Nearly 100 people have filed candidacies for president in next year’s elections. All wanted to fix the mess that would be left behind by Rodrigo Duterte’s mismanagement of the pandemic response and economic recovery plan.

It was unimaginable that so many people wanted to inherit the gargantuan economic and social problems, including more than P11 trillion in foreign and domestic debt, rising joblessness and galloping costs of basic commodities triggered by the rise in world oil prices.

The final list of candidates will not be known until after Nov. 15, the deadline for political parties to substitute their nominees for a particular position, not only for president, vice president and senators, but for all positions.

More than 500 people registered for national positions and about 45,000 for local positions. There are only 17,000 national and local vacant positions to be filled up in May 2022.

That means the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has to do a lot of cleanup in the list so the names will fit into ballots to be filled in by more than 70 million eligible voters.

Historically, voter turnout during Philippine elections was high at 75 percent to 80 percent, but the coronavirus pandemic could affect voters’ participation.

In a big way, the election campaign will also be affected as large gatherings and face-to-face meetings are not allowed. There will be protocols for social distancing, face masks, and face shields.

There could be no “miting de avance” and national and local candidates are expected to move around in towns and cities in motorcades, waving to crowds watching outside their homes or watching on television or on social media platforms.

There will be no handshakes and kissing of babies but more personal campaigning will be done through text blasts. More enterprising politicians can buy votes through GCash and other money transfer platforms.

Political observers believe next year’s elections will be different from pre-pandemic balloting. The political battle, they say, will be won by an air war campaign rather than a ground war due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Popular candidates who have higher name recall will have an edge over lesser-known candidates but popularity alone will not make a candidate win. The most important factor is how to translate popularity into actual votes during election day.

Boxing icon and Sen. Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao learned the hard way when he ran for the first time in a congressional district in South Cotabato in 2007.

He may be a popular boxer (an eight-division world champion), but he lost by more than 30,000 votes to a more seasoned and savvy politician, Darlene Custodio, from a well-entrenched political family in the south.

Many movie personalities and sports celebrities had lost in the elections because their popularity was not enough to overcome patronage-driven politics in the country.

Machinery, muscle and money still rule politics in the Philippines.
The candidate who will ferry voters to polling precincts, feed them and give them token pocket money on D-day will probably win the elections next year.

There are many ways a candidate can find out if a voter really did shade the circle opposite his or her name in the ballot. And there are ways to suppress votes during elections, including paying supporters of opponents on the eve of election day for them not to go to polling precincts, and placing indelible ink on their fingers to prevent them from voting.

Politicians are becoming more creative and innovative in influencing election results even in an automated election in the 21st century.

At this point, the political contest is still wide open.

The September pre-election opinion poll showed a close contest among candidates, which includes Sara Duterte-Carpio whose numbers have been declining due probably to her indecision in running for president.

In June 2021, Inday Sara’s voter preference was at 28 percent, which seemed to be insurmountable as she had consistently topped the surveys. But it went down to 20 percent in September.

Her rivals are closing in. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Francisco Domagoso and Pacquiao are statistically tied at second place with 15 percent, 13 percent, and 12 percent, respectively.

At third place are Grace Poe, Leni Robredo, and Ping Lacson with 9 percent, 8 percent, and 6 percent, respectively.

The fourth quarter survey with the final list of candidates, including Inday Sara if she changes her mind and joins the race, will be a more accurate gauge of voter preference.

There will be more crucial surveys next year — in March, April and early May — which could predict the outcome of elections. There could be movements in the survey.

In September 2015, Duterte was trailing Poe, Jejomar Binay and Mamuel Roxas by more than 10 percentage points, but in March 2016, Duterte zoomed to the top and never looked back, eventually winning the race.

Poe, who was on top in September, fell to second spot in March but ended up third behind Roxas in the elections. Binay melted. He was consistently No. 1 in pre-election surveys but slid down after corruption allegations were hurled on him, ending fourth in the race. The three-month campaign may change the rankings and in this aspect, next year’s balloting won’t likely be different from the 2016 elections.

However, the coronavirus pandemic would be a game-changer even as machinery, muscle and money could still become very important factors.

If the country’s vaccination rate will remain low next year and cases will continue to be high — leading to crowding in hospitals and slow economic recovery — voter turnover may be affected.

The changing demographics may also influence the elections, making arguments for an air war stick and shattering proponents of the ground campaign.

Patronage politics could still work in the rural areas but in urban areas, where the population is migrating in droves because of economic opportunities, it will be difficult for politicians to buy votes for P500 per person.

In urban areas, people will take the money but will vote for a candidate they want. More than 50 percent of eligible voters next year belong to the youth sector, aged 18 to 39 years old. They are more educated and social-media savvy and they may influence the elections.

They are not looking at popularity. They are not easily swayed by P500 in exchange for their votes and they may be looking instead at the issues that affect their lives.

Social media may have influenced them but they are intelligent enough to discern truth from false information peddled by troll farms and people feeding disinformation.

The strong interest in registering for next year’s elections is a healthy indication of the youth’s interest to take part in the political process.

The 2022 elections are indeed different from past balloting. There are so many new variables in the game. Old rules are being rewritten. This early, it’s still anybody’s ballgame.