For every election in the Philippines, politicians—mostly of the ruling parties or personalities—make it a point to get the ‘blessings’ of sects like Iglesia ni Cristo (more accurately called Iglesia ni Manalo), El Shaddai (Mike Velarde) and the Davao-based sect of Pastor Apollo Quiboloy. Yet in all these elections, no one criticizes the heads of these sects from giving their endorsements (of course for something in exchange).
Yet, when the Catholic church came out openly in support of Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Kiko Pangilinan after much thought through the Clergy for the Moral Choice—that culminated Wednesday at a presscon at the Manila Cathedral, trolls of survey frontrunner (who obtained the ‘blessings’ from all of the above) busied themselves bashing the church, whose flock counts practically 80 to 85 percent of the population, in addition to Christian churches—which earlier discussed with VP Leni why they should support her. The heads of these Christian denominations ended up being convinced enough to ask their faithful to support her.
The members of the above sects—whose endorsements are too important for the trapos (traditional politicians but without guaranteed results)—threw charges like the Catholic Church is twisting the teachings of Christ and the Bible and invoked the separation of church and state.
The priests in the CMC presscon said “we are Filipino voters and we would only guide our flock to abide by the teachings of the gospel on picking the right servant leader, the pastor who will guide them to the right.”
Analyst on INC endorsement
A story of ABS-CBN on May 4 cited an analyst saying that other Christian groups can negate the endorsement of Marcos and his runningmate Sara Duterte that was given by INC.
Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, noted that about 85 percent of voters in the country identify as Catholic.
"It (INC endorsement) can be negated if there is a strong campaign from other church bloc," he told ANC's "Rundown". "But it's really Iglesia which has really used this to, based on the discernment of their leaders, really guide their followers to a certain candidate."
At least 2 percent of registered voters are members of INC and could swing the vote, Manhit said.
"Historically, they are considered solid and it's reflective on how in tight races, even in local campaigns, the value of an endorsement gives a boost on the campaign," he added.
In the 2016 elections, the INC endorsed then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Sara's father, for the presidency, and Marcos for the vice presidency. Duterte won but Marcos lost the vice presidency to Robredo.
Robredo's Malacañang bid has secured the backing of hundreds of Catholic priests, nuns, and lay leaders.
But in Pulse Asia's last pre-election survey from April 16-21, Marcos continued to enjoy a two-fold lead over Robredo, as their scores barely moved from the previous poll.
Twenty-three percent of respondents said they would vote for her if the elections were held last month, while 56 percent chose Marcos.
Manhit noted that Marcos' rallies were driven by local political leaders, while Robredo's sorties were led by volunteers.
"The challenge is who can deliver the votes come May 9? Who can move from house to house, community to community and deliver the votes?" he said.
Religious endorsements are half- truths, bloated figures with strings attached
Another story from Newsbreak recalled that 9 years ago it asked questions relating to bloc voting sects and how much of the supposed strength and influence are myths. The answer it got was “yes they peddle half-truths with strings attached. Even the candidates supported in the past are downplaying the weight of INC support.”
Newsbreak in 2001 said: “They are feared, they are aggressively courted, they are among the most sought-after by political parties especially during elections. For those wanting to be elected to office, they are considered an important factor in the winning equation.
At first, it was only the INC, then charismatic Catholic groups and Christian sects followed suit. The latest addition is the Couples for Christ (CfC), which is an otherwise apolitical religious group.”
For religious groups, the electoral process has become as much as part of their affairs as their primary purpose of saving souls. Religious endorsements—raised a notch higher by the INC through bloc voting— became fashionable in the 1990s when the INC, the Catholic Church and the Jesus is Lord (JIL) movement of Bro. Eddie Villanueva endorsed their respective candidates in the 1992 presidential race.”
That election year, the JIL proved to be the biggest winner when its candidate, Fidel V. Ramos, a Protestant, bagged the presidency. Thus far, only the Jehovah’s Witness church which has a membership of 144,000 has not participated in these endorsement exercises.
In the 1995 and 1998 national polls, the “religious contest” became fiercer and heated with the entry of Bro. Mike Velarde’s El Shaddai. After testing the waters in 1998, CfC will again try to leave a mark in this year’s polls.
One of the myths perpetuated by religious groups, intentional or otherwise, is the voting strength of their bloc, or congregation. Outside of their group, nobody knows for sure how many they are, or how big their voting population really is.
For instance, the bloc-voting INC boasts of a four-million-strong voting population nationwide, which roughly translates to more than 10 percent of the entire electorate. While it is not enough to ensure the election of a candidate running for a national post, the INC vote is most sought after, followed by the El Shaddai endorsement.
