by Eric Santillan

Years ago, when I was in high school, I was one of the winners in a writing contest sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry. During the awards ceremonies, I was congratulated by a youngish DTI Secretary who was just starting her career in government. Her name was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

I remember it vividly. She gave me my certificate and prize check, shook my hand, and gave a cursory “Congratulations, Eric.” The whole time she had a smile plastered on her face. But she wasn’t really looking at me. She had her head and her body turned in just the right angle so the cameras could take flattering pictures of her. She had a way of talking–she was conversing with you, but she said it loud enough for the media to pick up and turn into quotable quotes.

I probably looked bewildered by the whole proceeding. I remember feeling bad. I remember thinking that I’ve just met one really fake person.

But despite my reading the fakeness in the whole proceeding, the rest is history. The DTI Secretary eventually became senator (she was even number one senator), Vice President, and President of this country.

What struck me was that very early on in her career, she already knew how to play the “game.” Perhaps it was because of her background (she was daughter of President Diosdado Macapagal after all). Where did she learn it? Are those things learned? Is there some kind of political finishing school that churns out these politicians?

Several years ago, the great comedian Dolphy Quizon was asked why he has never run for public office. His answer made him greater in my eyes: “What if I win?” The answer is simply brilliant because Dolphy knew that politics is not about winning elections; it is about running government. The real comedy that not even a comedian can teach us is this: we don’t know the difference. We think the winning candidate makes for a winning public official. Or maybe we’ve become too jaded and don’t care anymore.

Winning an election is an altogether different skill set from running government, just as brilliant physicists with PHDs do not automatically make great Physics teachers. Or that really good teachers do not necessarily make good school administrators.

Knowledge/Skills/Attitude (KSAs) needed to win an election

1. Communication and Conversation – politicians need to be able to communicate well in front of the camera, in television, or in radio interviews, and in front of their colleagues. They also have to be able to communicate to different segments of society — from the average man on the street, to the wealthy and powerful. People who are great with the art of small talk and conversation are remembered, and when election day comes, this translates into actual votes.

You cannot imagine how many people have voted for their local politicians just because they have conversed with them and the politician remembers their names. Senator Miguel Zubiri is supposed to be really good at this. One time, the secretary of my mom talked to him and after learning where she came from proceeded to ask about her uncles and aunts. He remembers them by name! That is a great political skill to have and is a decisive advantage when election day comes.

2. Charisma – this is not a skill per se, but this is something that a person has that allows her to bring people together. Charisma is the ability to empower and influence others into believing in you, trusting you, and allowing/wanting to be influenced by you.

Erap is charisma personified. When I was in college, and he was Vice President, he was invited to talk to a group of Ateneans. He was infamous for his Erap-isms–grammatical mistakes and funny errors–which was even immortalized in a book. What could be funnier than Erap talking in front of Ateneans with their impeccable accents and rhetoric? But the joke was on us. He came, and blew us away with a speech in Tagalog so funny, and self-deprecating, we gave him a standing ovation afterwards. He charmed all of us with his natural wit and charisma. I would understand if a lot of Ateneans who went to that event to laugh at him came out and voted for him in the next election that made him President.

3. Positive Presence – sometimes, politician just need to show up and this automatically translates into votes. Former Makati Mayor and now Vice President Binay would go to wakes of his consituents in Makati, talk to the bereaved family and leave a gift bag behind. In our culture, this single act–done during the bleakest moment of a family’s life–is remembered for years and years to come.

4. Perceived Humility – you really don’t have to be humble; you just need to be perceived as humble. In our culture that aims to side and reward the underdog, humility is something that we look for in our politicians. That is why Manny Villar insisted that he was of humble origins. Or why Raul Roco had difficulties getting the votes when he ran for President twice–he was seen as too combative (he would always ask the other Presidentiables to a debate), and he talked of his accomplishments which turned off many people. In this country, you can do well, but you need a great media team that will herald your accomplishments without you having to do it yourself.

And that is why Manny Pacquiao is considered by 3% of Filipinos as the National Hero. His is a rags-to-riches story that tugs at the heartstrings of Filipinos always looking for a great Maalala Mo Kaya story. His is a perfect story of someone who came from nowhere, won big, and remained humble despite his Billions. Those stories make you win elections.

5. Perceived as Clean – in the last election, a new criterion for choosing candidates arose. No thanks to the former DTI secretary I mentioned above, people got so bothered with the unbridled corruption that they were willing to vote someone who, as a senator, did not really do anything. He won by the sheer power of his parent’s legacy and the perception that he will not do anything to tarnish their names. Good thing about him is that he was able to get people in his cabinet who had the same mind as him.

I think that is one pattern in our history. We had Marcos and military dictatorship for two decades and we vomitted him out of power and voted a housewife who only had good intentions in her arsenal of skills. This time, we got so angry at the former President, we did not vote for her choice–even if some quarters feel he’s the best person for the job. We voted the son of the housewife to power.

That is how you win elections in this country.

Running government is an altogether different story.

(Next week: The Real Work Begins: Skills Needed to Run Government)

About Eric Santillan

AngPeregrino is Eric Santillan. He is a management consultant for two firms specializing in sustainable business, competitiveness and risk management, cost control and culture management. He is also a writer for The Mindanao Current. At one time or another, he has taught, moderated college organizations, done organizational development work for BPOs, been a Jesuit, mentored people and given retreats.

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