Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is there no one else?

Last Friday, we described in this space what to our mind are the parameters of informed choice, for the kind of president we should elect in 2010. We have described ten presidential wannabe’s in previous columns. In the order of our articles, they have been former president Joseph Estrada, Sen. Dick Gordon, Sen. Loren Legarda, MMDA Chairman Bayani Fernando, Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, then Sen. Francis Escudero, Vice-President Noli de Castro, Sen. Manuel Villar, Sen. Manuel A. Roxas, and Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson. Ten in all. These are the names most often enumerated by media, and the ones most often included by the pre-campaign poll surveys. But are there any others waiting for their “timing” to announce their candidacies?

Over the weekend, Quezon City Mayor Sonny Belmonte categorically declared before the Kapihan sa Sulo forum that he is not running for president, dashing the hopes of some Lakas faithful that he could be their standard-bearer. Sonny knows best. I have always known him to be a man who weighs his chances carefully, and he knows that a presidential run at this time is “suntok sa buwan”. Never mind that he has proven competence in administration.

Administration loyalists are also thinking of Gilbert Teodoro, who has been competently running that staff department called National Defense. Early last year, when we bumped into each other at the wedding of Anthony Taberna and his lovely Roselle , Gilbert hinted at a desire to seek the highest post in the land. I told him that he needed to show both his wares and intent early on. He has been coy. And his own uncle, Ambassador Danding Cojuangco, owner of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, had formally announced that the party will choose between Senators Legarda and Escudero. One cannot fathom Gilbert running for president under a Lakas-Kampi coalition without the blessings of his uncle, who has been his political “father”. It is against the political culture of this country.

Groups like Kaya Natin have floated names like Among Ed, the embattled governor of Pampanga, Gov. Grace Padaca, a giant-killer five years ago when she broke the Dy dynasty in Isabela, and remarkable Jesse Robredo, umpteenth mayor of Naga City. The last two have been Magsaysay awardees for public governance, no mean feat indeed. But check out their awareness in an electorate of 40 million, and see how difficult the road ahead could be. I have kept saying that one should not run for senator of the land if a year before elections, his or her awareness level as measured by the surveys falls below 70%. You’d be surprised to note that persons more often in the news than these three have awareness ratings no higher than 40 to 50%. If any of the three should now announce that they are available for the senatorial slate of say, the Liberal Party, of whom the last two are card-bearing members, and accompany the announcement with familiarization trips across the archipelago, they ought to hit awareness levels of 70% by September this year. But the presidency? That’s a pipe dream, where the ten names we have described in our articles all have anywhere from 95 to 100 percent awareness levels.

I hate to be a wet blanket to the dreams of the idealistic Kaya Natin and their adherents, but political reality must set in. Kapatiran, the political party launched years ago by Nandy Pacheco, has been at it for a decade or so, and the highest number of votes a senatorial candidate of theirs garnered in 2007 was about half a million. One needs more than 11 million votes to be Number 12 in the next senatorial polls. Theirs is a laudable quest, but the system we operate in cannot change overnight.

This is not to detract from the competence of Padaca or Robredo, which have been demonstrated. This is not to pooh-pooh Panlilio’s singular feat of increasing quarry collection fees in Pampanga, manifold times over the Lapids, pere et fil. But they have yet to capture the nation’s imagination, let alone attention. Padaca and Robredo are excellent cabinet secretary material in a future administration, and that should give them the exposure needed to bag a Senate seat, and perhaps later, the presidency. But it’s definitely early days, whatever the bloggers spread.

So, is there no one else?

One name that has particularly caught the attention of the thinking crowd is that of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno. His low performance approval ratings as head of the Supreme Court is attributable to low awareness of the position among the masa, and second, his family name is often confused for Dona Gloria’s interior secretary and political Rasputin. The Chief is hardly related to Ronnie the Tree, but people do not know that.

But he has maintained, against a preponderance of numbers in his own court, the independence and institutional integrity of the highest magistracy. That has created believers among thinking society, who keep searching for one man to best approximate the “untainted, un-tarnished, un-controversial” character they seek in the next person to lead the land after the abomination. His stock rose when the lackey of a most controversial former congressman attacked his integrity over a mediocre ponencia written by a mercifully retired associate justice, the promulgation of which was withheld by his peers en banc. Noises about possible impeachment by a House of thieves made Puno loom even larger in the esteem of civil society.

Then, when he delivered a speech before young businessmen about the need for a “moral force”, using Confucian writings about the primacy of trust and credibility in national leadership, no less than a presidentiable, Senator Ping Lacson, endorsed him for the presidency, and declared that he would defer to the Chief Justice should the latter decide to run. Of course, Puno has refrained from taking the bite, but his name continues to reverberate among thinking society. It was reported yesterday that the CJ will launch the “moral force” along with civil society and religious leaders before the Holy Week. Will the moral force become a vehicle for political participation in 2010?

