Reclaiming the power to choose our leaders

The country’s biggest carnival is in town. Despite a surging pandemic, all eyes are focused on the arrival of the main stars that will perform in the May 2022 presidential elections. Hardly anyone bothers to ask why this or that personality is even part of the parade. All of them have figured one way or the other in the opinion surveys.

If surveys of candidate preferences were an adequate measure of fitness to lead, then we might as well dispense with elections. Elections, notably in our country, are far more expensive to conduct, and more time-consuming, than even the largest surveys. There might be less violence, and probably greater opportunity for leaders to work together, if we let surveys replace elections.

But the truth of the matter is that no self-respecting citizen in a democracy would, or should, allow this to happen. It would substitute the survey takers’ tools for the capacity (and duty) of citizens to vote according to their own conscience. It would equate “winnability” with desirability.

To be sure, opinion polls do contribute to the complex selection process of a nation’s leaders. A good part of this comes in the form of constructions of the public’s cognitive horizon—what people experience in daily life, how they understand their situation, what they regard as important. Such information can be a useful guide to responsive governance and policymaking.

But when surveys become tools for preempting political choices and discouraging the lesser-known and the less popular from seeking public office, it is society that is ultimately impoverished. The effect is no different from allowing the mass media to completely determine for us what is real, what is worth knowing, and what can be left to forgetting.

The best way to challenge the current dependence of our nation’s leadership recruitment process on candidate preference surveys is to reverse the process. Meaning, first, voters decide what leadership qualities the nation needs most urgently. Then, following these criteria, a list of suitable names is drawn and presented for consideration. In mature democracies, these tasks are the function of political parties.

Where parties are weak or nonexistent, however, the competition for public office becomes the province of political impresarios or promoters that have no accountability to any stable constituency. It is these “kingmakers” who assemble the key elements of a successful public office run—surveys, mass media drumbeaters, money, machinery, etc. Guided primarily by the factor of “winnability,” they identify and approach possible candidates, pitch the idea to financiers and influential personalities, and work with imagers and political consultants to determine the best way to package the chosen one.

“Narrative” is the most common term used in political circles nowadays. It simply means the manner in which a candidate’s life story is to be staged to make it responsive to the public’s cognitive world. The narrative form fits in squarely with the kind of simplification that surveys ask voters to participate in. The more uplifting and empowering the story is, the easier it is to identify with and remember.

Some examples might make this clearer: Isko Moreno’s profile is iconic. It revolves around the archetype of the self-made man who rises above poverty’s adversities by striving to educate himself so he could become a worthy public servant, and who possesses an intimate understanding of the problems of the poor and how to solve them.

Manny Pacquiao’s is that of the boxer who likewise came from poverty but subjected himself to intense discipline to become a world champion, proving that there are no limits to what a man can do to improve his circumstances. From champion boxer to senator to, his followers hope, president—that’s the inspiring trajectory of his life.

Ping Lacson’s narrative is relatively more conventional: A former police officer and crime fighter who succeeded in professionalizing the police institution he once headed, he became a senator who opposed the pork barrel system, and now pledges to rid the entire government machinery of corruption and incompetence.

The most cinematic of all narratives is probably that of Bongbong Marcos, the scion of the deposed dictator, who came home from exile to redeem his father’s legacy. Banking on the sturdy loyalty of a regional vote, he styles himself as the reincarnation of his dead namesake. His message is to bring back what he regards as the glory days of a nation led by a visionary president. Against all the information from recorded history, he seeks the total vindication of the Marcos brand.

Leni Robredo’s narrative is perhaps as compelling as that of Isko Moreno. The widow of a model public servant who died in a tragic plane crash, she took up her late husband’s crusade for a government dedicated to lifting the lives of the marginalized and ran and won a congressional seat. In 2016, she proved her mettle by accepting a draft to run as vice president even though she was not the first choice. Embodying the defiant Edsa spirit, she won against the Marcos son, and subsequently proved herself as a quiet, competent, and courageous public servant who is not afraid to take on the most challenging assignments. Her appeal is both populist and modern.

The key to beating the surveys is by refusing to bow to their self-fulfilling prophetic power. This can only be done by relentlessly questioning the beliefs on which respondents base their answers—in short, the narratives by which they presume to “know” their candidates.