One Country, Two Peoples

Two clearly-definable nations revealed themselves this year.

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ILLUSTRATION War Espejo

(SPOT.ph) Nick Joaquin loved to collect words and phrases and create a kind of verbal history in the process. In 1963 he noticed a new phrase to express “the cooked goose, the swung deal, the clinched victory, the mission accomplished.” It was “ayos na ang butò-butó,” a phrase that ended up so sticky that as late as 2009, Vhong Navarro could still come out with a song with that title. According to Nick Joaquin, the term you used for a win dated you: the 1957 campaign, he recalled, contributed “tapos na ang boksing,” the “unbearably sad” phrase used by defeated candidate Claro M. Recto. Victory in the early '50s was “Yari na!” and in the '40s, “Cuarta na!” But best of all was the popular phrase dating to the pre-war Commonwealth: “Areglado na ang kilay!

But if there’s one thing these phrases have in common, is an underlying current of boasting that I think betrays something uniquely Filipino. And it is, this basic truth: we aren’t merely sore losers (no one, the old head-shaking folk wisdom goes, ever loses an election), we’re also bad winners. Think of it: even when it comes to sports, our word for it is palakasan. The historian Mina Roces has actually written about how our politics can be understood through three words: malakas, mahina, and palakasan.

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There are two narratives about the 2022 election last May 9. The one believed in by the 59% of the country—which happens to be the third-biggest electoral majority our country has produced since 1935, and the first first-term majority we have experienced since 1965—is that this has been the most boring, because it was the most predictable and most lopsided, campaign in living memory. It is one that looked at the surveys and saw they basically never changed after November 2021. The other one, believed in by the 28% who voted for the runner-up—which happens to be the second-highest percentage ever obtained by a runner-up in the six elections under our current constitution—is that this was a campaign of incredible solidarity, creativity, and daring, one which should have been at the very least, a close contest if not an actual victory. It is one that increasingly disbelieved the surveys and put its faith in Google trends.

To me, what this election proved isn't that some sort of secret black magic possessed the voting machines, but rather, what remains unbeatable, all things considered, is the logistical command of resources to maintain a web of political machines, poised to deliver on election day. What we saw in the lead up to the campaign and in the campaign itself, was one country composed of two almost entirely separated groups of citizens.

If you look at the ads and listen to the songs and hear the words of the candidates, there are two countries being imagined and appealed to by each. The one of Marcos is one both aggressive, because it rejects those it considers the lords and masters of the country since 1986, and obedient, to the once and future First Family; both rough, because it is also heir to the language and style of the Dutertes, and smooth, because it is in awe of the confident cosmopolitan style of the Marcoses; it is defiant of authority (the churches, clubs, and schools with its civil society and reverence for media) yet highly respectful of the hierarchy defined by clan, political machine, and social media tribe; it is one that harks back to words like Maharlika, to ideas like a New Society, to totems in the form of tigers and eagles.

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The one of Robredo harks back to visions of FQS barricades, to the parliament of the streets, where the street is a sacred space; it is collective, in sandwich-making brigades, and house-to-house campaigning, yet individualistic, in everyone wanting to, and being able to, churn out memes and songs and posters and merch; it is cooperative, but insistently egalitarian; it is mystical, looking back to martyrdom and miracles, yet modern in demanding concrete plans, systems that work, governance by Gantt chart.

There is a dividing line and it isn’t the slums but rather what people do, politically, in the streets. Back in 2009, the Sociologist Randy David pointed out that only ten percent of Filipinos have ever attended a rally, but the vast majority have engaged in civil disobedience. We Filipinos, he said, do not assert our rights: we steal them. Which one of these is the Marcos or the Robredo citizen?

The dividing line is the rally, particularly the ones not related to elections. Were you to look at public opinion polling before the election campaign, you’d find the percentage fluctuating around that level—the ten percent that is inclined to be opposed to the status quo and feels compelled to gather to let the rulers know by shouting in Mendiola, EDSA Shrine or Rizal Park. The miracle is that in this campaign, it swelled to more than twice, nearly, thrice that, a constituency fundamentally characterized, however, by its being self-organizing, self-directing, self-identifying, than the rest—who turned out, however, to be the vast majority.

