Monday, January 12, 2009

Loren’s ‘sinta’ for 2010

The papers scream about the insidious plans to impeach Chief Justice Reynato Puno, using as excuse his alleged withholding of the promulgation of a decision penned by mercifully retired Justice Ruben Reyes on the disqualification case filed against a Negros Oriental congresswoman of Chinese extraction. The Chief Justice noted that nine of the fourteen justices who concurred with the ponencia agreed on the conclusion, but not the reasoning behind the decision. As chief steward of the nation’s judicial system, Puno thought that the doctrinal value of Supreme Court decisions would be questioned by the legal community if he allowed such to pass, and therefore prudently withheld promulgation.

Quickly, Malacanang’s evil geniuses saw an opportunity to torment Puno. They are now laying the predicate to his unceremonious ouster. As I have always maintained, this evil governance that bedevils our future, will always seek ways and means to further its illegitimate hold on power. The latest assault on the integrity and independence of the Court is but one of them.

Still, on the assumption that we will have regular elections, no matter how flawed in a system that sucks, we resume our articles on those who would want to take their chances on the presidential plum of 2010. We have written about former President Joseph Estrada first, and then Senator Richard Gordon. Now we feature Senator Loren Legarda.

She started as a beautiful newsreader in the country’s top television network. With perfect diction and reportorial aplomb, she advanced quickly, and later even hosted a relevant tele-magazine program that dissected many of the country’s ills, which allowed her to empathize with her news subjects all over the land.

She was drafted by Lakas to run as senator in 1998, and soon became the top attraction in an otherwise lacklustre ticket headed by Speaker Jose de Venecia as its presidential candidate. De Venecia was a virtual loser to the popular Joseph Estrada even before the campaign began, the Erap’s only worry being his opponent’s potential for electoral manipulation as FVR’s chosen successor. It was left to the popular Loren to attract the crowds more than the Lakas standard-bearer could hope to. Together with a catchy campaign jingle adapted from a Filipino folk song memorized by every child in the land, “Loren-Loren Sinta” quickly zoomed up in the surveys, and indeed, she topped the senatorial line-up even if her presidential candidate lost rather miserably to Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

She became the first female Senate majority floor leader, and acquitted herself in the post. She became an advocate of environmental issues, which has become her signature cry through the years. One of the most memorable episodes in her first Senate term was her tearful reaction when the majority of senators refused in a vote to open the second envelope in the impeachment trial. It became a poignant contrast to Tessie Aquino Oreta’s celebratory jig, which curiously, even the Erap loyalists did not take it against her when she joined up with FPJ three years after, even if that heart-tug scene signalled the abrupt end of the rule of Estrada. The Filipino’s attention span is really something to marvel at. The ability to quickly forget transcends its ability to forgive too easily.

In the presidential elections of 2004, she was chosen by a group of political leaders to run with the king of Philippine movies, Fernando Poe Jr., as his vice-presidential running-mate. She left her original party, Lakas, and joined a hastily-formed coalition called Nagkaisang Pilipino. The incumbent de facto president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in turn handpicked her previous colleague in the news-reading profession, radio and television broadcaster turned Senator Noli de Castro.

It is widely believed that the presidential elections of 2004 was the worst case of election result manipulation in our political history, punctuated by the revelation of “Hello Garci”, the voice tapes where Gloria was heard conspiring to pad her votes with an election commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano. The cheating episode also created mayhem to the military’s code of honour, with the supposed participation of the “Garci” generals in making GMA win. Whether Noli also cheated Loren, or was a beneficiary of Gloria’s cheating, we will perhaps never know conclusively. Loren went to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal to contest Noli’s proclamation, but when the same had not yet been resolved by the Court, she decided to run for her old Senate seat with the so-called Genuine Opposition, once more a hastily-formed coalition for the elections of 2007. And again, she made it to Numero Uno.

In the afterglow of her second senatorial triumph, the first presidential survey reading likewise gave her the highest marks, with Noli de Castro and Ping Lacson following her. Manny Villar and Mar Roxas were way behind the lead three. But a constant barrage of expensive television advertising gained subsequent higher ratings for Villar, dislodging Loren and reducing Ping’s numbers. Noli de Castro, apart from being the vice-president, is likewise a constant boob-tube and radio presence through advertisements of Pag-ibig’s low-interest housing loans. Snapshots that they are, surveys merely indicate top-of-mind presence at this point. Erap’s entry into the race further muddled the snapshots, and with his immediate emotional tug with the masa, the numbers of other oppositionists were likewise shaved. Chiz Escudero must also have stolen some of Loren’s voter appeal, as he did Ping’s.

