January-June 2004
Special Election Issue
The Campaign

The X-Men

The story of activists-turned-political consultants
Former communists are today's campaign operatives and political mechanics.

This piece was based on an interview with a political consultant who was, once upon a time, an activist. This first-person account records the interviewee’s thoughts on one of the realities of the current election campaign: the vital, though not often visible, role that former leftists are playing as political consultants and campaign operatives for various candidates. This issue of i magazine being on elections, we thought it instructive to include this piece in our lineup of stories.

While many articles have been written on the split and the debates within the Communist Party of the Philippines and the national-democratic movement, this piece is not one of them. It is not a critique of the movement and its leaders, neither is it an apology for ex-leftists who are perceived to have sold out. It does not aim to delve into the reasons why they “left the Left” (in the words of one political science professor). It is merely a reflection on a life after the Left. The subject’s views, however, may not necessarily represent those of the thousands who once colored themselves red.

Leftists are adept at staging rallies as well as conducting armed struggle. But they are also today's most sought-after campaign operators.

Leftists are adept at staging rallies as well as conducting armed struggle. But they are also today’s most sought-after campaign operators.

JOSE Ma. Sison should cry at all the wasted talent. He could have won the revolution if the movement had stayed its course and kept its children from straying into the forbidden capitalist and reactionary world. (He shares a large part of the blame, too, of course, for steering a hard-line course and ousting — not to mention possibly ordering the elimination — of some of the best cadres from the party.) At any rate, these days, many of us who used to be part of the underground are all over the place. Some of us run telecommunications companies, public utilities, banks, and even the highest offices of government. Many form that segment of the middle class that supports decent candidates.

Being a successful former activist creates its own ethical crises. We have this need to reaffirm our activist roots every three years by supporting and voting for the right candidates, and by bringing out our checkbooks and donating to groups like Bayan Muna and Akbayan.

But some of us go even further. Indeed, the unseen hand in the 2004 elections is the Left — not as an organized bloc, but as the womb from which the savvy men and women running the current election campaigns have emerged. The activists and communists of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s are today’s campaign operators. I could name at least 50 of us ex-leftists in each of the presidential candidates’ campaign organizations. Hundreds — if not thousands — more are running campaigns at the local levels all over the country.

An activist has the kind of skills that aren’t taught in school and the kind of skills for which you don’t get a diploma. When he or she returns to his hometown from college in Manila, with or without a diploma, he or she becomes an asset, with talents that would be easily parlayed by politicians in need of organizers, propagandists, and operatives. A candidate running for national office doesn’t hire an accountant, an architect, or an Ivy League graduate. He needs someone with political skills, someone used to doing battle on the ground, and not in some ivory tower. And the politician will soon realize that he will get more bang out of his buck if he entrusts his campaign to an ex-leftist.

After all, elections are basically propaganda wars, the “expose-and-oppose” kind of advocacy. It is the kind of advocacy we leftists have been primed for since our youth. The organizing and propaganda tactics honed by activists — through decades of involvement in underground or aboveground political work — are easily transferred to an election campaign.

For this reason, the leftist movement was a good training ground for political operatives; it is the best finishing school for campaign managers and organizers. First of all, leftists have a good grasp of policy issues, and an election is one whole policy debate. As activists we studied the national situation for years through teach — ins and various levels of leftist indoctrination. As teenagers, we committed to memory the whole spectrum of Philippine politics, and we knew by heart the nature and characteristics of social classes.

We were honed in close-quarters fighting, mano a mano. We are used to an “all-or-nothing” kind of war. In the movement, we believed we had nothing to lose but our chains. We developed an instinct for survival along with the killer instinct — the instinct to subdue the enemy through legal, semi-legal, and even illegal means. We are therefore uniquely equipped for political struggle.

BEING a former leftist means being a scarred veteran of many battles. One day we were fighting oil-price or tuition-fee increases, another we were opposing the military bases. We lived through all the elements of a campaign, but in our youth, the setting was a confined stage, a limited arena. It was our school, our community, or a factory that we found ourselves deployed in.

Many former activists no longer take part in demonstrations. Instead, they use their skills to run election campaigns.

Many former activists no longer take part in demonstrations. Instead, they use their skills to run election campaigns.

We matured into adulthood in the harshest conditions imaginable. Those involved in campus activism from the 1970s to the ’80s survived repression. Those who were trade-union organizers cut their teeth in oppressive working environments, where they learned to bargain for workers’ rights and welfare. We marched in rallies under the severe noonday heat and got drenched in the pouring rain or with the stinking water coming out of the nozzle of a fireman’s hose. Many of us even spent months, if not years, in prison. We were torture-tested, so to speak.

