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Call Boy, Punch Drunk: Why PH Election Campaigns are Toxic

The fight is on.
by Arianne Merez
Aug 16, 2021
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Even before they make their presidential runs official, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Sen. Manny Pacquiao have been called "call boy" and "punch-drunk", in a preview of how virulent the 2022 elections could be in terms of mudslinging.

It's a decades-old tact, the late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was called "Brenda" short for "brain damage" when she ran for president in 1992. For someone who eats death threats for breakfast, however, name-calling was nothing. The Binays were lampooned for their skin color, something Sen. Nancy turned around to show off her wit.

Why do politicians attack their opponents with schoolyard insults? Political analyst Ramon Casiple said this is meant to destroy rivals in the public's mind.

"You have to make sure that voters will appreciate and understand the attack, meaning they will also form a negative opinion of your target in their minds. Otherwise, the attack could boomerang," Casiple told reportr.

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In Moreno's case, the name-calling unearthed his past life as sexy star of films such as "Tukso, Layuan Mo Ako." Yorme, as his supporters call him, said it's all in the past. For Pacquiao, punch drunk brought to mind the alleged alcohol-fueled bar brawls he figured in before he became a world champion boxer and devout Christian and family man.

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Former Vice President Jejomar Binay announced his plans to run for president in 2015, nearly a year before the next presidential elections, making him an easy target.

Binay's opponents could have harped solely on corruption allegations when he led Makati City, but he was also called "nognog" (dark-skinned). He was attacked both for his public service record and his appearance.

It's apparent that Binay suffered from the attacks, placing fourth out of the five candidates in the 2016 presidential polls won by President Rodrigo Duterte.

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"In the case of former VP Binay, people already knew that he would run early on, making him vulnerable to negative campaigning... Parang basketball lang 'yan, you can't let your guard down," University of Sto. Tomas Department of Political Science Chair Dennis Coronacion told reportr.

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Why mudslinging could backfire

Running a negative campaign in the Philippines should take into consideration the voters since they are the main audience of the attack, analyst Casiple said. Politicians need to be careful with mocking traits that are close to the heart of the typical Juan: the underdog, and real-life rags-to-riches.

"Your voters would decide whether the negative campaign was a success if they share the same opinion. But if they feel that it's as if you're attacking them too, the audience might empathize with the target who could even benefit from the attack," analyst Casiple said.

Take former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada who was the butt of jokes for his limited English vocabulary. The demolition jobs against Estrada during the 1998 presidential polls did poorly, with the action star successfully embracing his underdog image to his advantage.

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Estrada ran with his "Erap para sa mahirap" slogan and even authorized the distribution of the joke compilation book ERAPtion: How to Speak English Without Really Trial.

"Filipinos love underdogs so when you're engaging in negative campaigning, you have to tread carefully because you might be viewed as the enemy instead of the other way around," analyst Coronacion said.

Filipinos also hate liars and fakes or at least those who are alleged to be.

Take the Philippines' richest man Manny Villar, who ran for president in 2010 with a catchy jingle about swimming in a dagat ng basura (sea of trash).

Villar capitalized on his rags-to-riches story to win the heart of voters, only to be hounded by criticisms and allegations that he was not really as poor as he painted to be.

Columnist William Esposo claimed that Villar lied in his campaign ads about the extent of his poverty and "cannot really justify calling himself poor." Whether Villar lied or not about his roots, the damage has been done. He lost to the late Noynoy Aquino.

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Why mudslinging doesn't always work

Politicians who choose to engage in negative campaigning risk a huge chunk of their credibility, analysts Coronacion and Casiple said.

If the attacks are done poorly, these could boomerang and endear the targets closer to the voters. And if the attacks are proven to be false, those who launched them lose their credibility.

Take former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV's campaign against President Duterte in 2016. Just as election day was coming close, Trillanes funded television ads that weaved clips of Duterte cursing and making inappropriate gestures. The ads featured children asking if what Duterte was doing was right.

Obviously, the negative campaign was a failure since Duterte won the 2016 polls by the largest margin in Philippine history.

The ads failed to destroy Duterte since being a tough-talking politician was already his image--and the same one that made him popular, according to analyst Coronacion.

"It's like attacking someone with their strength," Coronacion said.

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"Whether cursing is wrong or right is not the issue, the fact is that the campaign failed and as you see now, Trillanes' allegations against the President can be considered negligible," Casiple said.

As election season comes close, more mudslinging is expected from politicians. But no matter how much politicians attack each other, the power still rests in the voters' hands.

"At the end of the day, whether politicians choose to engage in mudslinging or stick to the traditional campaign route doesn't matter as long as he or she gets the votes," Casiple said. "If you get the votes then you win. If not, you lose. It's as simple and as complicated as that."

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