Is corruption the key issue in the 2016 election?

A RECENT public opinion poll conducted for Manila Standard by research specialist Junie Laylo indicates that “corruption” is considered “the most important problem of the country,” rating 31%, or more than twice the next highest ranking issue, “poverty” (15%). These are followed by “drug addiction/illegal drugs” (14%), “unemployment/lack of jobs” (10%), “high prices of goods/services” (9%), “criminality” (7%), “low salary/income” (4%) and “traffic” (1%).
To the political strategists with an eye on the 2016 presidential elections, corruption, therefore, would seem to be the logical thrust of their campaigns: skewer the competition with allegations of corruption and consign them to the bottom of the survey rankings. This practically calls for a recycling of “Kung walang korap, walang mahirap!” (If no one is corrupt, no one will be poor), the 2010 slogan that supposedly catapulted Benigno S. Aquino III to the presidency.
But then, why has Vice-President Jejomar Binay surged back to the top of the recent poll rankings, in spite of the longest, most vicious character assassination campaign ever mounted against a presidential aspirant? And why is Binay’s principal “assassin,” Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, with pretensions of incorruptibility and integrity, a tail-ender in the vice-presidential race?
Even fellow Senate sub-committee tormentor, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, is behind Senator Bongbong Marcos in the vice-presidential rankings, despite Marcos’ carrying the burden of his father’s legacy of corruption?
And why is Liberal Party presidential standard bearer, Mar Roxas, having so much difficulty catching up with the lead pack in spite of being the prime proponent of Aquino’s anti-corruption platform, Tuwid na Daan (Straight Path)?
The clue may be in the adage: Research should be used as a lamp to illuminate, rather than as a lamp post to lean on.
Ten different analysts can interpret the same research data in ten different ways. Research findings must be analyzed and interpreted in relation to cultural and attitudinal nuances, as well as the current socio-political environment.
This brings to mind the consumer research we conducted for Nescafé Instant Coffee, back in the early 80’s, to serve as basis for a new ad campaign. After a Focus Group Discussion (FGD), a member of the marketing team excitedly informed me that he had identified the reason why people drank coffee.
“They drink coffee to warm their stomachs,” he said eagerly. ”Let’s take it from there.”
“So what do you want us to say in our ad?” I asked, trying to keep a straight face. “’Drink Nescafé because it warms your stomach better!’?”
It took a deeper understanding of the Filipino psyche to pinpoint the consumer benefit that would give Nescafé a competitive edge. While most of the respondents declared that the reason they bought Blend 45 was because “it tasted good enough,” they conceded, after probing, that if they won in the Sweepstakes, they would buy Nescafé “because it tasted better.” Probed some more, they said it was because Nescafé was “imported.” It was colonial mentality at play! In fact, Nescafé was already being made locally.
We took the cue and I wrote the campaign, “Nescafé – Enjoyed in the Great Cities of the World,” It became the longest-running and most successful ad campaign for the brand.
Like the Nescafé research findings, “corruption” as an issue may not give a candidate a competitive edge – at least, not for the 2016 elections. The reason is because, just as all brands of coffee can warm the stomach, all politicians are perceived as corrupt, and that appears to be truer now than in 2010.
Whether fairly or unfairly, these days, the term “honest politician” is an oxymoron. The pork barrel scam, the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), the alleged bribing of  Senators to ensure the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona, the unexplained withholding of millions in Yolanda disaster relief funds, the suspected use of  Bottom Up Budgeting (BUB) and Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) funds to buy votes, the selective prosecution by the Ombudsman of political opponents while sparing allies, the shady dealings in the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), to mention a few, have generated as much criticism as the allegations of overpricing, bribery and bid-rigging in Makati.
From another perspective, the attitude of people towards corruption appears to be in direct proportion to their perception of a politician’s competence and beneficence. The better he performs in office and the more services and benefits he provides his constituents, the more tolerable – even acceptable – his alleged corruption becomes. Think Robin Hood.
You may ask, why then did the anti-corruption platform work in the presidential campaign of Noynoy Aquino?
While that admittedly helped, it may not have been the most important factor. The death of President Cory Aquino may have had a much greater emotional impact on the citizenry. And her squeaky clean image was also a stark contrast to that of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Towards the end of her term, Arroyo had become the principal poster girl for corruption, its  virtual personification, due to her long, 9-year tenure (next only to Marcos’ two decades-plus). That negative image was so toxic that it severely affected the presidential hopes of Senator Manny Villar. Being branded as “Villarroyo” – by inference, a clone of the outgoing president – became the mark of Cain for Villar.
In contrast, the cloud of corruptibility has hovered like a pall over the entire Aquino government, and the ruling Liberal Party, as much as those they have aggressively tarnished.
Recalling the Nescafé marketing case, if all brands of coffee warm the stomach, using that as a consumer appeal would not make sense. Similarly, if all politicians are perceived as corrupt, accusing a political rival of corruption is like spitting in the wind.
In sum, to correctly analyze and interpret research about the average Juan, Pedro and Maria, you must have the ability to fit in their shoes as well as in their tsinelas (slippers). And to understand the mind of the masses, you must feel their pain.  Needless to say, if one were to the hacienda born and the only exposure to average folks is by way of the house help and the tenant farmers, that would not be easy to do.
Thus, to refer back to the findings in the Manila Standard research, while “corruption” may  appear to be the biggest problem of potential voters, what could be more important to them is knowing who among the candidates can help them with food, jobs, education and good health.
Take it from our neighborhood tricycle driver:
“Kung pare-parehong korap ang mga politiko, duon na ako sa makakatulong sa akin.” (If all politicians are corrupt, I’ll go for the one who can help me). (gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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