We acquired certain skills. We could come up with cute slogans that are easily remembered like “Aksyon sa Tunay na Buhay” (which became Bong Revilla’s battle cry). We used to draw crude hand-painted murals (now our canvas is the computer-generated, state-of-the-art tarpaulin poster). We painted slogans on walls or pasted anti-Marcos posters in the middle of the night, playing hide and seek with the Metrocom or the cops. We are experts at mobilizing people and have an uncanny ability to fire up a crowd. We dabbled in our version of opposition research when we conducted social investigations of the situation in our school, community, or factory. We have been doing this since we were 17 or 18 years old or even younger. We had a headstart over others who were also politically inclined.

Then one day, we bumped our heads and woke up from the stupor, although not at the same time. One by one, many of us simply grew weary of activism. We got tired of marching and shouting outdated slogans. We needed to make a living. We felt we had done our time, contributed to the cause, served our tours of duty.

The wake-up call came not only from within. There were also other developments in the national scene that dispersed the Left. The first Edsa People Power led to an opening up of democratic space and the restoration of the democratic exercise called elections. There was an opportunity for activists to make use of their political skills, and there was a need, a vacuum to be filled.

There are 300,000 elective positions in the country. Surely, there are candidates or organizations out there that would need a political operative or an organizer. And some of us soon realized that it is far easier to run an electoral campaign than it is to bring down a government or to win a revolution.

EVEN as competitive electoral politics were being restored, the Left was disintegrating into many splinter groups. The infighting within was so intense and so exhausting that many of us felt it was better to channel our energies to other uses.

We thought to ourselves, why render service to the revolution when we could put ourselves on the electoral job market and get a fair price for our services (at the minimum, enough for us to make a decent living)? Why not venture into elections, when even the Left itself these days has chosen the parliamentary route?

We former leftists are like Swiss knives. Because of our training, we can perform multiple functions: We can draft press releases, act as stage production managers, or rent-a-crowd shepherds. We can produce the visuals needed in a campaign or sortie. We know the best place to hang a poster or paint a slogan.

We have a lot of qualities that make us suited for an election campaign. There’s our unique work ethic. We are quick to the draw, persistent, dedicated, and hardworking. Ex-activists possess that element of audacity. Those who were propagandists in their youth were also tacticians, their mischievous minds could conjure all kinds of scenarios, anticipating situations and plotting out options and contingencies. Activists also acquired organizational skills. It takes a lot of organizational savvy to mobilize a rally of 30,000 people, or to feed 50,000 Lakbayan marchers.

We were trained to have tit-for-tat, quick response to issues. We acquired and retained skills to analyze situations and to communicate. A good cadre has the capacity to see the big picture, describe it, and act on it. Beyond the electoral campaign, the field is littered with ex-leftists, student activists in college who have reinvented themselves as analysts in brokerage houses, media practitioners, bureaucrats, and policy handlers. Put us in mainstream politics, and we can show you more than a thing or two on how to run a campaign.

Take the “oust Estrada” campaign. That began with ex-leftists. The actions that eventually led to the removal of a president were small-scale, low-cost, but highly effective mobilizations. It was a mosquito movement that eventually grew and drew public attention. Such actions have a big impact, especially in this media- and image-driven world.

Most ex-activists, however, are probably “generalists.” Few are specialists, or those with a certain level of technical expertise. The rest of us are probably best at being field operators who can take charge of, literally, anything under the sun-rallies, motorcades, house-to-house campaigns, and the like.

Ex-leftists have an edge in the sense that they represent a hybrid of conventional election campaigns and guerilla tactics. People who once dreamed of being crack urban partisans are now effective character assassins. Their “hits” bear telltale signs of an operation done by ex-activists. They can bring your reputation down through exposés and black propaganda.

Many ex-activists and guerilla fighters provide security services for VIPs. After all, they had hunted prey in their previous lives. For a political candidate, it pays to get security from people who can view the whole situation from the point of view of a hunter. But there are other ways that a person’s proficiency with a gun can be employed. There have been disturbing reports, especially in the provinces, that ex-guerillas are selling themselves as guns for hire.

And then they can also be used in special operations. In the 1998 and 2001 elections, ex-activists in the employ of senatorial candidates tried to cure the bad showing of their principals in the early tabulated forms by going to the source of votes in the provinces, and they got in touch with ex-comrades who were also deep into that kind of operation. They can refer you to the right persons; arrange appointments with people that matter most. Remember that if we’re talking of activists who were active in the 1970s, and they left the movement long ago and then embarked on careers in mainstream society, many of them have already climbed up the ladder in the natural progression of a career. They are now in positions of influence, holding important government posts.

