Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The atypical Ping

In familiar company, he is a regular guy, and can poke fun at himself. But as a superior officer, he is quite formal. As a politician, he is rather unusual, atypical. He does not easily proffer his hand to strangers, worried that they may not reciprocate. He was quite affected when, in the aftermath of scurrilous accusations thrown his way by the administration as early as 2001, he saw cold stares and felt a sense of public rejection. Just a year back, he was the darling of the people because of his exemplary performance as chief of the national police.

After none of the accusations were proven, including a tall tale about hundreds of millions of dollars stashed away in foreign banks (which the same banks denied shortly and the FBI disclaimed existence after investigation), people warmed up to him once more. In 2004, when he went around the country to seek the presidency, he felt the resurgence of public acceptance, but that of course was no match to the star appeal of the king of Philippine movies. Still, he got a respectable 3.3 million votes, a third of what FPJ and GMA got --- despite having no party, no running-mate, and with only Carlos Padilla of Nueva Vizcaya accompanying him as lone senatorial candidate. GMA’s numbers were padded though, as history will never forget. If we go by the results of present surveys, those 3.3 million voters have remained faithful, even if Lacson still has no party, has not advertised, and has not stumped all over the islands like the rest of the presidential competition.

Traditional politicians scoff at a Ping re-run in 2010, saying, “tumakbo na ‘yan
eh”. Which is valid, if we go by the short history of our electoral politics. Raul Roco lost to the immensely popular Erap in 1998, and when he ran once again in 2004, he lost. But then again, political observers used to say that offspring of presidents will never win the presidency. Gerry Roxas lost as VP in 1965; Doy Laurel won as VP, but lost to FVR in 1992, both being direct descendants of previous presidents. Yet Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been president for the past 8 years and counting. How she did that is of course another story. So cannot a Ping Lacson win the second time around, just as Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon did in the US of A?

There is a caveat to this phenomenon of no re-runs in Philippine politics though. The late Sen. Roco lost twice in contests dominated by immensely popular movie icons, Erap, then FPJ. The 2010 elections will be different. The closer model is 1992, when choosing from “none of the above” was the mood a year before elections. Who were the choices then? FVR, Miriam, Danding, Mitra, Laurel, Salonga, Imelda, and Erap, who wisely chose to go for numero dos midway, and won. Who do we have now? Noli, Villar, Loren, Chiz, Ping, Mar, Dick, Jojo, BF, and of course, the returning Erap, with no one a runaway favourite. But even if Erap runs, would he have the same numbers of the“screaming” masa, as friend Tony Abaya describes them?

Who won in 1992? Former constabulary chief and former defense secretary Fidel Valdez Ramos, an atypical politician whose personal charisma a Ping Lacson exceeds.. In 1998, Erap was runaway winner early on; and in 2004, even with FPJ getting the masa vote, the dice were loaded in favour of the incumbent impostor. In 2010, the best man just might win, and Ping hopes the electorate will adjudge him the best in the field.

Because of the intense disappointment with the system and the quality of leaders it has engendered, the likelihood of an atypical and certainly non-traditional politician being chosen by the people in 2010 is quite promising. Already, civil society and youth groups have launched search engines, preparing matrices of qualities they pine for in a redemptive leader who they hope would yet save this country from disintegration into anarchy.

What are these qualities they look for? Track record. Advocacies and congruence with their ideals. Integrity and adherence to principles. All are measures of competence and character; the first easy to quantify, the other difficult to fathom because of the noise of untruthful claims and paid propaganda. People have to scratch well beneath the surface, winnow chaff from true grain, and discover the real character behind the smiling faces and fatuous claims.

