Sunday, January 18, 2009

The winnowing (2)

IN the US of A, there are two mainstream political parties, the Republican and Democratic parties. To be able to properly size up the many candidates who want to be president, they have a series of primaries, where actual elections are held to determine who are the frontrunners before they go into the national convention. Or they may instead opt for party leaders’ caucuses. The party national committees decide the ground rules, and even whether or not to hold primaries at all. Card-carrying party members, or in some states, even so-called independent voters may participate in making known their choice. The parties as well as the states may differ in rules as well as procedure.

The candidates do actual campaigning although most of it is directed at party leaders and workers as well as sectoral groups, with media tracking through polls and immediate reporting of results.

This year’s campaign has been extensively covered by media, specially since there is no re-electionist president, and neither is the incumbent president running for the presidency. It’s a wide and open race in both parties for the nomination of their parties. Convention time is around June 2008, and the states where Obama won, such as Iowa, will cast their delegate quota for him in that convention, just as New Hampshire will go for Hillary. The primaries were thus designed to achieve two things: first, to get to size up the candidates at close range, get their views on various issues, and have a fair assessment of their character; and second, get a feel of the public pulse after the candidates have made their rounds. The nominating convention of the party therefore is fairly assured that their candidate has the requisite competence and character, in varying degrees. It is also reasonably assured that among its following, support for the convention’s choice is strong and enthusiastic. The winnowing purpose is thus well served. In fact, when wannabes fail to clinch sufficient support after two or so primaries, they often opt to quit, and support the frontrunners.

The system cannot be replicated in the country, given as we said, the virtual non-existence of political parties in its real sense. Likewise, the multitude of political "barkadahan" masquerading as parties will make primaries so confusing. Besides, neither government through the Comelec nor the parties themselves are prepared to undertake the expenses involved.

Prior to martial law, when poll surveys were not as much in vogue, party conventions were held to choose the standard bearer. Those were expensive affairs that the Nacionalistas and Liberals had, where delegates were wooed through "wine, women and song" as the Free Press in its heyday loved to describe. They were also opportunities for "transactional" politics. "You support me now, I promise you which cabinet post" was heard several times in smoke-filled "caucus" rooms.

With the death of a true-party system and the scuttling of the monolithic KBL post Edsa I, the poll surveys became the singular barometer of the public pulse. Politics became a "horse" race measured by surveys. Whoever was more popular was deemed "presidentiable" enough. This made the political party even more irrelevant. Thus in the first presidential elections held under the 1987 Constitution, the humongous party of resurrected traditional politicians, LDP, chose in regionally-dispersed conventions Speaker Ramon V. Mitra Jr. over Fidel V. Ramos, who was faring much better in the surveys. FVR and a small band of politicians, seven originals if memory serves me right, bolted the LDP and formed Lakas, which then borrowed the "non-trapo" shell party called NUCD of the late Raul Manglapus. It is now Lakas-CMD.

But the surveys proved themselves more accurate in gauging the public pulse than the traditional politicians. Ramos won with a mere 23 percent of the vote over Miriam’s 21 percent. Miriam invented a party (PRP) for the purpose of running, and she almost won. Danding Cojuangco stole the rib-cage of the Nacionalista Party from then Vice-President Doy Laurel, and re-named his group the Nationalist People’s Coalition. ECJ got 18 percent of the vote. Mitra, who headed the biggest party, with membership down to the barangay level, or so the LDP beamed, was a poor fourth with 14 percent of the vote. Mitra spent the most, Cojuangco next, then Ramos sparsely, and Miriam hardly nothing. Thereafter, surveys provided the best guide to choice.

But in 1998, the now humongous Lakas did not learn the lessons of 1992. It fielded Speaker Joe de V, as if in reprise of 1992, and lost heavily to Joseph Estrada, who romped away with 40 percent of the vote, more than double what the Lakas candidate cobbled. Popularity was the sole determinant of victory over the unpopular who could not be given a make-over. But Lakas imported GMA for vice-president, and she won over Erap’s Angara. Again, popularity won over machinery, where LDP was second to Lakas.

With popularity as measured by poll surveys comes the wherewithal. Because parties do not exist, war chests are personal to the party’s candidate. Thus, the ability to raise money for a campaign has become the function of a candidate’s winnability.

