Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Early birds in early days

I had planned to write something like this after I get convinced that indeed there will be elections to choose a new president in May of 2010.

At the beginning of this year, I began writing about the parameters within which people of this benighted land should choose their next leader. I wrote about the possibility of organizing debates of all the presidential dreamers from one region to another, a process that I suggested should begin as early as the middle of 2008. I called it a "winnowing process", where voters make informed choices even when they respond to surveys, because they had at the very least been treated to televised debates where competence and a view of character comes out. In the absence of a genuine party system, this, I then submitted, would simulate the primaries which serve in America as the process by which grain is winnowed from the chaff.

In this country unfortunately, with a multi-party system within a presidential form, it is just the surveys that decide who should be presidential material. That should be all right if people, particularly from the D and E income levels, respond to research based on informed reason, rather than mere popularity, or worse, the suggestion of either competence or character invented by marketing and advertising experts.

I got some encouragement from certain sectors, and the idea was even endorsed by a well-known television news personality. But then, the abduction of Jun Lozada, a key witness in the ZTE-NBN deal that was clearly 2007’s top story, brought what ought to have been an early focus on the upcoming presidential elections to naught. Political scandal of the corruption genre once more hogged the headlines, and directed national attention, first to ZTE, then to international surveys that had the country at the top of the list among Asia’s most corrupt, and finally segued into the resurrection of the fertilizer scam of 2004 with the return to the country of Joc Joc Bolante. As if this menu of scandals were not enough, the lower house sallied forth into cha-cha mode after making mincemeat of yet another impeachment complaint.

We are just 16 months away from determining who ought to be the next president of the land, on the big assumption that either an upheaval of sorts or the overweening ambition of the present leadership do not somehow create a monkey wrench that would discombobulate the formal polity. Yet we find that the surveys as current political snapshots are merely a cut-and-paste scoreboard of memorable popularity plus boob-tube presence. The oldies, not necessarily the goodies though, are still the memorable figures. Thus, there is Noli, who augments his public awareness through radio and televised plugs about low-interest Pag-ibig housing loans, payments courtesy of a government corporation. There is Erap, always in the public mind by his "oppressed" image, cultivated through years of portraying the downtrodden, and in real life by losing the presidency to an "usurper". There is Manny Villar whose personal fortune earned from real estate deals and a bonanza earned from an IPO has given him wherewithal to launch an early media campaign, inundating prime time TV with his "concern" for OFW’s. But for Erap, "oldies" need not necessarily refer to age, but to long-declared or long-assumed candidacies.

Loren Legarda capitalizes on what Erap calls "beauty and brains" in his own pre-determination that she would best make his vice-presidential team-mate for his re-run in 2010. She was Number One when she first ran for the Senate in 1998, and when she ran as Number Two to no less than the legendary king of Philippine movies in 2004, she could have made it with him, but for Garci’s stellar performance as "Valentina’s right-hand man" (read the latter as GMA). But beauty is never timeless, as young upstart Chiz Escudero, whose handlers fashion him as the "Barack Obama" of Philippine politics, in age as distinguished from the color of Jojo Binay’s skin, threatens to dislodge her in the latest surveys. Being the youngest has massive appeal for Chiz, and being another "woman" in a time when the worst of times are presided over by a "boss woman" creates a baggage, an unfortunate emotional bias, against Loren. But then these are early days. And these early birds may yet be in for surprises, just as other early birds and survey bottom-dwellers like Jojo Binay, Bayani Fernando and Dick Gordon have yet to capture some air beneath their wings.

Ping Lacson and Mar Roxas trail in the latest surveys behind the trio of oldies and even Loren and Chiz. Lacson has hardly campaigned and has no political party, and is in the news only because as a senator, he has been the most consistently vocal against corruption. Roxas has a historic party behind him and has been moving around the country, but has somehow failed to get back the kind of public ardor that greeted his successful run for the Senate in 2004, on the back of an advertising blurb that re-created his pedigree as "Mr. Palengke." But Lacson has a solid loyal constituency who stuck with him even at the zenith of FPJ’s political box-office heyday, and if he would move around and get the wherewithal for more communications presence, that ten or so percent could attract more following in an age where his kind of political will and no-nonsense character may be the need of the times. Roxas, the darling of Makati’s business community, is no wash-out either. With proper handling and focused communications, he could yet reprise what was awesome political performance in the 2004 senatorial elections.

So the early birds will not necessarily be the top flyers when the starting gun for 2010 is fired about this time next year. Early surveys are for the early birds, but no one as yet is listening to their chirping. The gaps between their practice flying "time" is small, a few percentage points, sometimes even statistical separating one from another. Meanwhile, the old eagle many of them regard as a political vulture, has not loosened her grip on power one bit. Some of her loyal birds of prey say that she just wants to make sure she does not turn into a duck – lame duck that is, and so she has to go through the motions of changing the rules via a feigned cha-cha. That, they say, postpones the inevitable, while she makes herself most important in determining who shall be the new eagle atop the stinking palace beside the stinking river. That "important role" she hopes will give her the compromised assurance that she will not be feasted upon as carrion when her time is up.

Which from a Machiavellian point of view is good politics. Except that in this country, deals are not what they seem to be, and she will find it increasingly more difficult to assess who among the presidential eaglets will live up to their word. She has become as unpalatable if not more so, than Ferdinand Marcos whose long reign she seconds with her usurped and illegitimate longevity. This is why more and more are convinced that she will deal her cha-cha card, or even her joker–emergency or martial rule (kuno) and spring a surprise in the coming year. Images of a Chen Sui Bian in handcuffs, or a Thaksin unable to return to his country, should hound one whose alleged improprieties boggle the mind much more than her world peers.

There must be some logic behind the Church in centuries past declaring that Christmas should be celebrated at the end of the year. And the Gregorian calendar declared the New Year commencing one week after. Ends are supposed to usher in new beginnings. We leave the old and ring in the new.

Remember how valedictories each graduation proclaim that it is supposed to be a beginning and not an end, which is why these are called commencement rites? And similarly, elections are supposed to evince new hopes, a change from the tired or despised old, into the welcome of new beginnings.

Alas, in this benighted land, what seems to be is not always what happens.

Watch out for more and more political developments in the coming year. As this is my last column for the year, I should be wishing you a Happy New Year. Alas, I do not have a yen for pretence. Next year will not be as happy, as if this year was.

Still and all, may you have a plenitude of blessings in this season of grace. Merry Christmas to all our readers and their loved ones.