Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The rise and fall of Manny Villar, cont.

So what happened? Some smart, insightful answers by readers here.

My take tracks closely with most of the reasons offered so far, and, if I may add, builds on the anecdotal support I managed to cull from talking to random people in the waning weeks and days of the campaign, when views had either hardened or had accommodated last-minute changes--the most exciting part of the race, in short. See, after I got assigned to write the Politics as Theater piece, I made it a point not only to watch all the candidates' ads and TV appearances, I also began to ask the proverbial man (and woman) on the street who they'd vote for, just to see how my perception of the candidates matched up with those of other people. The question was always neutral: Sino'ng iboboto mo, manong (or manang)?

Every time I rode a cab, I asked the cabbie (in some cases, they beat me to asking the question!). Whenever I bought something at 7-11 or Mini-stop, I'd ask the sales staff. I queried our janitors in the office, the utility guys in the condo, the pedicab drivers and their wives near our place, my suki barber and dibidi sellers, the manangs in the laundry shop, even the guys who fixed my DSL line.

I had a feeling Manny Villar would lose when I realized that nearly everyone I asked said they wouldn't vote for him. Actually--wait, let me rephrase that. More accurately, they said they would vote for so and so--and the name was almost always not Villar. Take note of the people responding to this informal survey: the masa--the one big chunk of society that Villar had most wanted to lure to his side with his tagline: Sugpuin ang kahirapan.

It was to the poor and the lower class that Villar had aimed his campaign firepower, first by identifying himself as one of them (or at least having come from their ranks), and then, by virtue of that identification, vowing to take up their cause by devoting his presidency to their upliftment. Villar defined himself as the true champion of the poor, and the flood of advertisements he unleashed would long be remembered for the images of poverty and garbage and deprivation that he employed to drive home his point.

So how come it didn't work? How come, based on the votes now, his target audience didn't buy his pitch?

In the beginning, it appeared they did--as nearly everyone else in the country. Even before the official start of the campaign period, Villar's so-called infomercials had had a beachhead on the airwaves. If their point was brand recall, they were immediately successful. The well-made ads were designed to impress, and they did. Before Cory Aquino's death upended the political landscape by suddenly making her son a viable candidate, Villar was riding high in the surveys. He had the resources--an enormous war chest--for a long, drawn-out campaign, and the way he carpetbombed all manner of media, from radio and TV to print and Facebook, with his sophisticated, well-packaged presence implied he was the candidate to beat.

Unfortunately, his enormous wealth--the linchpin of his sales pitch that if he could make it in life, others could, too--would eventually pose uncomfortable questions. A typical reaction from a cab driver: Sa sobrang ginastos niya, siguradong triple pa ang babawiin niya pag nakaupo na siya. The logic, alas, was also driven by a core Villar message. He was a businessman, one of the country's most brilliant and successful, or so his ads said. His astute management skills would surely translate to good governance. Then again, smart businessmen don't just throw away their money. They'd find a way to get it back. Even the poor know this; it's a concept so easy to grasp. How come Villar or his handlers never developed a credible answer to this challenge?

Instead, Villar offered a rote response to questions about his wealth: Pera ko naman ang ginagastos ko. Which, in the beginning, sounded like the right response. Oo nga naman, it's his own hard-earned money, at least he's not beholden to shadowy campaign contributors who'd come with one hand offering support while on the other demanding concessions or political accommodation. His wealth has freed Villar to be his own man, went the message. He couldn't be bought--he was richer than everybody else.

In time, though, as Villar leaned on it more and more, the line acquired the tone of a boast, a high-handed way to deflect criticism and unwanted attention without actually answering anything. Pera ko naman ang ginagastos ko became, with subtext coloring it, an expression of hubris: Pakialam ninyo, pera ko naman ang ginagastos ko.

Villar's subtle transformation in some voters' minds from self-made man to arrogant self-made man was, I think, a fatal turning point, something his campaign failed to anticipate or counter vigorously enough. The tactical display of and periodic reference to wealth, while dazzling initially--and most probably intimidating to other candidates and their supporters, surely an intended side effect--would prove to be a gross miscalculation. As my DVD suki put it, Ang yabang niya kasi, akala niya mabibili na niya ang buong Pilipinas.