Those who know Lacson up close, who have worked with him, know that he has both the competence and the character for the presidency. As Chief of the PNP for a scant 14 months, he dazzled the nation with theretofore unheard of exploits. In short shrift, he got the erring policemen to return all the carnapped vehicles they kept in their custody and eliminated “kotong” which victimized drivers of jeepneys, taxis, buses, cargo vehicles. He unleashed the full force of the law against syndicates engaged in kidnap-for-ransom, bank robberies, illegal drugs and illegal gambling, on which last target he clashed with his own commander-in-chief. He chastised his generals for playing golf instead of faithfully doing their mandated tasks, and got everyone in the force to keep physically fit, the measure being the simple expedient of imposing a 34-inch waistline, max. The morale of the nation’s police rose to the highest levels, with financial resources previously kept by headquarters downloaded by the new Chief to each and every police station, making their peace and order capabilities magnified by decent wherewithal.

From the most distrusted agency of government, the police agency became the most trusted --- in less than a year, and Panfilo Lacson became the nation’s most popular official. But as fate would have it, his commander-in-chief, Joseph Estrada, floundered because a palace insider blew the whistle on the jueteng payola. But even whistle-blower Chavit swore that Ping refused the payola, and continued to raid the lairs of jueteng operators.

With the new president after Edsa Dos, Lacson’s fortunes quickly changed. As a senatorial candidate in 2001, he was hounded by a barrage of unsubstantiated charges which in the thick of the campaign, found him an easily-besmirched target. Even the Dacer-Corbito double murder was laid at his doorstep, simply because some miscreant police subordinates of some of his staff were supposedly involved, though possible motive may point elsewhere. Still, as if saved from the jaws of a rout, he and a few other oppositionists managed to get themselves elected into the rarefied circle of the nation’s “august”.

At the end of a very difficult campaign, after Lacson was finally proclaimed number 10 in a field of 13, I had lunch with Dona Gloria’s powerful secretary of justice, Nani Perez. Discussing the barrage of black propaganda they unleashed against my candidate, I told Nani they need not fear that Ping would be an obstructionist; that he could cooperate if the administration’s legislative agenda was for the nation’s good. “Ang problema, GMA sees him as the opposition candidate in 2004”, Nani wryly stated.

A well-meaning business executive who was friend both to GMA and Ping arranged a very private dinner in the Macapagal home in North Forbes, one night in June. There, the president asked the new Senator Lacson to cooperate in her legislative agenda, and the man graciously agreed. “Basta ho para sa bayan, hindi ako magiging hadlang”, Lacson said, and he thought the lady he supped with that night sincerely wanted to make good. Unknown to him, a few days before that meeting, a team of demolition experts composed of a Colonel Boogie Mendoza, Col. Mario Chan, Sgt. Egdon Liscano, Blanquita Pelaez, and Mary Ong Gaba alias Rosebud were sent by ISAFP Chief Victor Corpuz to the United States. They had a rendezvous in the West Coast with then Inquirer reporter Christine Herrera, to whom they supplied their bromide of fabrications, allegedly “hacked” from bank records, and pictures of real estate they claimed to belong to Lacson. Citibank immediately issued a letter to deny the information splashed in the front pages of the Inquirer, stating that the alleged account numbers do not exist in their system and practice. The real estate turned out to belong to other people, and the only property that was linked to Lacson was one townhouse in San Diego where a younger brother lived, which he bought and later sold, with a value of less than 200,000 dollars. The only bank account traced to the Lacson couple by the FBI itself amounted to a few thousand dollars, a far cry from the alleged 500 million, or more, that the Inquirer initially bannered.

Unaccustomed to the surreal political hostility, and confident of his personal reputation, Lacson faced a long-running investigation by his peers, co-chaired by administration apologists Joker Arroyo and the late Robert Barbers. He was pilloried by a concatenation of lies spun with clumsy strategy and dirty tactics. But the damage to his political career was deep. A year or so later, Ador Mawanay recanted his false testimony against Lacson, even Loren Legarda and Noli de Castro, pointing to Corpuz as the instigator of the hatchet job. Last year, Blanquita Pelaez likewise admitted that Corpuz and Mendoza, among others, instigated the fabrications at the expense of Lacson, and at the instance of shadowy figures in Malacanang.

