By Perry Diaz
Up until a few weeks ago, vice presidential candidate Congresswoman Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo was behind in the polls. Way ahead of her then were Senators Francis “Chiz” Escudero and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. who were at a statistical dead heat. But the latest polls surprised a lot of the power brokers who have shrugged her off as a “spoiler.” Not anymore. Indeed, if the elections were held today, she’d win over Bongbong and Chiz, which makes one wonder: Why the sudden voters’ interest in Leni?
This is a complicated situation because first of all, Leni is paired with Liberal Party (LP) standard bearer Manuel “Mar” Roxas II who is perceived as a weak leader. And secondly, she’s up against two formidable vice presidential candidates, Marcos and Escudero, whose campaigns are being bankrolled by some of the wealthiest families and oligarchs. While Bongbong is presumed to have unrestricted access to the Marcos family wealth, Chiz is supported by a group of mega-billionaires led by Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. and Ramon Ang. Cojuangco is the Chairman of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), the largest food and beverage corporation in the Philippines and Southeast Asia; and Ang is SMC Vice-Chairman and Chief Operating Officer. By comparison, Leni doesn’t have rich and powerful groups that can match her rivals’ financiers. That’s a double whammy – nay, triple whammy! — that she had to overcome to win the vice presidency. As it stood then, Leni couldn’t win, not even in her dreams. Yes, it was that bad.
But she proved the pundits wrong. In September 2015, Leni’s rating was 5%. Today, it’s 26% with just three weeks to Election Day. By comparison, Bongbong’s ratings — after shooting up to the 25% range last January — have stagnated, which seems to suggest that he may have reached his highest rating. On the other hand, Chiz’s ratings were like shooting stars. He started with 20% in September 2015 and had gone up as high as 30% by November. But evidently, he had reached the apex of his campaign; it has been downhill since then. Today, Leni and Bongbong are at a statistical dead heat, with Chiz running behind Bongbong at 18%. [Note: these numbers may vary a little in other surveys but their rankings are pretty much in line with the numbers reflected here.]
Leni’s phenomenal rise brings to the forefront of debate the question: What are the factors that contributed to her success in beating the odds? In my opinion, Leni’s rise happened when presidential candidate Sen. Grace Poe-Llamanzares’ ratings plummeted. That happened last March when Grace’s ratings reached the highest at around 30%. Then her numbers started going down while Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s ratings started to go up. By the end of March, Duterte became the frontrunner as Grace’s ratings began to fall.
By the looks of it, the presidential race will be won by either Duterte or Llamanzares. However, Duterte’s campaign is winning a lot of the supporters of Vice President Jejomar Binay whose ratings have slid down to 14% today from 30% last January. And with the upward trend of Duterte’s ratings, a “bandwagon effect” takes hold attracting those who abandoned Binay’s sinking ship and jumping into Duterte’s bandwagon.
Leni vs. Bongbong
In the case of the vice presidential contest, it appears that it is going to be a tight race between Leni and Bongbong. But like a horse race, whoever takes the inner position in the final lap would have the advantage of beating the other in a photo finish, with the victor winning by a nose.
And this is where organization and money matter. Organizationally, Leni has an advantage because of the Liberal Party’s top-to-bottom infrastructure, from the President down to the more than 40,000 village councils – barangays – that the LP administration controls. Bongbong, although a member of the Nacionalista Party (NP), is running as an independent. Two other NP members, Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes IV, are also running for vice president. Bongbong has to rely on his own political network that includes the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), or New Society Movement, which was founded by his father and namesake, the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos. However, since the ouster of Marcos and dismantling of his authoritarian regime, the KBL became politically insignificant, a relic of the dark days of a bygone era.
But Bongbong’s main strength is his family’s financial empire. Although, the public and the government know not much about the alleged Marcos wealth, it is presumed to have been the source of his campaign funds. And this is where he has an overwhelming advantage over Leni. Like any campaign for political office, money talks. The more money he funnels into his campaign, the louder his message is heard.
However, Leni seems to be unperturbed by Bongbong’s financial advantage. She is a lawyer, holds an Economics degree from the University of the Philippines, a social activist, and currently serving her first term as the representative of the Third District of Camarines Sur to the Philippine House of Representatives, which she reluctantly ran for — and won — in the 2013 elections beating Nelly Favis-Villafuerte, who belongs to the politically powerful Villafuerte family dynasty.
While Leni is politically savvy, her election victory would be a testament to the legacy of her popular husband, the late Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Jesse Robredo who served under the Aquino administration from 2010 until his death in 2012. Prior to his national prominence, Jesse Robredo served six terms as Mayor of Naga City. He was also elected President of the League of Cities of the Philippines, the influential national association of city mayors. In 2000, he was recognized and awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service.
After the death of her husband, Leni kept a low profile. But Fate pushed her to the limelight when she reluctantly accepted a draft to be the LP’s vice presidential nominee after President Aquino failed to convince Grace Poe-Llamanzares to fill the spot. As the Aquino’s second choice, it didn’t take long for Leni to learn the ropes of running for national office. Leni’s performance at the two vice presidential debates last April 10 and April 17 proved her mettle as a candidate to be reckoned with. Her ratings improved considerably putting her ahead in the race. After the second debate, 33% of the 1,200 viewers polled voted Leni as the “best performer” of the debate. Chiz garnered 28%. But Bongbong was a no-show, which proved to be a bad thing for him. Truth be told, his ratings went down by several percentage points. As they say in politics, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
It’s quite interesting to note that during the first debate, Leni was voted the best among women respondents with 35%, which begs the question: Is women’s vote a factor in winning the election? I am inclined to say, “Yes, with qualification.” I believe it is how women voters perceive the candidates. In the case of Grace Poe-Llamanzares, there seems to be a disconnect with the women voters because of the way she handled the citizenship and residency issues against her. Although the Supreme Court ruled in her favor on the disqualification petitions filed against her, a lot of voters were convinced that she lied. And then there is the case of her having two social security numbers in the U.S. Her denial didn’t seem believable. And then, there is the secrecy about her husband Neil Llamanzares’ employment with an outfit that does espionage work for the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
But it’s her sense of humor that endears her to voters. During the first debate, Leni teased her five rivals for the vice presidency, saying: “May the best woman win.” She was the only woman among the six candidates. Touché!