Senatorial candidates campaigning from the margins

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We talk to former Ifugao congressman Teddy Baguilat Jr. as well as disability rights advocate Carmen Zubiaga about navigating national campaigns from the margins. Phots courtesy of TEDDY BAGUILAT/FACEBOOK and CARMEN REYES-ZUBIAGA/FACEBOOK

Election season in the Philippines is where the country’s elite roll down their heavily tinted windows to wave to the poor. The country’s aspiring senators are part of this demographic, as the senate of the Philippines, as with other positions in national or local government, has historically been ruled by the powerful and influential: political dynasties and moneyed families who have earned the popular vote. Data from 2019 shows that of 24 senators, 14 belong to powerful Filipino clans.

But in theory, the senate should represent the disadvantaged and marginalized. Article VI, Section 2 of the Philippine Constitution states that unlike the House of Representatives, which includes party-list representation, the senate “will have a broader outlook of the problems of the country, instead of being restricted by narrow viewpoints and interests.” With its national rather than district constituency, the senate is “more circumspect, or at least less impulsive, than the House of Representatives.”

In this milieu, where do our society’s marginalized sectors fit in? CNN Philippines Life speaks with former Ifugao congressman Teodoro "Teddy" Brawner Baguilat Jr. as well as disability rights advocate Carmen Zubiaga — both of whom are running for senatorial seats — about navigating national campaigns from the margins.

Teddy Baguilat: From bahag to BTS

In a brand new commercial uploaded Monday, April 25 — two weeks before the 2022 national elections — Teddy Baguilat dons a plum suit. He croons and grooves along with fellow senatorial candidates Sonny Matula and Alex Lacson, similarly dressed in pastel-colored outfits, singing their platforms in a catchy, upbeat number. They introduce themselves as BTS, albeit a local version: “Ang Bagong Tatlo sa Senado.”

The noontime show-loving Filipino masses have long been serenaded by candidates on TV. Back in the early 2000s, Mar Roxas sashayed onscreen in a flash mob performance with market vendors as “Mr. Palengke.” A more recent example, in 2019, senator Bong Revilla, fresh from a four-year detention on grounds of plunder, danced his way back to the senate to budots, a grassroots electronic dance music genre popular in Bisaya-speaking regions. In this 15-second political advertisement, his only spoken parts were “Bong Revilla po, number 16 sa balota.” No platforms, no promises — just pure, unadulterated hip bopping.

But it is a surprising change to see Baguilat in a dance number. It is a stark contrast from his usual Ifugao clothing — the bahag — which he has worn in campaign sorties, making him one of the most easily recognizable candidates of Tropang Angat, the electoral alliance of Leni Robredo and Kiko Pangilinan. The bahag represents his roots as an Indigenous person, and along with it, the journey of a man from the Cordilleras going on an arms race for the senate. For Baguilat, it has, in a way, become his “brand.”

“I use the attire to describe yung sarili ko as a katutubo, yung aking leadership style,” he said in an interview with CNN Philippines Life.

Each piece of his costume holds a deeper meaning: the headdress, or the pungot, associated with the rich or elite (kadangyan) is leveraged as a symbol of his intellect. The Ifugao blanket harks to tribal chieftains, which like Baguilat, are ready to go to battle for their tribes. The Ifugao G-string, perhaps the most remarkable of all, represents the struggle of the tribe. “It represents yung sipag ng katutubong magsasaka,” he says.

When Baguilat first went up the stage as a candidate under the Leni Robredo slate, he felt self-conscious: “Nung umpisa, I must admit, conscious ako. Kakaiba kasi feeling nila nakahubad ka. Generally, accepting sila pero di maiiwasan na meron tumatawa. ‘Di mo alam yung sinasalita nila, pero alam mong mina-mock ka,” he said.

Campaigning on the streets, under the blistering heat of the tropical sun, he felt “fully exposed” in his full regalia. But with it also came a realization: “That’s one of the things I learned in this campaign: how an IP feels when he wears his ethnic attire.”

“Nung umpisa medyo na-ilang ako, pero later on na-feel ko, ‘Kailangan ko ito e.’ This is the whole point of being in ethnic attire: Telling the whole world that I am Teddy Baguilat, may kakayahan mag-serbisyo, and I’m proud to come from an ethnic tribe.”

While there is a myriad of tribes scattered across the country — estimated to be between 10 and 20 percent of the population — they can be hard to find. “Kasi sila yung bihirang may internet connection, may Facebook accounts,” he explained. This, along with several tweaks in his messaging by his campaign team, define Baguilat’s campaign journey. “It’s still a work in progress,” he admits. “Initially my messaging was ‘Katutubo sa Senado.’ Three K’s: kultura, kalikasan, karapatan. Later on, nag-adjust yung communications team. Kultura is very nebulous, so we chose “kabuhayan.” Ayaw mo maging malabnaw yung messaging pero gusto mo mag-appeal sa mas maraming tao,” he said.