Or perhaps it was just managed badly, the way Villar failed to address adequately and confidently the other charges leveled against him (the Villaroyo tag, for instance--which merited only wan, evasive denials)? Perhaps if he had evolved with every new criticism, or decided to answer them squarely instead of allowing his minions to coarsen the discourse by flinging back even more dirt at his opponents, he'd have grown in stature, become more presidential?

At any rate, that his pioneering business success became more a liability than an asset among the very set of voters he was trying to woo says something about us Filipinos, I think. We like self-made people. We admire them, and we wish to be like them. But we hate it the moment they flaunt their new-found wealth, or acquire a sense of entitlement.

Look at Mar Roxas--a textbook case in the perils of exuding self-entitlement. On my way home from Trinoma on the evening of Election Day--with about 38 percent of the votes already counted, as announced on TV--a young woman standing by my seat on the crowded bus told her companion, exasperation in her voice: Si Mar kasi, di ginalingan! To which the guy with her said, Naging kampante kasi siya! Indeed. Mar had been polling high, until he appeared to be savoring victory far too early, couching his public pronouncements as if he and Aquino were already sure winners.

Remember that uneasy period when Noynoy's numbers were down and Mar's handlers came out with stories about how his supporters were fretting that he shouldn't have slid to VP now that he was outpolling Noynoy? Ah, how fortunes are undone in the blink of an eye. Now, Mar Roxas is fighting for his political life, blindsided by Jojo Binay--because, in the eyes of many, he became kampante and was seen to be merely coasting along, acting as if the VP post had become his by right. That sense of entitlement doesn't go over well with people who expect you to earn your post, to work hard for it, and who demand that their preferences shouldn't be presumed, right up to the polls. Hey, the elections are the only time when ordinary citizens are paid attention to, wooed and promised the moon, and by God, they will not be taken for granted. They would want their candidates to sweat it out and never wing it.

While Mar's appearing to go slack turned off a large swath of voters, even more, I think, were thrown off-kilter by the flailing, incoherent actions of the Villar camp in the closing days of the campaign. When new polls showed Aquino breaking away from Villar by larger margins, panic mode set in, and the previously highly disciplined and professional Villar camp imploded. The release of the second fake psyschiatric report on Aquino boomeranged with even more impact, and raised questions about the stability of the Villar campaign itself. Its first attempt at smearing Aquino along the same lines had flopped; but at least it retained plausible deniability in the first case, with even ABS-CBN refusing to name its alleged Nacionalista Party source for the report.

This time, however, a known NP supporter took the lead in disseminating the second bogus document, and Villar himself was so cagey that, while saying he had no hand in the actions of his underling, the report should nevertheless be looked into, because, well, what if it were true? He was, in effect, trying to wring validation from a document already proven as fake with the most simple fact-checking--something his party had failed or refused to do, to its discredit. It was the chief irony of the campaign that the side raising a ruckus about another candidate's sanity was itself thrashing about in a way that could only be described as unhinged.

If that action smelled of fear and desperation, what Villar's party did next was the equivalent of jumping the shark: it put Villar's mom on TV to plead her son's case, and it wasn't a pretty sight. A laundrywoman I talked to got so heated up talking about it. Grabe naman si Villar, she said. Dapat di na niya ginamit ang nanay niya ng ganun, pinaiyak pa niya at pinakanta sa TV!

This is an interesting point, because the charge of using family members to win votes had not been taken as vociferously against, say, Aquino, whose sisters were in the thick of the campaign from the beginning. What made it different in Villar's case, I submit, are two things: One, Nanay Curing was never, before this, visible on TV. She was an unknown entity, she had never before involved herself publicly in her son's political activities. So her coming out on TV was a big surprise. And two, her appearance was simply handled badly. TV being a harsh medium for strong emotions--the unflattering light, the real-time ambient noise, the unforgiving close-ups--any display of anger and stridency, when left unchecked, tends to cast the subject in an unsympathetic light.

Villar's mom's agonized--and agonizing--appearance generated riveting television, but not the kind that was helpful to the candidate. There was pity for her, but only contempt for a son who, at the very least, should have had the good sense to make sure her mother's big moment on TV was handled well, in a way that would have shown her off in a gracious, appealing manner.