In 2004, the first incumbent to run under this Constitution faced a highly popular movie actor. There were no conventions to choose candidates. Obviously the incumbent who reneged on her word not to seek election only had to retrieve her palabra, and that was it. And the disparate opposition gathered around the personal choice of a few people who were "leaders" by virtue of wealth and previous position. But this time, winnability was thwarted by a deadly amalgam of proper strategy, dirty tactics, shameless use of every fund available, and the co-optation of the Comelec, with its evil genius in residence directing "operations".

In 2010, assuming no machinations to keep Gloria in power beyond succeed, we are looking at a 1992-model political horse race. The protagonists will not have popularity of cinematic proportions, even if former president Erap himself joins the fray. He will not have the virtual presence of an FPJ, straight from movie legend to the presidency. His 1998 stature has been diminished by the real events of his presidency, the impeachment trial, as well as the Sandiganbayan conviction. Which means few of those who dream of MalacaƱang will give way to him.

But 2010 will no longer be about Erap and what Gloria did to him. It may be about what Gloria did to the nation after Erap, which is more perfidious than any before her. But it would be more about who in a field of many can change the order of things – a rotten polity, a stagnant economy, a society lorded over by the powerful few at the expense of the impoverished many. As elections should always be – to choose the best, gauged in terms of competence and character, the latter being the most important.

How do we gauge these? Sufficient competence, and the needed character to cleanse a rotten polity, to keep the economy moving in the right long-term direction and beyond both boom and bust cycles as well as "plastic" spin, and bring its benefits to the many, protecting them against the unbridled greed of a few, worse, the abuses of the powerful? Character is at the bedrock of political will. "Competence" without character will be more of Gloria.

Again, media and the surveys will play a major role, since the party as institution is more virtual than real.

Between March 2008 and November 2009 when the candidacies are more or less certain, is a total of twenty months. Let civil society, convened perhaps by the PPCRV which stands for responsible voting, and media cooperate towards holding regional forums with a non-rigid debate format in each of the country’s fifteen regions outside NCR. Broadcast should cover the event live and unedited, with nationwide exposure, even international, given our large OFW audience. These could be held each month, for a total of 15 months, the rules and timetable for the organizers to determine. The forum should be held on a Saturday or Sunday, with the candidates allowed to do the rounds of sectors and their target publics the week prior to the debate. No representatives should be allowed to participate. Whether or not a candidate participates is entirely up to him. Remember that we precisely want to gauge competence and character.

No one is declared a winner nor are rankings made by the panelists or the organizers. No quick-polling through text messaging or even scientific designs should be made. Let the pollsters do their regular quarterly surveys, and watch how the nationally televised and reported debates affect public reaction to the candidates.

Meanwhile, media should print matrices of their work experience, professional background, achievements in private and public endeavors, and failures as well. They should inform the public about the candidates’ business ties and relationships, personal or familial. In short, anything and everything that matters when competence and character are to be gauged.

I omitted NCR as a venue, and the organizers could even exclude mainland Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon because almost all households in this wide swath are media-attuned on a daily basis. It is in mega-Manila where they should hold the sectoral fora, which should include labor, the youth and students, farmers and fishermen, the professional sector, business (and I don’t mean Makati Business alone or even in tandem with just the revolving leadership of that troika of PCCI, ECOP and the export council, but also genuinely small businessmen and market vendors). In any case, these are details.

Hence, sufficient ways shall have been made to make the voter choose on the basis of sufficient information. That he chooses more by emotion rather than intellection does not detract from the merits of up-close visual and verbal encounters. He after all chooses by himself where he puts greater premium upon – charisma or intelligence, or whether he finds both in one or the other.

The candidates will in time realize whether they are acceptable or not, whether they have sufficient reason to believe that they are believable by the standards of the voter. Thus, the wide field which now consist of Loren, Noli, Ping, Chiz, Manny, Mar, Dick, Bayani, Sonny, Jojo, Gilbert, either Jinggoy or Erap, or both, and yes, FVR if he desires, could join in when the regional debates begin.

Decision to proceed or quit would of course be an individual one. He could choose to be guided aided by survey findings or his own gut feel.

By the end of 2008 at the latest, after some nine or ten fora, some will have quit. Some may seize the day and propose coalitions with the front-runners, or present themselves even as running mates. My educated guess is that by October 2009, only a few will remain standing. The chaff shall have been separated from the grain, and I don’t mean this to demean anyone. Sometimes the worthier have to give way to the destined. That is how the political cookie crumbles.