Let me now walk our readers through the Fernan experiment in 1991. I was one of those who were unimpressed with the list of presidential; wannabe’s for 1992. Either they were good, but not winnable, or, they were winnable, but they were not good enough. There was Vice-Pres. Doy Laurel, Senate Pres. Jovito Salonga, Speaker Monching Mitra, Ambassador Danding Cojuangco, Sen. Joseph Estrada, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, and Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos. Note that all of them, but for Imelda, came from Luzon.

I walked to Sen. Orly Mercado one fine April morning in 1991, and asked him to consider endorsing Chief Justice Marcelo B. Fernan. The man’s integrity was unsullied; he was not exactly a stranger to politics, having won overwhelmingly in 1984 as opposition member of parliament in Marcos’ Batasang Pambansa. Political arithmetic, I said, would take advantage of his being a Cebuano, and the Bisaya-speaking population of the country constituted 34% of the voters, a huge political force if united behind an “inato” candidate. It was, I reminded Orly, more than 30 years since the Cebuano-speaking nation had a president, the last one being Carlos P. Garcia of Bohol. On May 1, 1991, Orly and I flew to Cebu, and in a Labor Day speech, he entered Celing Fernan’s name in the presidential derby.

Immediately thereafter, Cebuano-speaking senators John Osmena and Boy Herrera seconded Orly, and later, even Ed Angara of Aurora. A secretariat to drum interest in the latecomer included Gov. Lito Osmena and his brother Tomas, now mayor of Cebu City, Lito Atienza, Mar Roxas and myself. Civil society took notice. The late Cardinal Sin was enthusiastic. Even President Cory was quietly encouraging. Things would have been different if Fernan took the political plunge two or three months after Orly’s announcement, but Mano Celing took so many months of agonizing whether to take a leap of faith, as against many more years in the Court as its Chief. When he finally took the leap, and resigned as chief magistrate, it was already the first week of December, less than sixty days before the starting bell of the campaign. Enthusiasm had waned, and in the end, we had to settle for vice-president, in tandem with Mitra of the humongous LDP. Mano Celing eventually became senator of the realm in 1995, and in 1998, Senate President, but died two years after.

If the Chief Justice should deign to take a political hat, and throw the same into the presidential ring, it would be best to take lessons from the unfortunate Fernan quest eighteen years ago. Of course, these are different times, and perhaps the despair over the system and its self-perpetuating cycle of shameless trapos could get enough people to take a long hard look at the chief magistrate as potential chief executive. Perhaps if civil society and respected religious sectors rallied around him, after no less than a senator-presidentiable announced he would support Puno, the tide of low awareness and even lower vote conversion could yet be reversed. But time is of the essence, and that runs fast.

Parenthetically, the clamor for the Chief Justice could also take the form of heading a transition government, a revolutionary mechanism proposed by many of those disenchanted with the decrepit political system. Given his competence and what we have appreciated of his character, Reynato Puno would indeed make such an excellent leader in transition. But that is a big IF, and as 2010 comes closer, chances of such catharsis materializing get more and more remote. At the risk of being called a subversive, I have always supported systems change, but not in the manner proposed by the unrelenting and irredeemable trapos who espouse cosmetic and self-serving charter change. The present polity, to my mind, sucks. It has kept us all benighted. But until circumstances and the political environment conspire to produce the culture for such germ of revolution to flower, we have to pin our hopes on a flawed system that just might produce a strong and incorruptible leader who will, after electoral victory and despite tremendous odds, change that hopeless system.

And because Filipinos take a long time to familiarize themselves with political candidates, pervasiveness of media notwithstanding, the chances of having someone outside the circle of ten entering the presidential fray are low. Of course, this is not doctrine, it is fair forecast.

What concerned Filipinos should do is make a mental matrix of the qualities needed in a president for these desperate times, and rate the ten against such desired qualities. Certainly, there are good persons among the ten. There are brilliant persons among the ten. There are persons with proven track records in their public life among the ten. There are persons among the ten whose political will and strong character have been demonstrated in the past and present. Just as there are people whose fitness for the office have been beclouded by issues of corruption or taking advantage of position for personal profit.

In sum, except for the possibility of a Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, there shall be no one else but the ten, namely: Ping, Mar. Loren, Chiz, Manny, Noli and Erap, plus BF, Dick and Jojo --- from whom to choose who should lead this benighted land out of the pits of its collective despair, if we have elections in 2010.

* * *

Just to underline how Dona Gloria continues to abuse the presidential power of appointments, she recently allowed an ailing Ramon Revilla Sr. to retire as chair of the Public Estates Authority. But guess who she named to replace him?

Why, Revilla’s son-in-law, former senator and former basketball superstar Robert Jaworski! All in the family.

And read more: El Esposo’s lawyer Ruy Rondain has been rewarded for representing his client, aside from legal fees, of course. His wife Cielo, or Chelo, has recently been appointed Assistant Solicitor General. Not that Agnes Devanadera wanted her, but what could she do? No wonder Agnes is dying to be appointed to the High Court. And if she finally gets her wish, who will be the new Sol-Gen? Think about it, and weep.