Friday, February 13, 2009

The leader we need

Over the past six weeks, interspersed with more au courant topics, we have written in this space about the nine most-mentioned men and one woman who have either directly or through media speculations, indicated interest in running for Philippine politics’ top plum, the presidency after GMA. Just to refresh your memory, we first wrote about Erap (The Hamlet act, January 8), followed by Dick Gordon (What the difference a Dick makes, January 10), then Loren Legarda (Loren’s Sinta for 2010, January 13), Bayani Fernando (The misunderstood Bayani, January 15), and later Jojo Binay (Jobama, January 17). Then we wrote about Francis Escudero (Say Chiz and what do you get?, January 20), followed by Noli de Castro (Et tu, Noli?, Januray 27) and his Wednesday Group buddy-buddy Manny Villar (The Ethics of Mr. Itik, January 29), later Mar Roxas (What’s the matter with Mar?, February 3) and finally Ping Lacson (The atypical Ping, 12 February).

I started with the president I once served, as general manager and CEO of the Philippine Tourism Authority (June 30, 1998 till November 3, 2000), and concurrent Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs (June 30, 1998 till November 3, 2000), Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the darling of the nation’s poor. I ended with the man I have supported since he first sought elections, Senator Ping Lacson, who began his political career in February of 2001, running for senator in the aftermath of Estrada’s ouster, after a successful if brief stint as PNP Director-General from November 1999 to January 20, 2001. While I am (or used to be in one instance), on first-name recognition with all of them, I wrote with close familiarity on the first and the last in the series, Erap and Ping. Mar Roxas and I are friends from the Fernan days of 1991, and have been close together in Erap’s advisory circle. I’ve “been there, done that” since 1981, when Ninoy Aquino got me hooked on this “fever in the blood” called politics, and I thought this is an opportune time to share my views on these men who would be president.

Early last year, I suggested in this same space that civil society and media should get together and sponsor a series of debate-fora throughout the country’s 16 regions, the better to gauge the fitness, both intellectual and moral, of the many aspirants for the presidential derby of 2010. This, I wrote then, could be a simulation of the exhaustive debates and primaries that precede the choice of party candidates as they have in America. We do not have a two-party system as they do, and are plagued by a multiplicity of flags of political convenience. Pia Hontiveros of ANC, who hosts Strictly Politics, liked the idea, and interviewed me on TV about it. Three senators, one cabinet official and one mayor, directly or through media, agreed to participate if something like that could push through. But on February 6, 2000, the nation’s short-sightedness became even more disturbed by an aborted abduction of a prime witness in the ZTE-NBN scandal, and for a while, the dogs of abrupt finis barked at the unstable Arroyo government, as it did when the voices of Garci and she were revealed in 2005.

I have brought attention back to the onus of studied choice, in the hope, perhaps forlorn, that in 2010, the people of this benighted land will not again choose those who I constantly refer to as “the least among us to lead us”. For far too long, we as a people have been like the legendary Sisyphus, cursed to carry the burden of our hopes and dreams up a steep mountain, only to fall back each time. If we were to look at it from the economic assessment of stages of development, we have never “taken-off”. We keep building up towards pre-conditions to growth, always tried to fly, but never got past the runway. In the past decade even, we have retreated to the tarmac, measured in terms of the wretchedness of our poverty.

Which is why it is absolutely important that we choose the best among us to lead us beyond the abomination that is Gloria’s curse. And again as I keep repeating in this space and elsewhere, we have to carefully screen both competence and character, never mind the charisma that has always fooled us in the past. We have been swept away by the charisma of false political gods so many times in the past, only to realize years after, in the winter of our collective discontent, that we chose unwisely.

In the campaign of 1992, when I was working as spokesman for the Mitra-Fernan tandem, a journalist asked then candidate Mitra how he would govern the nation if he could at best only squeak in a tightly-contested race, and therefore, not have a “real” mandate. I have never forgotten how the late Tata Monching replied instantly --- “A president creates his own mandate”.

