The 'Smartmatic' candidate

A “Smartmatic” candidate is a person, especially a candidate, who pays a group of institutional operators to ensure his/her victory after 90 days or 45 days of campaigning. 

This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on January 8, 2019.

A MANCHURIAN candidate is a person, especially a politician, being “used as a puppet by an enemy power. The term is commonly used to indicate disloyalty or corruption, whether intentional or unintentional.” A “Smartmatic” candidate is a person, especially a candidate, who pays a group of institutional operators to ensure his/her victory after 90 days or 45 days of campaigning. The candidate can manage his campaign so she or he appears to be campaigning, but a transactional arrangement is made to climb up the rankings and even go over the rest.

How many more candidates would go this route to ensure victory? How many will buy machines to understand the protocols or bypass the protocols? How many who ran against electoral fraud remain quiet today because they are reelectionists? How many will buy survey spots and game the results of the surveys? How many polling firms will offer services with the sole purpose of driving/pushing ranks and, thereby, ride the bandwagon? How many exit polls will differ with the end result and would remain quiet because it is pointless to even dissect why the exit poll results are different from the actual rankings?

Since 2010, the country has used an automated system. We have been under an automated system for three election cycles and every cycle there are nuances in operations and, sometimes, mathematical tweaking that result in the system, aiding administration candidates in the midterm. Aquino won in 2010 and the 60-30-10 came to fore by midterm (2013) in the fight between 2010 allies Team Pnoy and UNA coalition.

The 2010 and 2013 results for the Senate show that it is possible for a candidate without political experience (local or national) to make it to the Senate. But winning such a coveted position necessitates a predetermined support of the incumbent president or an outgoing one to ensure control of the Senate. The House of Representatives is truly the house of the incumbent leader, while the Senate remains a potential base for candidates with a moist eye on the presidency. The Senate is an assurance to a departing president that even if his party loses the presidential contest he still has suasion over one chamber. This would accord him or her a base of political support. That is why the midterm is very important to any incumbent president. Winning the midterm assures the incumbent a cooperative and collaborative Senate until the end of his term and winning the Senate at the end of the term grants the exiting president a political wall for the succeeding three years out of office.

In any election, there is such a thing as command and market votes. Command is almost dynastic or traditional, as some would put it. Market votes are realized by a good mix of campaign techniques that makes a candidate top-of-mind and win after an excellent calibration of air and ground wars. Air war refers to the use of tri-media which today is again being tested with the strength of a free medium that can more than broadcast messages. With social media, the platform is free, fast (viral) and targeted. Depending on strategies adopted, scale is possible. One can conquer social media and use it as a percolator for tri-media. The buzz in social media lands in tri-media. It is immediately reported by TV, echoed by radio and holds to said traction via print. A social media buzz is good for almost a week of resonance. Hence, social media and advertising are not mutually exclusive. Candidates and campaigners who keep on insisting there is a difference are in a bend since there is no replacement thinking, instead social media and traditional media promote complimentary thinking. Thus, strategies are very important and when social media strategists start dictating messaging, any political communication effort will fail.

Since 2010, the country has used an automated elections system (from voting to counting, transmission, canvassing and proclamation) controlled by foreign operators, a ballot designed by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and printed by a government-designated printing organization. It used to be an end-to-end solution in 2010, then a hybrid in 2013 and 2016 where Comelec handled certain parts of the system.

A “Smartmatic” candidate needs to land in the periodic rankings of the two commercial survey firms, Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations. It would appear these two are the gatekeeper of those who can secure deeper pockets in the stretch and could carry over into the actual day. The trending is such that the last two surveys before E-Day matter. Consequently, operators offer spots to candidates. Spots are areas to be surveyed. When one is approached, the offer is spots for a fee but a candidate needs to already be a subscriber to the periodic polls. A spot costs a minimum of P150,000. The high depends on the candidate’s ranking and the target rank for that period. The survey, then, becomes a propaganda tool instead of a guide. A candidate has to have a trajectory and must avoid plateauing, or worse, a double dip. So, most candidates become horserace-driven. Candidates panic if they do not gain a foothold after every dipstick. Some are even driven by counting the variance by rank. Surveys have taught candidates that ranks 1 to 5 are protected from any operations. Ranks 6 to 8 need to be on their toes while ranks 9 to 12 are sinkholes. Ranks 13 to 15 are potential pole-vaulters, aided by the boiler room team.

What happens to voters in a survey-driven institutional operation strategy? The voters become mere props. Just like dagdag-bawas, candidates are fodder to operators. In the era of traditional elections, the buying was actual votes being shaved and sold to a buyer with proof of delivery. In the automated era, you deal as a party or as a leader determining who should win. Proof of delivery is also not airtight. A tracer can get so many votes but the actual person supposed to be pushed may not rise simply because there is no base vote. The tracer can actually be proof that an operation is happening because how can a tail-ender in the normal campaign period climb to rank two, almost number one, when there was no campaign felt from the candidate?

We have gamed our elections so badly that voters are ready to milk anyone because the so-called gatekeepers decided they will play god every three years. And you’ll never know what got you in the end. So, how can new names make it? Will the voters revolt or will institutional operators have their way in the era of Digong?

About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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