It was, as some have commented here, the final straw--the ultimate confirmation that Villar, in his quest for the presidency, was prepared to do anything to get what he wanted. He would throw away billions, engage in a pernicious campaign that ran the risk of blackening his name (as it did), invoke his brother's death for sympathy votes and allow his frail mother to fight his fight for him on TV--he would go through all these because he so badly wanted to be in power. Why? What was it about the presidency that made him so willing to give up so much? The thought has a scary, creepy element to it.

The tragedy of Manny Villar is that he started out as the man on the hill, so to speak, and will exit now a sorry shadow of the colossus he once was. Poorer by perhaps more than a billion pesos, his reputation in tatters, his vaunted managerial acumen put in doubt by a monumentally failed campaign, he limps into the political wilderness not only as a much diminished man, but as a cautionary tale on so many levels. Money can't buy everything. Inspiring life stories aren't enough. Highly-paid PR can only do so much.

His is a story that will be studied and dissected by this country's political watchers and election strategists for years to come. For now, none of us can really imagine the sense of personal devastation. In the dark hour of his defeat, we can only wish the man courage and strength of spirit--though, to go by his rousing rags-to-riches story, he's more than capable on his own to get up and move on. That classy concession speech is, dare I say, a good fresh start.


Inghinyero said...

Nice analysis! Sayang siya. Anyway, always been a fan of your blog. Let's exchange links?

Jedd said...

Whew, a very good read! Villar's crash and burn is also to blame for Mar's predicament. Villar's potential voters must have deflected to the Erap/Binay camp in the final days.

I hope you also write something about Ang Ladlad. Not saying that it's a loss yet. Still praying here. According to GMA-7 Partial Unofficial Tally as of May 11 6:58 with 85.88% of ERs, Ang Ladlad is No. 63 with only 102,199 votes. 15% of the votes left to count; need 150,000 to make congress. Sigh, I feel that somehow we could have easily pulled a bigger number than that

rudeboy said...

Never been so happy to read such a lengthy post.

Riveting analysis, Gibbs.

Tristan Tan said...

This was a very interesting read. Thank you for your insights.

lorienimladris said...

Awesome read. It makes sense now why Villar lost. I'm glad the voters were able to see through this sketchy individual.

Can you also write a post-election analysis on Noynoy, Gibo and Erap? I'm totally at a loss why Erap came out strong in the No. 2 spot given his past record of being driven out of office.

As for Gibo, he seems likeable and charismatic. Did his ties with GMA turn off a lot of voters?

As for Noynoy, aside from his good brand that voters trust, what made him appealing to the electorate?


john stanley said...

i could only agree with your every point.

Anonymous said...

Great dissection. For me, in the end it's all about trust. I'm not surprised about Erap's good showing though, but that's another story.

geo said...

Why erap was number 2.

I honestly believed that Villar and Erap had rallied the masses to be interested in this election as reflected by the more than 75% voter turn out.

Unfortunately, when Villar's campaign began spiraling down, most of the masses looked for another champion. That was Erap.

joelmcvie said...

While I agree that Villar's concession speech was a class act, I must say that at this point Villar had NO OTHER CHOICE if he wanted to survive in politics post-elections. (Well, he could continue imploding, but I don't think he's like that.) I have a feeling, being the survivor that he is, he was forced to swallow this bitter pill.

I'm not impressed by his survival tactics. But what he chooses to do in the next few years will determine (and convince me) if Villar has learned his lessons or not. And if he is, indeed, a changed man--but whether for better or for worse, time will tell.

mjomesa said...

Villar's speech was just like a white flag signifying his surrender, his debility, his woes. Whether he changed or not, learned or not, he can just do nothing but be haunted by this election.

People nowadays played well in the election. And so he should. It was a no-choice thing for him. When he conceded, it was a way of saving his face.

Sunny said...

'Tangnang galing nito, Gibbs!

Please do a similar analysis of the rise of Binay. Sige na, please!

Dennis N. Marasigan said...

a great read, gibbs!

Rev. Fr. Jessie Somosierra,Jr. said...

A very keen observation. You can be a good political analyst. Keep up the good work.

Lou said...

very insightful, and extremely well-written! sucn an enlightening read for someone like me who wasn't there to witness the whole drama unfold. thank you, Gibbs! :-)

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