Under Omicron Shadow, Philippines' Future President Must Rethink Campaign

Official campaign period starts Feb. 8.

Bongbong Marcos and Manny Pacquiao put their campaign machines on pause while Leni Robredo went on self-isolation after getting exposed to the virus yet again. Even before the official Comelec makes vote-courting season official, the fast-spreading Omicron variant forced candidates to rethink how they would sell themselves to the electorate.

Before Omicron, voters got a taste of what a presidential campaign that is less on pressing flesh will look like -- Marcos and Robredo led motorcades that painted major roads in their signature colors. In Ilocos Sur, Narvacan Mayor Chavit Singson fired money from a gold "gun", eliminating the need for touch.

Any candidate should certainly think of creative ways and means in campaigning. That includes maximization of both social media and traditional media,” campaign strategist and political scientist Gerardo Eusebio told reportr.

“Candidates should take it easy on their assemblies, even motorcades, and refocus their campaign into more online,” he added.

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The official campaign period for national candidates will start on Feb. 8. and by then the country would have reached the peak of the post-Christmas surge believed to be fueled by the Omicron variant.

As early as July last year, the Commission on Elections said it would limit physical interactions during the campaign for the 2022 elections. This meant that candidates would have to let go of the old-school ways of campaigning like handshaking and baby-kissing.

But as soon as the filing of candidacies are over, candidates started going around the country to hold rallies and caravans, with handshakes and hugs still very much present. 

Pressing flesh gets the votes

Why is it difficult to break away from face-to-face campaigns despite threats to public health and safety? Because in the Philippines where elections are very personal, it’s the most effective way to connect with people, said Eusebio the analyst.

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“It brings out the intimacy of the campaign,” he said. “Kapag personalan na... mas effective.”

Some candidates still prefer face-to-face because it allows them to reach voters who are marginalized under the traditional political processes or do not have access on social media, such as indigenous people, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities, University of the Philippines political science professor Alicor Panao told reportr.

“Also, we have realize that the demographic composition and issue preferences vary between social media and campaign rallies. Although information travels faster in social media, its audience are those who are already sold to a particular candidate and are consuming political campaigns only to reinforce or validate their beliefs,” he said.

“Hence, limiting campaigns to the online and social media platforms means never really reaching out to the still undecided mass of voters,” he added.

The situation is even more difficult for candidates in local positions, many of whom cannot afford so-called brokers to campaign for them. This leaves them with no other choice but to go around their communities, Eusebio said.

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“Local elections are more personal than national. In national elections, you would have brokers who would campaign for you. Pero kung local… man to man yan. Matutukso kang umikot kahit bawal,” he said.

How to win without a physical campaign?

As the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to persist until election day, and with the protocols changing almost every month, candidates would have to come up with alternative ways to hold their campaigns, analysts Panao and Eusebio said.

These involve harnessing the power of traditional media, like radio, print, and television, as well as of social media, which Panao said has become extremely popular among candidates.

“Campaign managers and supporters may upload their candidates campaign videos to social media like TikTok and YouTube. Candidates may also consider getting in touch or reaching out to prospective voters and supporters via virtual events,” he said.

“In areas with low internet penetration, candidates may resort to vehicles fitted with large speakers to broadcast their messages. This does not require a mass gathering of people unlike in rallies,” he added.

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Some candidates, however, resort to these platforms not necessarily because they are genuinely concerned with the welfare of the voters, according to Panao. They are also aware of the limitations of these platforms, and would still grab every opportunity to hold in-person campaigns.

“Typhoon Odette devastated many provinces in the Visayas but some candidates even saw in the tragedy an opportunity to widen exposure through so-called relief operations,” he cited as an example.

For Eusebio, candidates should follow guidelines issued by the Commission on Elections on campaigning during the pandemic.

“It is also incumbent upon the candidate to advise, to protect his or her volunteers by not exposing them to the dangers of the pandemic,” he added.


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What role can voters play?

With large-scale political rallies and gatherings expected to decrease as the COVID-19 situation remains uncertain, voters can use their time and energy to read more about the candidates, analyst Panao said.

It’s also important to examine the candidates’ leadership abilities and their platforms, as well as their endorses and the sources of their campaign funds, he added.

“Once these are sorted out, citizens can show their support for their candidates by echoing the candidates’ platforms to family members, friends and peers,” Panao said.

“Sometimes informed conversations between members of a small network of relatives and peers are more effective at swaying the undecided than mass rallies and caravans,” he added.

At the end of the day, regardless if they participated in rallies or took part in the campaign itself, voters can show their support to a candidate by casting their vote on May 9, Panao said.

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Citizens should go out and vote,” he added.

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