Viral moments in Philippine elections involve touch. In 2019, then Pasig mayoral candidate Vico Sotto struck wacky poses with babies in the city, adding a millennial twist to old school campaigning. Fifteen years before, at the end of long days pressing flesh, the late presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr.'s hands always ended up bruised as fans literally scratched their way to handshakes.
The pandemic will change all of that. For the 2022 national elections, Comelec said all PDA or public displays of affection will be regulated. Handshakes and kissing of babies will be prohibited. In the new normal of campaign hustings, can candidates win without the physical connection with voters?
Because of physical distancing requirements, candidates more than ever will need to harness social and traditional media such as TV, radio, and newspapers, political scientist Dennis Coronacion told reportr. Politicians will also have to build grassroots support down to the barangay and purok levels, he said.
“Kapag may personal touch, kapag may personal interaction, mas nai-increase yung chances na ma-convince ang isang voter na iboto yung candidate,” he said.
Face-to-face was key pre-COVID
Personality-based politics in the Philippines makes physical interaction an essential part of campaigns, Coronacion said. It also gives voters the impression that politicians can mingle with common folk, he said.
“Meron yun effect sa psyche ng mga tao na sa mga eleksyon lang nakikita ng mga tao nang personal yung mga kandidato. Kapag nakita ng botante na bumababa sa barangay nila yung kanilang mga kandidato, parang additional pogi points yun sa mga kandidato,” he said.
Some voters pick their candidates based on looks. Consider celebrities who successfully crossed over to politics like Senators Tito Sotto, Bong Revilla Jr. and Lito Lapid. There's a place in phone galleries for selfies with these politicians.
“Candidates are being assessed on their willingness to interact physically and personally with their voters. They're also assessed sa kanilang looks, physical looks, charm, charisma,” he said.
Online-heavy campaign heightens risks
A campaign waged on old school and social media will be very expensive, making it hard for candidates with few resources to compete with those who can spend on multimedia promotions, said Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Carlos Zarate.
“If this happens then the next elections will just become a contest for the rich and famous while more Filipinos are disenfranchised,” he said in a statement earlier this year.
Consider too that an online campaign will not reach Filipinos who only have TV, radio and print as sources of information, Coronacion said.
Only 36% of Filipinos aged 50 and above used the internet or reported owning a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center study in 2020. The most connected region in the country is Metro Manila, with the highest proportion of internet users among those aged 10 to 64, based on a report by the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2019.
“If we're going to shift the campaign to social media at traditional media, I think yung chances ng mga Filipino voters across all ages to gain access sa crucial political information, magdi-decrease. It would affect their decision-making,” he added.
There is also the danger from misinformation and troll farms, as shown in the last U.S. elections, Coronacion said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who is considering a second go at the presidency, earlier claimed that a government undersecretary was organizing troll farms to attack government critics and potential candidates who are not aligned with the administration.
“Ang mangyayari niyan kung sino mang candidate or party ang mas maraming troll farm, mas nado-dominate nila yung political discourse lalo na sa eleksyon. Kapag na-dominate, papaniwalaan ng mga tao na tama yung sinasabi nila,” Coronacion said.
Senators have already called for an inquiry into the alleged use of public funds to operate troll farms ahead of the upcoming elections.
Challenge for Comelec is to level the playing field
Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said it would be the poll body's duty to ensure that candidates campaign online on equal footing.
“When we talk about restricting physical campaigning, we have to also talk about loosening up the online campaigning environment, right? We have to balance it,” Jimenez said in an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Coronacion said the Comelec should be more strict on social media campaigning given the threat of fake news and trolls.
“Kapag hindi ni-regulate mabuti yun ng Comelec, or hindi prepared ang Comelec to regulate, kawawa yung mga candidates who don't have the capability to defend themselves,” he said.
“Para ma-achieve talaga yung leveling of playing field, Comelec should be able to regulate,” he added.