How true, except that it was Fidel Valdez Ramos, proclaimed winner after a see-saw canvass of votes that had him winning by a whisker, with only 23% of the electorate choosing him over a field of seven, who “created his own mandate”. Now FVR has little personal charisma. His words failed to inspire, and neither did he have the support of the country’s traditional politicians. He formed a party, Lakas-NUCD, out of a rib he fractured off the humongous LDP whose trapos chose Mitra over him, borrowed a band-aid strip from Raul Manglapus’ Christian Democrats, and then got incumbent Cory Aquino to bless his adventure. But his competence was clear, just as his rivals --- statesmen Laurel, Salonga and Mitra, firebrand Miriam, business empire- builder Danding Cojuangco, and the widow Imelda, once the most powerful woman in the country. His character many doubted, partly because they did not know him up close. But when he severed ties with his cousin Ferdinand Marcos the dictator, after serving him loyally for years on end, and finally took a stand in Edsa, his character shone. Many will yet dispute me on this, and perhaps only history will judge, but FVR kept the nation on even keel, started far-reaching reforms (though some disliked these with a passion) and made tough decisions when the same were needed. While I maintained strong doubts about his militarist background, he surprised me by being pacifist when he was president. He built bridges of understanding, instead of sowing more discord in a society already rent by the post-Marcos hang-over. Fidel V. Ramos created his own mandate, and capitalized on the built-in awe and respect for the institution, personal charisma notwithstanding.

I see 2010 as similar in many ways to 1992. The surveys show that there are no clear favourites as yet. There is no narrowing of the field similar to 1998 when it was clear early on that it would be either Erap or Gloria. When the latter sled down to become Joe de Venecia’s vice-president, the coast was clear for Erap. The surveys also reveal that the early leads have been a function of boob-tube presence, made mostly through paid advertising. It is still anybody’s game for six presidentiables --- Noli, Loren, Villar, Chiz, Ping and Mar, plus of course the chancy candidacy of Erap. It is going to be rather improbable for my friends, namely Dick, BF and Jojo, to qualify for the starting line. I may be wrong, for as I said in previous articles, one year is a long, long time in Philippine politics.

I attempted to list down the variables and the givens in the linear equation that political forces will perforce balance if there are elections under the same system in May of 2010. I still have this queasy feeling in my gut that the system may yet be sundered --- either by deft and scheming political maneuvers of Gloria and her cabal, or by a revolution in whatever form.

But, ceteris paribus, or all things being equal, as the economists always preface their equations, the probability of someone else entering the ten names I have written about, to repeat --- Noli, Loren, Villar, Chiz, Ping, Mar, Dick, Bayani, Jojo and Erap, is rather low. The exceptions to the lay of our political game happened when a reticent FPJ suddenly entered the scene, and discombobulated the equation.

There is another very important factor to consider, a major difference between the 1992 contest and what could be next year’s. Then, Cory Aquino was not a hate figure. As incumbent, and as the repository of the loyalty of a great part of civil society, her endorsement had quantifiable political value. If she had not anointed FVR, he surely would not have won. Today, despite incumbency, all but fifteen percent of this country hate Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and of the 15% who approve her yet, less than half would vote for whoever she endorses, and assert their independence of choice. Call it “kiss of death” if you may, but for her unquestioned ability to do anything and everything to pursue her amoral ends (read that as resources plus cheating operations), she would be better off just fading into the political sunset (though this is not likely).

Also, it would be foolish to assume that we will have a single “opposition” candidate. Perish the thought this early. Candidates will be chosen not on the basis of their administration or oppositionist leanings. First, because if elections push through, Gloria would not only be lame-duck, she would be pariah in most people’s sentiments. Second, because defining who is truly oppositionist is an exercise in futility. But for two or three, no one will strictly qualify, as loyalties in our crazy political set-up are mix-and-match, very situational rather than principled.