THERE are many of us who had completed college and acquired the skills to make a living. Some of us were even board or bar topnotchers and have made now made our marks in our post-leftist professional lives. But yes, there was a time when we were fixtures at rallies, acting as command centers relaying a series of quick instructions to a band of demonstrators, in an age before cell phones and text messages.

Many of us have maintained friendships with our ex-comrades. The activist movement was national in character and involved many from all corners of the country. It wasn’t far fetched for a Manila-based activist to know someone from Cebu, Cotabato, or Baguio who studied in the same school, or belonged to the same cell or collective within the movement.

Those ties have remained. It’s like an old boys’ network of sorts. On a visit to Davao City, I might be able to look up an ex-comrade, pay him a visit, and invite him out to dinner. Over bottles of beer, we would recall the good old days, reminisce about our days in the movement, relive our lost youth, and all that. And then I might ask him to help campaign for my candidate in his area, or to contribute votes to my party-list bet.

In a manner of speaking, it is this old boys’ network that now holds a reunion every three years, or each election year. That’s when you track down former comrades and ask for their help. With a former comrade, there’s that element of trust. You feel comfortable working with this person and can anticipate his moves. A campaign or a political organization is the kind of a working environment that puts a premium on trust.

There are many comrades like this, former foot soldiers who faithfully toed the party or the national-democratic line and are still willing to help old friends. Because there’s a job boom during elections, I might offer him or her part-time work or business as a charitable act, to allow them to earn money on the side.

Many of us have gone into all sorts of businesses-printing presses, catering, selling cellular phones. Election campaigns would just be a hobby for these entrepreneurial types. More than the money, maybe, there’s also the psychic income they get from helping install a government in 90 days through elections, which is a more viable route than Sison’s protracted 100-years-war ever was.

A simple poster can show you the interaction of ex-Reds. A poster can be funded by a former activist, now a big shot in a corporation, who has offered to bankroll the printing of posters of a candidate whose campaign is being run by ex-leftists. The photo will most likely have been taken by a photographer who used to be one of them; he probably now has a studio. The poster will be printed in a printing house managed by an ex-activist. The people who will be hired to put up those posters were also one-time activists, and to do the job, they’ll probably hire jeepneys and ladders of people who once were leftists.

Go to any hotel lobby and have coffee. Chances are, you’ll see a table full of campaign people belonging to Candidate X, another table with the staff of Candidate Y. It would look like a reunion of former Reds, only now they’re working for opposite camps. But there are no hard feelings. It’s just a job.

I wouldn’t call myself a mercenary. Mercenaries are emotionless. Besides, this is not our principal source of income. I would say that for people like us, it’s not the money. It’s the trip. It’s just a hobby, a game. There’s a thrill in doing it. You get pleasure out of manipulating this fight among the political elite. The difference is that every player or participant has an activist in his corner.

Actually, whatever career an ex-revolutionary or ex-activist chooses, his progressive heritage will always be a value-added qualification. It’s a lifelong itch that has stayed, and now it can be scratched every three years.

IT has even become a selling point in the campaign to be an ex-activist. It’s part of disclosure. You have to tell your prospective client whom you worked for in the past, who your previous clients were.

After the elections, some of us will be joining the staff of the candidate (if he wins), others will go back to nongovernmental organizations, or return to Congress where we are embedded. Still others entertain thoughts of running for public office themselves, or accept appointments in the bureaucracy, which is why there are ex-activists all over government. These people are skilled, not only in the acquisition of a popular mandate, but also in the exercise of that mandate.

In the end, you can look at it this way: Candidates imagine themselves as governments-in-waiting, and the clique of activists in that candidate’s campaign are just a bunch of ex-activists trying to depose a government that’s partially run or propped up by ex-activists.

In the past, Joseph Estrada had former National Democratic Front leader Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales and Edicio de la Torre, former head the underground Christians for National Liberation, in his government. When Estrada was deposed and Gloria Arroyo took over, another group of activists came in. You have Rigoberto Tiglao who used to head the Manila-Rizal chapter of the Communist Party of the Philippines. There are also Mike Defensor, former vice chairman of the University of the Philippines Student Council, and Hernani Braganza who was once chairman of the League of Filipino Students. Raul Roco has former student activist Jimmy Galvez Tan, and former Kabataan Makabayan member Gary Olivar. Fernando Poe Jr. has, again, Morales and de la Torre. There are many, many more of them.

And so if you hear a candidate spewing progressive ideas or trite leftist slogans, you can be sure that an ex-activist has wormed his way into the media or policy circles of that campaign. How else do you explain Poe calling for things like “sustainable development?” That’s nothing but artificial intelligence, fed to him by a leftist. Things like this would probably make Sison salivate in his winter quarters in Europe, while his ex-comrades, sweltering in the tropics, are running the show.