Could “religious votes” bring a “religious man” to the Philippine presidency?

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In the run up to the May 10 presidential elections, the only son of the Philippines' icon of democracy, the late President Corazon Aquino, did something no one else in Philippine politics had ever done.

Senator Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III disappeared on a spiritual retreat in a Carmelite monastery to “seek God’s will” on whether he should run for president.

The monestary had been a favorite refuge for the late president whenever she needed “spiritual advice” on pressing matters. So it was a natural location for her son - a reluctant potential president who had lived most of his life in the shadow of his parents’ legacy - to go to seek direction.

Shortly after the death of Corazon Aquino in August, 2009, Noynoy suddenly found himself pressured to run.  Though a sitting Senator, Noynoy was a political novice compared with other experienced politicians pursuing the most powerful seat of the land and who had already started their political campaigns.

Noynoy's friends nudged him toward the presidential race. But it was the overflowing love, prayers and support that thousands of Filipinos gave his mother from the time she was reported to be terminally ill until she succumbed to colon cancer, that had the greatest impact.

The national swell culminated in a sea of yellow clothes and yellow ribbons flooding the streets of metro Manila during the late President’s wake and burial march.

As observers and commentators described the Aquino ceremonies, “it was like reliving “Edsa I” all over again. Political figures and media personalities mourned “the loss of their last hope for a better country" and an escape from corruption.

Despite the public outpouring of support, Noynoy was torn between comforting his four sisters with their mother’s loss and “continuing with a struggle” his parents “lived and died for.”

He was himself tired from the week-long wake and wanted more time to grieve for his departed mother. But decisions had to be made soon.

Thus, the retreat.

Before he embarked on his “spiritual journey,” the Senator asked for the public's support. 

"As I pray for discernment and divine guidance, I urge you to pray with me so that you too can assess your own readiness to take part in the difficult struggle ahead. We are in this together,” Noynoy said at the press conference.

But the retreat was branded by Malacañang (the Philippines’ seat of power) as a “political gimmickry.” Presidential spokesperson Anthony Golez said the exercise is nothing more than “political strategy” in preparation for a run for the presidency.

Noynoy the Candidate

A lot of Filipinos, especially the Catholic clergy, disagree with Golez. 

Catholic priest Fr. Amado Picardal praised Noynoy’s approach.

Picardal, who is usually very critical of politics and the “massive corruption in government and a bureaucracy dictated by years of oligarchic system,” gave politics a second look when he heard the Senator might run for president.

Writing in an online journal, Picardal said,“What impressed me most about Noynoy is that he indeed embodies the values of his parents: selflessness, integrity, decency, sense of duty, service."

He is not corrupt," Picardal continued. "He is not ambitious. He does not see himself as a 'messiah.' He consults people and he seeks their active participation in the process of change. Unlike the other politicians, he is not seeking the presidency but rather, it is the presidency that is seeking him.”

In fact, in a profession where ambition so often prevails over the public interest, Noynoy was content to live in political obscurity, doing what “average” politicians do. 

After his spiritual retreat, and on the 40th day since his mother’s death, Noynoy announced he was “ready to pursue the fight of the people.” He was running in the presidential race.

From the moment of his announcement, his favorable ratings never faltered. He was consistently ranked first in nearly every reputable election surveys.

Although he began his “fight” by striking a spiritual blow, the legislator’s religiosity didn’t stand out among the reasons for his popularity. Noynoy's supporters are more attracted to his parents’ legacy, the kind of person Noynoy is, and his vow to stop the corruption that has been entrenched in the bureaucracy.

Two weeks prior to the May 10 elections, the legislator had widened his lead to almost 20 percentage points over his closest opponent, Senator Manuel Villar.

The Religion Factor

The religious block, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), which is said to have a following of about four million, endorsed Noynoy and his vice-president candidate, Senator Manuel Roxas.

This, Roxas said, boosts the chances of an Aquino administration, since INC votes as a block, as required by its church doctrine.

Another religious leader, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, head of the “Kingdom of Jesus Christ” congregation, however “annointed” the current administration’s candidate, former Defense Secretary and Noynoy’s cousin, Gilbert Teodoro. Quiboloy’s congregation is estimated by some to be 6 million, but unlike INC, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ does not vote as a block.

Teodoro is widely conidered the most qualified candidate.  But he is lagging badly in the polls due to his affiliation with the unpopular incumbent President.

Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines spokesperson, Monsignor Pedro Quitorio said the Catholic church will continue to take a “hands-off policy” on the people’s right to choose their own candidate.

In a pastoral letter, the Bishops Conference urged voters to choose candidates with leadership experience, personal integrity, and respect for human rights.The Church also called on voters to look for candidates with a program of action on key issues such as family and life, environment, illegal drugs poverty alleviation, and education.

Meanwhile, Senator Villar claimed in a press conference that he had won the Muslim vote.

Given this divided scenario, would a “religious vote” really determine who will be the next Philippine President?

The Philippine Daily Inquirer and GMA News research on the 2004 election showed just how solid the INC vote was.  Of the 1 million or so Filipinos that belong to the INC, fully 74% of them voted for Arroyo, the eventual winner.

On the other hand, charismatic group El Shaddai — who also endorsed Mrs Arroyo's presidential bid — delivered only about half the possible votes for its annointed candidate. 

The Catholic church's endorsement doesn't seem to many win votes, either.  In 2004, 37% of Roman Catholic voters chose former actor Joseph Estrada, even as church leaders quietly supported Alfredo Lim, who obtained only 9.8% of the Roman Catholic vote, according to the Philippines Daily Inquirer and GMA on-line news.

The two news organizations concluded that there is no such thing as a “religious vote” in the Philippines. They maintain that the race for endorsements from religious organizations is an “excellent marketing strategy,” where “candidates have reduced the religious leaders into celebrity endorsers.”

PDI and GMA News specifically pointed to Jesus Is Lord Church leader Eddie Villanueva, who not only lost the presidential race in 2004, but not all of his members even voted for him.

“Brother Eddie,” as Villanueva is known, is running again in this election and it is not clear whether he will win among his own congregation, much less other Christian organizations or churches.

Noynoy, meanwhile, enjoys a strong lead among “secular” voters, in addition to the solid support from a block-voting religious organization. 

So, will all the “religious courtship” really determine who the next Philippine President will be?

In Noynoy's case, devout observers will be watching closely to see for themselves whether his quest for spiritual guidance was indeed the “best way" to answer the call of politics.