But insiders say the four million actually represents the entire population of the INC, including those ineligible to vote. Political analysts, strategists and politicians themselves believe the figure is much lower.
But the INC is not the only religious group guilty of bloating its numbers. SWS estimates place at 307,000 the absolute voting strength of the JIL, far from its membership claim of three million. El Shaddai voters are estimated to number 1.31 million, also far from its supposed seven million membership.
“All in all, the survey’s projected total membership in charismatic groups of all kinds amounts to 3.2 million voters,” the SWS says in its book on the 1998 national polls. Given the numbers, religious bloc voting may not be all that effective at the national level.
Back then, Angelito Banayo, campaign manager of senatorial bet Panfilo Lacson, says that at most, religious endorsements come in handy for those running for local posts and those who emerge in the lower half of the winning senatorial lineup. For those on the borderline, he adds, a separate or collective endorsements of religious groups, especially the INC, may spell victory or defeat.
At the local level, especially in the areas where there is a huge concentration of members, religious endorsement can spell a difference. Banayo cites the case of Laguna where candidates endorsed by the INC won. In Manila, Mayor Lito Atienza won over political heavyweights by relying on the endorsement of the El Shaddai.
Endorsements come from careful discernment
If the religious and charismatic leaders are to be believed, their endorsements come only after a careful perusal of the qualities of the candidates. But analysts and politicians themselves believe that the endorsements actually hinge heavily on the popularity and the personality of the candidates and not on any church-based standards or teachings.
INC critic and political analyst Alex Magno says the sect, contrary to its claim of supporting candidates who are pro-poor, actually endorses those whom they believe they would benefit from in the long run. “Their strong personal loyalty to [Ferdinand] Marcos is the reason why they supported Cojuangco and [Joseph] Estrada in the elections,” he says.
To make sure their chosen candidates actually win, Magno said the INC draws up its own “kodigo” for members in the last few days of the campaign. “Kung talagang winning, ilalagay sa list. Tumataya naman sila sa siguradong panalo. (They always bet on the sure-winners),” he says.
Endorsements with a price
Of all the half-truths perpetuated by leaders of religious groups, the most understated perhaps is that their endorsements are voluntarily given—with no strings attached.
But various interviews by Newsbreak shows otherwise. Religious groups do not ask concessions or favors from candidates in exchange for their endorsement. The requests pour in after the candidates win.
Banayo, who acted as Estrada’s political adviser in Malacañang, says that the INC and the Catholic Church, to a certain degree, had at one time or another asked favors from the government.
As a member of the presidential personnel group that screened potential nominees to some government positions, including the judiciary, Banayo says there were several instances when the INC pushed for its own candidates. He says this excluded the appointment of former Justice Secretaries Serafin Cuevas and Artemio Toquero, both INC members, during Estrada’s time. It was generally believed that their appointment came with the strong endorsement of the INC.
By dangling their suppose bloc vote, Magno says the INC expects “to exact favors from the power wielders” later on. “It’s their version of political horse-trading. I’ll give you votes, I’ll expect from you later,” Magno said.
INC under Marcos Sr.
The INC, Magno added, grew financially during Marcos’s time, cornering juicy contracts, particularly public works projects, in exchange of continued support for the late strongman. Under Estrada, he says the INC wanted to control government agencies such as the Land Registration Authority, the Land Transportation Authority and the Justice department.
And weeks before the Edsa protests, Magno adds, “the INC wanted to control Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue,” two of government’s revenue-generating agencies.
“Influence-peddling, kasi ang ikinabubuhay ng INC. Remove that and it will mean the death of their institution,” he says.
But in fairness to the INC, Magno says, its leaders want to “commandeer state resources for the benefit of their members” unlike Velarde who seeks government favors “to enrich himself.” The plunder case pending against him is an indication of this, Magno points out.
It’s a good thing that one concrete conclusion we can draw up from Leni’s campaign is that it is heavy on people’s volunteerism and it has become a movement, rather than a campaign, that springs from hope that she inspires in her followers. And this hope is what keeps the wheels of her campaign going with unusual strategies like house-to-house, face-to-face and events designed and implemented by volunteers and supporters.
She and Kiko are even being endorsed not by local politicians but by the grassroots movements like farmers, students, fishermen, women and the marginalized. This is more lasting than the touch and hand-raising kind of support that politicians give.
My guess is that with this outpouring of support from people from all walks of life, including celebrities, academic, professional and business groups Leni-Kiko are headed for a strong win.