Galang is a fellow of Action for Economic Reform and specializes in governance issues. This is a two-part column, published in the BusinessWorld. Part 1 came out on March 15, 2010, pages S1/4 to S1/5. Part 2 will be published on March 22.

For just four months since November 1, 2009, presidential bet Manuel
Villar is reported to have spent P1.3 billion for political ads alone.
The amount almost matches what four other leading aspirants have spent
over the same period, added together.  That’s a huge amount by any
measure just to put his campaign message across, project an image, get
the voters to recall his name, and more.

Villar has used the PhP1.3 billion largely for TV and radio ads, which
lend themselves to easy monitoring. Over and above this are other
expenditures that will bloat the total to an amount no one will ever
know exactly what.

The ad buys leave out of account the spending for allowances of
campaign leaders or coordinators, “volunteers,” etc., and for building
or maintaining campaign organization or network, operations and
facilities.  The items here enjoy a higher degree of opacity, tending
to hide from view the actual amount spent.

If you don’t believe that Villar’s big-time allies have agreed to
support his bid out of deep love for him or adherence to his patriotic
belief, if any – you must be one of those skeptical souls who suggest
that either pesos or promises or both have been given and forthwith
received.  No contract is ever signed, no official receipt ever
issued.  No such deal ever happened, to begin with.  But the amount
involved is surely big.

Money, big money, has taken a key role in Villar’s bid since the start
of activities and up to now.  The choice lies apparently in abundance.
He admits he needs the extra amount to make up for what he lacks, like
a famous father and mother, a good name, a sister in show business, and
so on.

Hoping to turn his affluent campaign into a virtue for voters, Villar
says the money is his own anyway. Were it otherwise, he would be
beholden to contributors to whom he must return the favor when he wins
the coveted post.  In business terms, it is not a corporate thing, only
a single proprietorship – ergo, all returns shall accrue to him alone?

Having a steady supply of money isn’t enough to make a mark. So give
Villar credit for his wiles, or savvy, in using his billions wisely.
Otherwise, go find other reasons to explain his improved performance in
the surveys. You probably had found the same traits wanting in the
presidential bids of Eduardo Cojuangco and Jose de Venecia some years
back (or, on second thought, may be there was too much of wiles on
their part to keep money from flowing generously).

What Villar, the NP candidate, really reminds me of is the NP
reelectionist in the 1969 presidential race.  Ferdinand Marcos had
funded his campaign on so massive a scale, unheard of until then in the
history of Philippine elections, that the event left the economy
quivering from a crisis. No elections before 1969 were as dirty,
costly, and fraudulent.

Only in 2004 were elections dirtier, costlier, and more fraudulent.  At
the rate Villar is spending for his campaign, 2010 may just as well set
a new record of its own.  So far, like in a beauty pageant, the current
electoral activities, reports say, have already earned for 2010 the
title “The Costliest” elections so far. Meanwhile, the campaign will go
on for about two months more.

As Election Day draws nearer, the need for campaign cash ironically
grows bigger too.  The main focus shifts from broadcasting to
“narrowcasting.”  Broadcasting spreads the candidate’s message to a
broad audience via mass media, where TV has become the logical favorite
by virtue of ubiquity.  It aims for the buy-in.

Narrowcasting, on the other hand, works to conclude the sale and ensure
the actual buy. The branded item is the candidate, the currency is the
vote, by analogy.  Campaign strategists often refer to this as the
“translation of popularity into votes.” This is the scheme of things as
you see it on the surface.

Lying below that is its seamy side. If your aim is to lock the actual
buy, a tried and tested way awaits you. Money is the currency, the vote
becomes the item for sale.  The candidate no longer appears as a mirror
of the voter’s values. He appears instead as mere buyer who faces the
voter as mere seller. Money morphs into a mirror of the vote’s
(exchange) value. In plain English, I don’t care if the candidate is
wrong; I care only if the price is right.

Campaign operators normally refer to this and its attendant activities
as “Special Operations” (a.k.a. Dirty Tactics).  They work on the
assumption that money is never an issue. In the current contest, only
Villar seems able to take this assumption as his own without any worry.

Special ops aim to strengthen and broaden your network of operators and
active supporters, especially at the subnational levels down to
barangay.  And what better way of doing this than raiding your
opponent’s machinery, thus undermining its operations at the same time?

A tell tale sign is in this recent news item reporting about some “300
Liberal Party stalwarts and members in three key provinces in the
Caraga region” defecting allegedly to the Nacionalista Party. The
report cites Villar as saying that “he expects more defections not only
from the LP but also from other parties as the May presidential
election nears.” That is ominous.

Special operations also yield political intelligence reports and
analyses, to know, for example, who to approach, the subject’s profile,
the issues involved, the right price, and the like.  A good operator
deals flexibly, preferring to see things in shades of gray. If
conscience or other constraints keep a local LP leader, for example,
from defecting or openly supporting Villar,  the table is laid open for
other options – from, say, undercover work to simple distribution of NP
sample ballots come E-day (while holding the LP’s from distribution).

Special ops spare no one, not even the big national figures. Senators
Juan Ponce Enrile and Richard Gordon, along with presidential bet
Joseph Estrada, share a common story about separate bribe offers
implicating Villar, who quickly dismissed the accusations as
“politically motivated.”

For maximum effect, timing is key to successful special ops. People
gunning for local posts who find themselves running out of gas while
the race approaches the homestretch are likely to bite the offer if no
support is forthcoming from his or her own party.

The Philippine presidency is no doubt the juiciest post that any
businessman would find worth gunning for at all cost. When Marcos won
his bid for reelection in 1969, nobody thought  that early that his
liking for the highest post would extend beyond the additional four
years that he had just won.  With the benefit of hindsight, however,
you’ll find good reason why Marcos needed to win his reelection in the
costly way he did.  After all, he was looking beyond four years and
contemplating holding on to power in perpetuity.

What’s with Villar’s vision to warrant the billions that he has been
spending merrily to get the presidency? Nobody can read his mind and
share what he sees: nobody knows for now.
I only know what I can see. And, like Caesar referring to Cassius in Shakespeare’s play, I see a “hungry look.”