“The young mold their values based on what they see on social media. They develop their opinions on democracy, human rights, what is a good politician, what is leadership.”

Even the platform to communicate took several adjustments: “Social media, including TikTok! Oh my gosh,” laughed Baguilat, who is in his fifties. “Part of campaigning is learning how to play social media to your strengths,” he said. “Previously, the value-molding of a person happened at school, church and home. That’s where you developed your opinions. Nowadays, it’s social media. The young mold their values based on what they see on social media. They develop their opinions on democracy, human rights, what is a good politician, what is leadership.”

Which brings us to his "BTS” music video. “Laging sinasabi sa national elections, it’s about the CDE. The easiest and fastest way for you to gain awareness is running advertisements. So far okay naman ako, pero kulang pa rin sa awareness. In my case, I need to raise awareness before I do conversion. To do that, you spend a lot. ‘Yun yung disadvantage ko in terms of resources.”

And so he danced.

But whether in a plum suit or in Ifugao clothing, Baguilat is still the same person: a Filipino with the concerns of his people at heart. “At the start of the campaign, panata ko sa sarili ko, I’d like to discuss Indigenous peoples’ rights, the environment, and agriculture,” he said. “Bihira ang may representation ang marginalized sectors sa senate. Wala pang katutubong naging senador.”

Carmen Zubiaga

Persons with disabilities are often viewed as objects of charity, so vulnerable that they heavily rely on outsider intervention to assimilate into society. But for as long as she could remember, Carmen Zubiaga has been taking matters into her own hands in spite of the odds.

After being confined to her home for a decade due to her condition, she fought to return to school at the age of 24. Upon securing a slot, she spearheaded fundraising efforts for a ramp that would connect her building to the library, making it easier for students in wheelchairs to move around. Her initiative was so impactful it was eventually recognized and signal boosted by the school’s president, who pledged his commitment to increasing the accessibility of the institution. This marked the beginning of her decades-long battle for inclusion that would take her through non-government organizations like Women With Disabilities Leap to Social and Economic Progress (WOW-LEAP), LGU posts in her hometown of Taytay, and hopefully the Senate.

Zubiaga’s can-do attitude is what made her campaign possible in the first place, despite her lack of political machinery. Her impressive organic following on social media is the product of her responses to scalding social issues on Twitter. “Soon, madami nang nagrespond na graphic designers and video editors, especially among [the] Gen Z. [They] manage pages and groups with a wide reach and were willing to spread the word about me,” she told CNN Philippines Life via Zoom. “There were also donors who supported my campaign materials in their areas and gave me cash so I could have [my posters] distributed in other communities.”

Meanwhile, connections she forged through previous work experience have proven crucial on the ground. “I know people in almost all LGUs, especially [those from] organizations of persons with disabilities, and they have been in contact with me even when I retired,” she said. “They’ve been my movers at the grassroots level. From the moment I filed my candidacy, dun ko talaga nakita yung suporta ng mga tao na kilala ko and later on, dahil sa kanila, even yung mga hindi ko kilala.”

Despite having no affiliation with any political party, she finds herself packaged alongside fellow progressive candidates. This has landed her invitations to webinars and appearances in Kakampink rallies across the country. “Every single time I attend sorties, people come up to me and ask for pictures and say that someone they know or love is a PWD. They thank me for giving them a voice in the Senate and promise to make me win,” Zubiaga recalled. “Nakakaoverwhelm. Sobrang nakakatouch yung pinapangako nila at pinapakita nilang suporta.”

Unfortunately, there are still some things that lie outside of her control. Insensitivity towards those with her condition remains pervasive — the most recent manifestation of which being a viral video of presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos’ youth volunteers mocking those with mobility impairments. Such instances of public vilification serve as grounds for a class suit under Republic Act 9442. “Even if people ask me why I haven’t filed a case yet, I cannot do it on my own,” she lamented. To make things worse, we don’t have enough lawyers that understand disability rights, owing to the fact that these were written by lawmakers who aren’t really well-versed about disabilities.”

This lack of representation is a gap that Zubiaga is confident she can fill, with her community-based platform rooted in years of experience living “as a simple person among fellow simple people.” Just some of the issues she promises to address if given a legislative seat encompass social protection, inclusive economic programs, and quality transportation services.

“It’s important to have someone who truly knows what it’s like to be in our shoes: hindi na sapat yung mga nagsasabing ‘advocate’ sila for the marginalized,” Zubiaga stressed. “Kung sapat yun, edi sana matagal na tayong walang problema.”