COVER STORY

Politics of recognition: The power of religious endorsement in the 2019 polls

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) -- People garbed in white flocked to the Amoranto Stadium in Quezon City to attend El Shaddai's prayer rally one Thursday in March.

A huge tarpaulin with an image of El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde's face welcome them. But if you looked to the right... Screaming red and orange posters of senatorial candidates call attention.

Over a thousand faithful who seek spiritual and physical healing were present. But with election materials left and right, and politicians around, the religious activity was almost like a campaign sortie.

Bishop Teodoro Bacani, the group's spiritual adviser, celebrated mass on a makeshift stage in the middle of the stadium apparently arranged by the office of Quezon City Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte.

Belmonte, who is running for the city's mayoral post, was also present at the event.

"(Brother Mike) did invite me to be here. And we did arrange for this rally to take place here in Quezon City where we are his partners in terms of setting up the stage, the logistics, etcetera," said Belmonte.

After the mass, senatorial candidates or their representatives spoke one by one before the crowd and expressed their thanks and support to the charismatic group.

Reelectionist Senator Cynthia Villar was the first.

"Hindi naman welcome lahat ang politicians sa religious organization [Not all politicians are welcomed by religious organizations]. But I have been friends with them, many of them. And I go to their affairs," Villar told reporters.

Even Juan Ponce Enrile, 95, did not miss the chance to attend the event despite difficulty walking. He was assisted by two men, helping him to reach a white van where Velarde lounged before joining his followers.

"I just came to pay my respects. I know El Shaddai is wise and intelligent organization. They will select their candidates," the former senator said when asked why he attended the prayer rally.

While he allows candidates to speak before his followers, Velarde clarified he has yet to decide who among the aspirants will get his endorsement in the upcoming polls.

"Everyone is welcome dito [here]. Walang opposition, walang administration basta [No opposition, no administration as long as] they come, binibigyan ko sila ng [I will give them a] chance. Anyway, the members are free to choose," the El Shaddai leader explained.

Velarde, wearing a white polo shirt with "Buhay Party-list" stitched on the left side, chuckled when asked about the characteristics of candidates he plans to endorse. He said their positions on same-sex marriage, divorce and death penalty are vital.

"Nagsa-survey lang ako kung ano ang posistion nila.... Meron naman nakakapasa but we will have our grand rally sa Luneta sa May 4. By then, malalaman natin kung sino ang pumasa," said Velarde.

[Translation:I'm just surveying what their positions on issues are. Some have passed my standards, but we will have our grand rally in Luneta on May 4. By then, we will know who made the cut.]

All eyes were on the charismatic leader, as he ascended through the sea of his followers. People clapped non-stop, while singing and dancing to the campaign jingle of the party-list group.

Endorsement power

In the 2017 Philippine Trust Index of the EON Group, nine of 10 Filipinos still give their biggest trust to the church among institutions. That's more than their trust in the government, media, business and non-government organizations.

Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio said the index shows the strong influence of religious groups among Filipinos in deciding whom to vote for during elections. Though the endorsement power of religious leaders may not be so high, it is still significant, he added.

He cited a 2018 survey of Kantar TNS which showed 39 percent or four of 10 Filipinos will likely vote for a candidate endorsed by their church or religious group.

"Religious groups have different traditions and different expectations of authority. In my field, sociology of religion, how strict a religion is translated to their own expectations on how people might follow the stipulations or the principles, not just the beliefs, but the political choices of their leaders," Cornelio explained.

While Roman Catholics dominate Philippine society, other religious groups such as Iglesia Ni Cristo show their strong political presence through bloc voting. Iglesia ni Cristo is the third biggest religious group in the country next to Roman Catholics and Muslims.

In last year's interview with CNN Philippines, Iglesia Ni Cristo Spokesperson Edwil Zabala talked about discipline in their religion and the importance of unity among its members.

"The bible teaches, for example, that we should be united with the leadership of the church, the executive minister of the church, if it's a requirement, then we should follow it. So that's where the discipline flows from," Zabala explained.

While Iglesia ni Cristo's vote definitely boosts a politician's candidacy, it does not assure a win. For instance, in 2016 elections, Iglesia ni Cristo supported the tandem of President Rodrigo Duterte and former Senator Bongbong Marcos for presidential and vice presidential posts. Duterte won but Marcos lost by a small margin to his closest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo.

Cornelio said endorsing a candidate plays a huge part in the politics of recognition among religious groups.

"The politics of recognition is not only about the institution being recognized by the public, but is also being recognized by politicians from whom they can exact favors later on. This is very true in any minority religious group in any country."

One Catholic vote?

As President Duterte attacks the Catholic Church and its leaders, calls for 'one Catholic vote' arise. Cornelio said historically, Catholics never voted as a bloc and he doubts that it may happen this upcoming election even as some in the clergy call for the so-called "Godly votes."

"Does the Catholic vote as a bloc exist? Obviously it does not at the national level. But at the local level, there the nuance matters. We might see the influence of the impact of endorsements by local priests or local bishops in relation to certain issues," Cornelio said.

He cited the 2016 Team Patay and Team Buhay campaign of some local Catholic Church, pertaining to those pro and anti Reproductive Health Law. Cornelio said the campaign worked in some local parishes but not at the national level where staunch supporters of the law still won.

Issue-based religious endorsement

Members of faith-based organizations, primarily Catholics and Protestants, launched the People's Choice Movement. So far, the group endorsed 10 senatorial candidates, whom they think should compose an 'independent Senate.' The formal endorsement happened at the Club Filipino in San Juan City on March 27.

Its Chairperson Ricky Xavier said belief in God and their stance on federalism are the two main factors why they endorsed nine opposition bets and an independent candidate:

-Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano;

-Senator Bam Aquino;

-Former Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares;

-Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno;

-Maranao civic leader Samira Gutoc;

-Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay;

-Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal;

-Senator Grace Poe;

-Former Sen. Mar Roxas; and

-Former congressman Erin Tañada.

While their choices are primarily from the opposition, Xavier clarified they do not consider it as a protest vote against the administration.

"It's not a protest vote. Basically it is based on issues, based on principles. It so happened the Otso Diretso is part of it because all of them (are) against Federalism and they have spoken about it quite openly," Xavier said.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo openly supported the so-called "People's Choice" and urged more members of the clergy to speak up.

"Our lay leaders, with the People's Choice Movement, have done their work of discernment. Now is the task for all the lay faithful to campaign (for) the deserving candidates so as to counter the money and the political machineries that the 'trapo' (traditional) politicians are using. There are still two months for all to do this particular exercise of the Christian faith," Pabillo said in a statement.

Xavier said they will also talk to El Shaddai's Velarde to support their cause even if the latter has his own set of criteria in choosing candidates to endorse.