Thus, in 2004, with Lacson still weakened by the sinister propaganda, the leaders of the opposition rode roughshod on his self-respect by railroading the proclamation of FPJ as their challenger against GMA. Treated like dirt by fellows he thought would give him level playing field, Lacson persisted in his candidacy. Unknown both to him and FPJ, as well as to Roco and Villanueva, the electoral results had been pre-fabricated in the PCIB provinces (Pampanga, Cebu, Iloilo and Bohol), and only when GMA demanded a truly convincing million-vote margin, did Garci have to double-time, with the assistance of the military and the police, in the cheating fields of Mindanao.

The leaders of the FPJ movement have not completely forgiven Lacson for forging ahead and not giving in to FPJ. They do not know the unusual, the atypical Ping. Even Erap cannot read Ping right. To this date, he has not forgiven Ping for daring to run despite his having chosen his dear friend FPJ. He ought to ponder upon why the same PNP Chief never agreed to “go slow” on jueteng, even if he himself “pleaded” the case of so many governors and mayors who were his political allies, especially Chavit Singson.

Because for Lacson, “what is right must be kept right, and what is wrong must be set right”. To traditional politicians, that is just a useful slogan, to proclaim without meaning. But to Ping Lacson, that is a motto from his PMA days that he swore to live by. According to the guy, doing right was instilled upon him and his siblings by his parents from childhood. Despite modest means, Lacson finished his education through the nation’s public school system, all the way to the Academy, and beyond, at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila where he earned a masteral degree in public governance.

And setting right what he sees as wrong meant bringing the fight against corruption to the halls of the Senate. There have been many such fights. In 2003, he exposed the untold wealth of one Jose Pidal, who the public knew to be GMA’s first gentleman, even if brother Iggy Arroyo claimed the dubious distinction. He exposed the fertilizer scam involving the first gentleman’s favourite Jocjoc Bolante. He linked the proliferation of jueteng to the influence exercised by the Arroyos over the national police. He delivered the privilege speech that blew the lid off the NBN-ZTE deal that shocked the nation in scope of shamelessness. He persuaded Jun Lozada to speak out the truth, which the latter did after agents of government tried to abduct him from the NAIA. And now, he has linked the first gentleman yet again to the contractors blacklisted by the World Bank. For all these, Ping Lacson is both hated and feared by Malacanang. They cannot cut conscript them into their coven. Neither could they temper his advocacies with funds, for he has voluntarily given up any claim to an annual pork barrel of 200 million each year, the only senator to consistently deduct his pork barrel from the annual budget.

Such strengths are also what makes him weak insofar as the support of the members of Congress is concerned. “Hindi nakikisama”, they often describe him. Indeed, this atypical public official dislikes transactional politics, and if elections were left to the command votes of the trapos, he would never win. But in 2007, when he sought re-election, he polled exceedingly high and placed number three despite modest campaign funds, even ahead of then Senate President Manuel Villar with his hundreds of millions and the support of the trapos.

While many see him as the uncompromising crusader against graft, and a leader possessed with political will, there are also a significant number who are afraid of these same qualities, perhaps fearing the dreadful possibilities of the so-called “kamay na bakal”, an image that Lacson has to temper if not soften. The compassionate side of the man has to come out, and the true story made known to as many. Lacson must show more heart, more warmth, because the electorate, quite unfortunately in this benighted land, is more tug-of-heart than cerebral.

In the year 2003, when Raul Roco was leading in the early presidential surveys, an old friend talked to me about helping the newly resigned education secretary. He wanted me to talk to Raul on that very day, but I asked him for time to think it over. The political technician in me thought of getting into Raul’s tent, if only to assess their strengths and weaknesses, for I had already made up my mind then to help Ping. So I talked to Ping about my plan, thinking that he would see the utilitarianism of my admittedly devious plan. Yet, in soft and brotherly mien, he chided me thus, “Isn’t that being dishonest?”

I was never more embarrassed, and properly chastened. From that time on, I became a loyal believer. The man has genuine character, and on top of grit and determined political will, he could be the man to turn this benighted land around.

A leader must have competence, character and charisma. But for two or three, the ten presidentiables have displayed enough competence. Character many do not possess. Charisma is something they have yet to show, between now and 2010, assuming there will be elections at all.