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What of the remaining ninety percent who have never attended a rally? A significant minority found affinity with those comfortable with expressing themselves in the streets. But far, far more quietly stood their ground, biding their time. They are the other Philippines: the kind that will attend a political event—but only if given transportation, and only if they will be given at least a meal, in what is a fair exchange. That is community, too: a realistic one, because it reflects the reality for far more who do not have the luxury of time or resources to rally in the first place. But it knew itself and its ultimate power—that of numbers—and its real manifestation was less in stickers and tarps and more in skits and rhymes parodying the few they looked forward to defeating.

This is why the two sides remain irreconcilably divided. The minority does not quite believe the majority exists, because if it does, it would be too alien and loathsome to inspire either empathy or a continuing desire to serve; the majority cannot stand, and cannot bear to be constantly reminded, that in a country that preaches the rule of the majority, the minority should continue to be so incapable of obedience, so impervious to terror. The malakas will never understand the mahina who find strength and even vindication, in losing the palakasan.

Two campaigns, One presidential seat

But there is something else about this election, the highest-attended ever, that I believe is important to acknowledge, because it helps us understand why the majority is offended the minority won’t go away, while the minority for its part is processing its grief through a profound hatred of the majority. There are exceptions to both points of view, of course, but it seems to me, too little.

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I want you to undertake a kind of three-step process with me, an exploration of these two different worlds and the ways that emerged to speak to, and resonate with, these worlds. We’ll do it primarily with music and words, and the images that are inseparable from both. Each step in our process, involves two sets, the Marcos and Robredo sets. In each set, pay attention to the arrangement of the items: as best as I could, I arranged them by date, so that each set in and of itself, tells a story about each candidate. Together, the sets are a useful way to compare and contrast the kind of identity and community each set tried to motivate and energize.

Exhibit A: the commercials of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and commercials of Leni Robredo. I remember my own feeling, when the Marcos ad first came out: he managed, in one ad, to turn himself into the candidate of Hope and Change, the two most important defining elements for any national candidate. We have to remember the timing of the Marcos ad: it came after an intense drama in which it was uncertain whether he or his eventual running mate, Sara Duterte, would be the one to seek the presidency or vice-presidency. When both forged an alliance, it was the most significant such pairing since Corazon Aquino and Salvador H. Laurel set aside their differences and united, way back in 1986.

In every respect, from the colors, to the musical theme, to the imagery that both echoed the candidates’ earlier (2016) campaign and memorable achievements, the ad was a masterpiece of political advertising. It went from strength to strength by avoiding specifics and instead focusing on the feels.

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In contrast, the Robredo commercials, after at first successfully garnering public interest and enough support to make her candidacy viable, then went through an extended identity crisis. I think it’s fair to point out that after supporters got together to push the message of #LetLeniLead (and it says a lot the primary online space for her supporters was Twitter while that of Marcos remained both Facebook and the new TikTok) , when her campaign got started it decided priority number one was to make the candidate likeable. But it sure chose weird ways to try. Perhaps the Kamehameha Wave Hadouken will forever be, the most ill-fated stunt in campaign history (LugawOne Adventures was meh too). On the other hand, the first national TV ad was startling in presenting a tired, sad-looking Robredo: not the way to establish the candidate as the Hope and Change one.

In the end the Robredo ads would improve. But too much time, money, and effort—and too many opportunities given to detractors—had been spent in comparison to the Marcos series that went from strength to communication strength. The Marcos ads were longer than usual, itself a testimony to being a resource-rich campaign.

Exhibit B: the music of the campaign of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and music of the campaign of Leni Robredo. This is the topic that perhaps interests me most as political music is something I’ve long studied. If one word could describe the Marcos campaign, it’s discipline. Even in terms of music, the choices were controlled and thought-out. In the first place, the Marcos campaign doubled-down, as well it might, on the nostalgia feels, having as it did, steadily and perhaps rather stealthily, seeding a new generation of listeners for the theme song of the New Society.

