +38. 

The opposition has to be mindful of strategically organizing and shepherding their volunteers down to the local level. As I said in a social media post, just counting volunteers is like asking for a Facebook event sign-up – not everyone who clicks “Going” or “Interested” will show up when the time comes.  

Once organized, these volunteers should have to be told clear instructions on unified messages, timing, and on-ground activities. 

This is an unfortunate comparison, but for the well-orchestrated messages and timing, go back to how the Duterte presidential campaign infiltrated and used the many Facebook groups starting 2015. But remember that Duterte had on-ground organization as well, provided by the local parties and politicians who saw his numbers rising. 

Notice, too, that I also mentioned “on-ground activities” for the volunteers. Because, this early, some candidates on the opposition slate are naively depending a lot on social media presence and engagement to carry their campaigns. They say this is the cheapest way to do it because they don’t have huge funds to sustain going around the country for face-to-face campaigning.  

No, sirs, no. Social media endorsements have to translate to physical help to get the word out about you, to follow up on relatives and friends who can be convinced to vote for you.  

Before the 2016 presidential polls, a Publicus Asia-commissioned survey of young registered voters up to 35 years old showed that 73% didn’t have – didn’t have – internet connection. And of those who had internet access, 58% never used – never used – Facebook.  

That same nationwide psychographics study showed that only “about a fifth” of the respondents participated in political activities. These are what they did: poll watching, putting up posters or distributing pamphlets, persuading people they know to vote for the candidate, went around with other supporters, volunteered for local candidates.  

The figures and habits may have changed in the last 3 years, but it would be wise to get an accurate snapshot now. Nobody should get the wrong idea when their echo chamber online says voters would, without thinking, know a white slate from a black one and choose one over the other. – Rappler.com 

Visit #PHvote 2019, Rappler’s elections microsite, for updates on the midterm polls.