NEVER for a moment did I question the integrity of the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys. I reserve the highest respect for Mahar Mangahas of the SWS and Felipe Miranda of the Pulse Asia. More than that, I have known Mercy Abad of TNS Trends, the outfit that does the fieldwork for both the SWS and Pulse Asia, since my days as an advertising professional in the 70's and 80's. The fact that Mercy Abad is trusted by the two competing research companies to handle their fieldwork says a lot about her professionalism.
But the recent presidential election we had was unlike any other. It has been the most confused vote insofar as the presidential race was concerned. Up to the time the SWS and Pulse Asia undertook their last surveys, about 12% had indicated they were still undecided while a good number manifested an inclination to change their choices come Election Day. When you combine about 20-25% of undecided and soft votes, in effect, you expand your margin of error far beyond the standard 2%. This is why both Mangahas of SWS and Miranda of Pulse Asia had always maintained that the presidential race will prove to be a wide-open contest up to voting day itself.
Last Tuesday, May 11, I thought that the two surveys were again right on the button, especially after hearing the SWS exit polls. And I proceeded to send congratulatory SMS text messages to friends in the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo camp who were of course elated to be congratulated by an administration critic like me. One of those who responded to my text messages called and shared some stunning insights.
For obvious reasons (lest he be misunderstood by the administration camp), I shall have to withhold my friend's identity except to say that this friend is a long standing comrade-in-arms dating back to the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. I have always valued his counsel during those times when he would visit me in my foxhole in the Cory Aquino Media Bureau. He not only knows his Philippine Politics 101, he is also an excellent political analyst and strategist. It is not surprising then that he again took an active part in EDSA II. He became a top political lieutenant of Macapagal-Arroyo, holding a cabinet rank.
My friend told me that my congratulatory text message may be premature. On top of this, he saw a real threat of the most dreaded scenario of the upper and middle classes - a possible Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ) victory. Just as I know him, he backs his contention with facts, as follows:
1. In many areas in Mindanao where the incumbent president was expected to mount a lead, FPJ either won or lost by very small margins. Mindanao was expected to add to the president's lead in the Visayas - Macapagal-Arroyo's strongest support base - and thus overtake the expected FPJ vote advantage in Luzon. In sum, my friend saw either an FPJ win in Mindanao or a very small margin for the president.
2. FPJ is expected to win in Luzon, which delivers the biggest number of votes - some 60% of total Philippines if I'm not mistaken.
3. The Visayas region, where the president is strongest, accounts only for around 24% of the total vote. Thus, this makes the Mindanao vote particularly crucial for Macapagal-Arroyo.
4. Assuming an optimistic scenario of Macapagal-Arroyo having a 40% winning margin over FPJ in the Visayas, this will still not suffice to offset an FPJ lead of 20% in Luzon that outnumbers the Visayan voting population by a ratio of nearly 3:1.
5. In Sarangani province in Mindanao, for example, FPJ was expected to have a narrow win of no more than 5 to 7%. The exit poll (not the SWS) done by the winning gubernatorial bet there that is allied with the administration showed FPJ getting 52% of the votes or some 12 to 14% more than expected.
6. Loren Legarda, who has long been assumed to lose to Noli de Castro, is tracking a very close fight, successfully paring a previous de Castro margin of 25% to one less than 5%. That attests to FPJ's pulling power.
But what my friend finds very unsettling is his hypothesis over the riddle of the big undecided and soft votes. The big jump in FPJ votes in Sarangani province in Mindanao per exit polls seemed to have answered that.
He felt that a big portion of the undecided and soft voters may be the ones who were for FPJ but were too embarrassed to say so. According to my friend, FPJ's lack of presidential credentials makes his voters vulnerable to badgering. FPJ voters in the underclass are also most likely beneficiaries of dole-outs and favors from Macapagal-Arroyo and would therefore not openly say they are for FPJ.
My friend's well-informed and well-grounded views did stir the juices in me. Most ruffling was his point about the mystery of the recurring 20 to 25% undecided and soft votes. If so, FPJ indeed may end up winning this contest.
Now those who follow this column know that I never entertained the prospects of an FPJ presidency. I've sacrificed a lot for this country, took real risks in the making of both EDSA I and EDSA II - and it is unthinkable that I should now wish FPJ to be our president at this most crucial period when our democracy is on the rocks.
But the facts that my friend put across were well worth considering. It serves no end to allow one's views against FPJ to prevent us from seeing the real possibility that he may indeed end up as our next president.
Further developments supported this likelihood. FPJ is winning in vote-rich Laguna and Bulacan by big margins. Macapagal-Arroyo was expected to place second to Naga's son Roco in Bicol, but instead, FPJ placed second. My friend said that predominance in the key provinces of Bulacan and Bicol would have significantly eroded FPJ's margin in Luzon.
Thus in Luzon, FPJ had loaded up his margins from the Ilocano North to Southern Tagalog while the only vote-rich provinces which delivered for Macapagal-Arroyo were Pampanga and the Pampango portion of Tarlac. If Mindanao does not add substantially to Macapagal-Arroyo's Visayas margin - it is fair to assume that she will not be able to offset the FPJ margin in Luzon. This prospect even becomes more imminent considering the plausible scenario of FPJ winning in Mindanao.
What do all these mean for all of us? God knows and we will need Him now more than ever. If FPJ does end up the winner, will Macapagal-Arroyo cede power? Considering her recent track record, we cannot rule out the possibility of a scenario that would prevent an FPJ takeover. Whether she can pull it remains to be seen.
FPJ enjoys support from the junior officers in the military. Those retired generals openly supporting FPJ link up with the restless junior officers of the AFP.
When the administration tried to make political capital out of the SWS exit polls that had Macapagal-Arroyo as winner, and they tried to project that victory was in the bag, it provoked a counter move by the FPJ camp who staged their own "victory" rally in Makati. The reaction of the administration to the KNP Makati rally betrayed the administration's great fear of another May 1, 2001 incident or worse - an extra-constitutional power takeover. It was a rare moment when the familiar smug braggadocio was suddenly absent on the face of presidential spokesman Mike Defensor.
Add to FPJ's support base in the military the rage of the masses, which is to be expected if their idol is deprived of victory, and that May 1, 2001 assault in Malacanang will seem like a garden party.