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By the time the Marcos campaign got going then, it could capitalize on the New Society song, recast as a rock anthem. Propaganda wise it fulfilled multiple roles: it was familiar to the Loyalists; it was now made catchy to a new generation cultivated by years of online messaging; I also believe that, by doubling-down on the past, it served as a kind of musical shock and awe aimed at enemies who recoiled in shock and horror, over the triumphalist revival of the song.

The musical spearhead of the campaign ended up rap, not only because it was energizing, but because it served as a bridge to the Duterte constituency and its celebration of populist shock-and-awe and iconoclasm and iconoclasm: here was the real talk, between the supporters, even as the candidates portrayed themselves as above the fray. And here comes an important distinction: the raw edge of rap was smoothed over by the neo-Vangelis, epic style of the theme music not just for ads but the staging of events. Rap was for crowd, but the outside world would mainly see pre-digested, carefully curated, methodically-edited set pieces.

As for the other side, like the color pink, the top two hits of the Robredo campaign came from the volunteers and not the campaign itself, which tried to supplant the tunes to no avail. The musical identity of the campaign was its diversity, the fact that there was a musical explosion, representing practically every genre, with some songs being performed in different styles. If it harked to the past, it harked to different pasts, from EDSA in 1986, to the street theater of the First Quarter Storm or even Broadway. It was fundamentally collective in its appeal and consumption: everyone, from performers to supporters, viewed it as a group activity, for group purposes.

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The crescendo of creativity matched the ever-escalating turnout in rallies. Here again was a bottom-up, community-centric, even internally-competitive, group activity, practically drunk on its own momentum, astounded by its own (indubitably impressive, considering the isolation and even mutually-exclusive initial existence, of its component parts) success. It was young, tireless, glittering with star power.

A word on the seeming lopsidedness of the star appeal of these two campaigns: the Marcos campaign had its fair share of star power but had relied from the start, on an altogether different approach that only its near-infinite resources and tech savvy could not just identify, but marshal: micro-influencers. In a campaign of two scions (both presidential children) it grounded itself by cultivating the many who resonated with the few (for each, but combined, resulting in much, much more).

The greater the star power on the Robredo side, the stronger the micro-influencer network became: they were the Little People exercising their own People Power.

In an episode of Proyekto Pilipino, the non-partisan civics series I am part of, one expert pointed out that what celebrities do, is act as a bridge, helping to introduce candidates to voters; but the candidate still has to convince the voter. It seems to me in the kumbaya-like atmosphere of the Robredo campaign, this basic truth might have been overlooked.

Exhibit C: A sampling of words: the final Miting de Avance speech of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the final Miting de Avance speech of Leni Robredo. While each candidate of course had their own style, their closing appeal to my mind demonstrated a fundamental difference in attitudes towards both the campaign itself, and the two audiences at those closing rallies: the audience there, and the world watching through media or online.

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Marcos spoke late, as befits a chieftain with many tasks; Robredo spoke early, as befits the leader concerned about her community having to go home. Marcos spoke in a manner that showed attention to his tone and gestures, but which was fundamentally structured so that what he said could be chopped up and repurposed in many ways; Robredo spoke a proper oration, a set speech in the classical tradition, meant to be experience in the moment and replayed from start to finish. The former was a set of remarks for multiple channels, the latter was an address to a community gathered around the stage and devices. One cared more about appearances, the other about impact. The former assumed it was all over but for the counting; the latter believed it could succeed, if it only it could still convert hearts and minds.

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If our takeaway is that we have one country, two peoples, and that we are both bad losers and at times brash winners, what hope can there be for the future? If our core attitude is palakasan, then the malakas will always scorn the mahina. But we are all these, and more besides. The phenomenal turnout, at least 81% and more likely, much more, means strong collective ownership of the process. And there is one tendency that all sides find hard to resist: it is, after having conferred a mandate, to unite, however briefly, to give whoever’s been elected a chance. It may take a little longer than usual because of the grieving on one hand, and the empowering feeling of achieving a win of historic proportions. But that is why our democracy contains its own rituals: of the proclamation of a president-elect, and the inauguration of a new presidency. If a week is a long time in politics, then more than a month before the new government takes power, is like an eternity.

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