President Poe in 2016?

Perhaps the most notable result of this year’s midterm election is the emergence of former censors chief Grace Poe as the top-notcher in the Senate race. That’s not because it was surprising, but because it makes her the strongest contender against Vice President Jejomar Binay, the early favorite to succeed President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Binay got his break when he was appointed by President Corazon Aquino as officer-in-charge of Makati City during her post-Edsa revolutionary government, and he has hinged his political career partly on his ties with the Aquino support base since then. In 2010, he ran under the banner of deposed President Joseph Estrada, whose populist support base remains strong, while still harping on his Aquino association. His surprise victory in that race was in large part a result of the underground Noy-Bi campaign.

But this election marks Binay’s coming-of-age, so to speak. When he fielded his daughter Nancy, who, as most observers point out, have almost zero experience in public service, as a senatorial candidate, the Vice President was testing the national viability of his own name. He was no longer banking on his association with the Aquinos and the Estradas; he was building his own house, so to speak. The fact that Nancy has garnered more votes than Bam and JV seems to show that he has succeeded.

In a previous blog post, I drew on Professor Randy David’s discussion of the three different types of post-Edsa presidents: the moralists (the Aquinos), the populist (Estrada), and the technocratic (Ramos and Macapagal-Arroyo).

These three leadership templates have their respective constituencies. The masa base, for instance, has remained intact through the years and, despite Senator Manuel Villar’s vigorous attempt to court it in 2010, under the command of former President Estrada.

The Aquino constituency, meanwhile, cuts across social classes, united in adhering to good governance and moral leadership as exemplified by personal incorruptibility, but is not as compact as the Edsa Tres crowd.

The constituency of the technocratic leadership template, on the other hand, is composed mostly of the middle class. Unfortunately, this constituency has never enjoyed coherence: It was split between Ramos and Defensor-Santiago in 1992, Roco and De Villa in 1998, Roco and Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004, and Gordon and Teodoro in 2010.

Just as the Vice President is building his own name in the national political consciousness, so is he consolidating his hold on the masa bloc as the undisputed successor to President Estrada. The elite and the middle class, which the masa perceive to be smug, publicly dread the specter of a Binay presidency, just as they had dreaded the inevitable rise of Estrada before 1998. The Binays, for instance, are being demonized in the social media just as Estrada was bashed through short messaging system (SMS) prior to and during the 1998 campaign. But while this consolidates an anti-Binay middle class constituency, it also enhances Binay’s image among the masa, due in part to the elitist tone of most anti-Binay propaganda. The way the social media derides Nancy Binay’s complexion, for instance, helps the Binays in the way Erap jokes helped Estrada in 1998– and Reli German reportedly works for the Binays too.

But as the Vice President gains the masa crowd, so is he losing in the yellow constituency. His decision to challenge the President by fielding his United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) slate has diminished his credibility among the President’s supporters. He maintains personal connections with the apparently marginalized Peping Coujangco branch of the President’s clan, as well as with the Aquino sisters, but his pragmatism has led many to question his adherence to Daang Matuwid. In other words, Binay has shed his yellow feature and, like Estrada, is now emerging as a purely masa candidate in 2016. The key to his undoing, therefore, would be the dilution of his hold on the masa bloc.

It might be too premature to say, but the ruling Liberal Party’s favored heir apparent, Secretary of the Interior Manuel Roxas II, appears to have no chance of at least gaining a fraction of the masa constituency. He’s not even trying. The President’s endorsement will only get him so far; the Aquino magic is difficult to bestow on a non-Aquino, as proven by Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim’s failed bid for the presidency in 1998. Ultimately, he will split the middle class vote with someone like Richard Gordon. Unless he repackages himself, and only if the Aquino administration’s gains begins to trickle down in the next three years, he would be no match for Vice President Binay.

Poe, on the other hand, could be a game-changer. The national consensus is that his father, the late Fernando Poe Jr., won the 2004 elections but was cheated by the unlamentable Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. As Professor Nicole Curato pointed out, she was a consensus candidate: Her being her father’s daughter gave her a formidable masa support base, and her subtle repudiation of the UNA has strengthened her Daang Matuwid credentials among the yellow crowd. For personal reasons, it would be difficult for President Estrada to disown her in favor of Binay; and the FPJ for President Movement  (FPJPM), which supports her, can be said to be capable of causing a split within the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP).

This early, Poe is revealing a populist streak that could endear him to the masa: She wants to thoroughly study the possibility of including free lunch meals for the poorest elementary school students in the K-12 education policy. And for the middle class and yellow crowd, she has expressed support for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

If the President and the Liberal Party want to continue Daang Matuwid, they should build Poe up as the alternative to Binay. On her part, the Senator-Elect should solidify her masa appeal and challenge the Vice President within his new turf. At the same time, she should appeal to the middle class by utilizing her credentials and talents to be a truly progressive senator in the mold of, say, Pia Cayetano. That would consolidate the anti-Binay coalition under her leadership, shake the foundations of the pro-Binay coalition, and make her, like President Aquino in 2010, a truly consensus presidential candidate in 2016.

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