Battle of frames

The author does political analysis for the Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the Yellow Pad column of Business World, 05 April 2004 edition.

Framing works with words and images to delineate conceptual parameters. The most obvious example is in war-related propaganda where the enemy is invariably caricatured as the other who is ugly, evil and subhuman. Rationalization and motivation for the mass slaughter that is war
become easier when they are framed in terms of the-good-and-the-beautiful who must battle and defeat the evil-other. The battle of frames can determine the outcome of a war. This is why opposing sides wage the battle of frames as doggedly as they do the actual war itself. The North Vietnamese leadership framed the war in terms of a liberation struggle against colonial rule. Alas, for America, the US leadership never figured out how to frame the war properly. The US leadership lost its own people’s support even though the Americans were winning the war in terms of casualties, fifty
thousand Americans against millions of Vietnamese deaths.

Framing is indispensable to politics. A successful candidate is someone who is able to impose his frame on the election. Bill Clinton framed the 1992 US presidential election in just four words, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The framing was so effective that it neutralized Bush completely. It fired up Clinton’s troops and rendered Bush unable to reframe the election in his favor.

Like Clinton in 1992, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s campaign began with slim-to-zero chances of winning. Unlike Clinton, GMA never found a silver bullet to use against her opponents. Still, in just a few short months her fortunes have turned around dramatically. One explanation for this could be that she has gained the initiative over the framing of the election against her top two opponents.

GMA presents herself as well-educated, capable, hardworking and determined to win at all costs – although she is clever to always reassure the public that she will always play by the rules. There are two advantages to projecting this image. One, it allows her to frame the election in terms of programs rather than personalities. She can take the high road, focusing on governance and leadership, and leave the low road to her subalterns. Two, when her election frame, which is neither attractive nor offensive, is placed beside her rivals’, it attracts less scrutiny.

Raul Roco used to be perceived as the keeper of the EDSA II flame or, to put it another way, the “good” GMA. In that election frame, he contrasted well against FPJ’s qualifications and Panfilo Lacson’s reputation. He was the leading candidate until GMA decided to defer her retirement. Her entry into the race replaced the original election frame with a new one featuring two GMAs, the “good” GMA and the “winnable” GMA. The old election frame did not have a clear differentiation between the “two GMAs,” and Roco’s lack of attention to presenting a contrast allowed the scare tactics against FPJ to work against him. By allowing their similarities to overshadow their differences, Roco made it easier for anyone to shift his support from the “good” GMA to the “winnable GMA.” Thus, GMA’s entry into the race reframed the election and eroded Roco’s support.

Roco could have kept his support if he had triangulated the election as a battle of the keeper of the EDSA II flame against Jose Velarde’s friend and Jose Pidal’s wife. But he did not and now he is running his platform of hope against the strategy of scare tactics combined with government largesse cleverly packaged as down payment. He has defaulted the frame battle and the lead to GMA.

FPJ’s election frame is best illustrated in movie terms. It is a movie called “Ang Pagbabalik ng Erap Para Sa Mahirap.” Everyone assumed that it would be a runaway box-office hit until the “dirty tricks” department went to work doing everything it could to keep the movie out of the theaters and, failing that, to make sure that no one got to see the movie without being bothered by everything being hurled at the screen. This strategy is similar to that employed by Bush and company leading up to the war against Iraq. They drowned out the voices of the UN weapons inspectors, the UN Security Council, and world opinion through constant bombardment of major media outlets with their version of reality.

The “dirty tricks” department cannot claim all the credit for disrupting FPJ’s sequel. A lot of credit goes to FPJ himself. He knows that movie promotion requires star parades and personal appearances but he has relied solely on star parades to generate excitement for his sequel. He has studiously avoided personal appearances that would have allowed fans of the original movie to assess whether his sequel is anything like the original. GMA has characterized his sequel as a movie with a horrible ending. The other candidates have panned it as well. The negative reviews have gone unchallenged because FPJ does not speak out. At the same time, GMA has launched her own made-for-the-masses movie called “Down Payment Pa Lang Ito,” which she is promoting as the real sequel to “Erap Para sa Mahirap.” It is beginning to draw crowds and more importantly, fan club coordinators or local politicians are
queuing up at her taquilla.

FPJ has no other choice but to make personal appearances. And that’s the problem. He is disappointing in personal appearances. He does not project anything close to what fans of the original movie found so endearing in its original star. He is lucky that this is a short movie festival because if it were to run much longer, he might find his box office receipts trailing “Kamay na Bakal” (Iron Hand) and even, God forbid, “Kanang Kamay ni Jesus” (Jesus’s Right Hand).

Panfilo Lacson’s election frame is the story of a nation in a state of anarchy and disarray, crying out for a hegemon – that is why he bills himself as “Kamay na Bakal.” It taps into what has been in the back of many people’s minds as the solution to crime, military adventurism, corruption, poverty, lack of political will, and what-have-you. It is so widely accepted that it has seeped even into GMA’s campaign. She talks the language of a “strong republic,” she never misses a photo opportunity with notorious cadavers and, she has even sacrificed her moral principles on the altar of death penalty. Lacson can allay valid fears about his kamay na bakal solution if he says unequivocally that it is about an iron-fisted rule over everyone working in government and not some form of martial law over ordinary citizens.

Lacson is much easier to sell than the Erap sequel. Unfortunately, the KNP is a club of rejected would-be kings who have decided to settle for the next best thing, become a kingmaker if you can’t be a king, and Lacson’s ego is too large to allow himself to be anybody’s boy. His election frame, in spite of its power, will not dominate this election without an organization that is already in place. There is simply not enough time to do it. But if Lacson had time to sell his election frame, he would be a strong candidate who can win the residency.

It is too bad that the main contest of this election is not between Roco and Lacson. The contrast between the two in physical appearance, demeanor and temperament, political philosophies, and election frames should not have been cluttered by the presence of Jose Velarde’s friend and Jose Pidal’s wife. Unfortunately, it has been cluttered, so this year, as in past elections, (if with slight variations), the election frame will be money, organization and monkey business. It is a frame that fits the two leading candidates to a T.

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