Able to scrounge some funds, Loren came up with a 15-second advertorial repeated twice within a 30-second time slot, this time decrying corruption as causing poverty. Whether this departure of focus from environment to corruption is enough to convince many more to hearken to her presidential colours, or whether it’s lesser frequency in comparison to Villar and De Castro’s could repair the slide, remains to be seen. Suffice it to establish that today’s numbers are really not that indicative of ultimate voter preferences.

This is not to say that early survey ratings are not important. They are. Early lead means catching the interest of moneybags, and the entry of pump-priming political contributions. The unfortunate reality of Philippine campaign financing is that it is not congruence of advocacies or commitment to shared principles, but the llamado culture that prevails. Campaign financing in this country is akin to gambling, with big business betting their money in the hope that with their manok’s political victory comes access to regulatory and even monopoly privileges. The history of great fortunes in this country is replete with examples of campaign contributions capitalized into economic power. The Filipino’s sense of utang na loob, a private virtue as generosity, has become ingrained as public vice --- into payback.

One wonders whether Loren’s new role as chair of the agriculture committee can translate into greater appeal to a sector that in most part is susceptible to local command. But it could make good advertising copy, with nice rural backgrounds, if she can get the money to buy air time.

While Loren is a pleasing face in Philippine politics, one likewise wonders whether the electorate could sufficiently warm up to the prospect of another woman president after nine years and a half of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This is not being sexist; this is merely conjectural. Neither can any presidential contender attack womanhood as being unfit for another crack at the presidency after the dismal, rather, woeful reign of the country’s most disliked president, bar none else. Loren after all, is certainly not Gloria, and whatever similarities the two may have, probably remained at the Assumption Convent where they both schooled. In the 1991 pre-campaign period, the same “none of the above” situation obtaining these days seemed to prevail. And those who were disillusioned with the sense of drift in Cory Aquino’s leadership also said “not a woman president again”. But they did not reckon with Miriam Defensor Santiago, who captured the imagination of many with her anti-corruption imagery. She almost made it in 1992, running virtually alone, in a makeshift party whose name no one now remembers. Loren and her husband, former Batangas governor Tony Leviste, enlisted themselves in the Miriam “crusade”. One wonders though whether Loren could credibly sound like Miriam then, and likewise, whether people who would vote for Miriam to remain in the Senate --- forever if possible, would want her type as president of the land.

The number of players will of course matter. While none but a Pollyana can dream of the so-called “opposition” uniting behind just one candidate in 2010, a reduced number should accrue some benefit to La Loren’s chances. She is after all, the only female candidate in the field, an advantage she could turn to her advantage, a la Miriam in 1992. But again, Loren is no Miriam, both in flourish of speech or fire in the belly.

Should Loren therefore re-invent her public persona? Should a sweet, girl-next-door public persona which proved to be box-office hits for two senatorial runs be discarded because a presidential run, rightly or wrongly, requires a make-over? That is for her handlers to fathom.

The politically street-smart Erap fired a shot to her bow when he publicly wished before Christmas to have Loren as his running-mate, just like FPJ. Her initial reaction was to politely deny his overtures with a “been there, done that” remark. Yet that said, she joined Erap the day after in his occasional gift-giving sprees, his usual show of endearment to his masa, belying polite rejection and opening up to the probability. Or, if she or her handlers are as Machiavellian as one could imagine, it could be their way of showing her new NPC ka-rancho’s that she could also play the field, if their intent is to make her just number two to junior Escudero.

La Loren is being practical. If Danding Cojuangco’s NPC, of which she has been a member only since 2007, shows partiality towards Chiz, whose membership in that party dominated by transactional politicians is original, she could always hie off to the warm welcome of Estrada. After all, Estrada, in the context of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is certifiably opposition, while the NPC and Danding are neither here nor there, neither fish nor fowl in the political equation, drifting whichever way is more financially advantageous.

As 2009 unfolds, Loren Legarda might have to go back to the drawing board, or simply wait in the wings for the assorted competition to take a stock of their own chances and perhaps wither in the political wind. She will have to shore up her pre-campaign wherewithal at a time when the moneybags have reasonable excuse to be reticent. One year, after all, is a long, long time in politics.