Candidates will be screened according to their track record, their steadfastness to principle, their platforms if any. While it may be reasoned that I speak only for the middle-class and up when I state this, I believe that the hopelessness of the socio-economic and political environment would goad even the masa to take stock, think, and think twice, before paying with their votes the money that trapos will give. That of course is a role cut out for church groups, civil society, the youth, and of course, the pervasive media. They must help in the process of informed choice, and insofar as the presidency is concerned, 90% of the population, I believe, will sit up and listen. I still have faith in the Filipino, even if there are times when I want to give up. The local trapos, like always, will be too busy with their own local fights, and will just take the money of the national trapos, period. Command votes will probably deliver only in the case of Zaldy Ampatuan and his ilk, but again, because his landlady, his boss woman will soon be functus oficio, he will paddle his own canoe for survival’s sake. He will be up for grabs, so to speak.

Who is the leader we need? It cannot be one who has stolen from the kaban ng bayan, whether proven, or where the preponderance of proof, but for our “fixable” prosecutorial and justice system, is evident. It cannot be one whose sense of the moral or immoral has allowed his conscience to take advantage of the poor and powerless, in business or political endeavours. It cannot be one who has refused to learn, either because of inherent lack of comprehensive prowess, or because of sloth. It cannot be one who, having been given a position of responsibility, has acted irresponsibly or did not learn from human mistakes. Bawal dapat ang bobo, at bawal ang tamad. The nation and its population of close to a hundred million, can no longer endure another flirtation with shallowness. The next leader should be one who has stood for principle, and as best as possible, been unwavering in his written or spoken commitments. These are some of the measures of competence and character.

For better or for worse, there will be an NPC candidate, either as a stand-alone party, or in combination with like-minded traditional parties. It could be Lakas, Kampi, both, or huge fractions thereof, depending on how the negotiators on both sides will transact their political sosyo-sosyo. The old pre-martial law parties will plant their flags in the presidential derby of 2010, the Liberal Party better situated than the Nacionalistas, the latter being a party of, by and for one man, Manuel Villar. The fortunes of the NP are ineluctably bound to the political fortunes of Villar; the LP has freedom of choice, on the unlikely probability that its prince, Mar Roxas, should “pass”. If the NPC and Dona Gloria cannot come to terms, then Lakas-Kampi will have to find a candidate, and the most likely “saviour” would be Vice-President Noli de Castro. Or, (do not discount the possibility), they might yet tap a Gilbert Teodoro or a BF, or even a Ronnie Puno. Dick Gordon is not likely to fly the standards of Kampi. That both parties will disintegrate into fractions before January 2010 is likely, with a pro-FVR and whoever else left with JDV coalescing with another party.

If Erap runs, there will be a PMP. Like Villar’s Nacionalistas, the glue that binds the party together is one person. If NPC chooses Chiz over Loren, she would perhaps resurrect whatever remains of Ed Angara’s LDP. Smaller but tightly-knit parties like PDP-Laban, if they could go beyond their narrow and temporary alliance with Erap’s PMP, and champion their own presidential candidate, could yet become another major player. The so-called United Opposition or UNO, has become political farce. Candidates like Ping, Loren (assuming Danding ditches her for Chiz) and Noli (if he is minded to run, or if he is jettisoned by GMA for the NPC candidate) would likely cobble a coalition of parties, and this is where even moribund vehicles like Reporma and Aksyon Demokratiko could be useful. Philippine politics under the present system is hopelessly personal, and parties are of lesser significance. If one does not own shelter, he could always rent one.

Chiz or Loren will run as the NPC candidate. If the NPC allies with GMA, in pursuit of the same alliance that has been mutually beneficial to both she and NPC’s bosses, Loren will likely not be the candidate. The Nacionalistas will field Villar, assuming he is still willing to bet his own real estate fortune in running. The Liberals will field Mar, assuming he himself does not lose heart, in which case, they mat cast a wider net. Fractions of Lakas and Kampi will congeal towards other candidates, whether Noli or Ping or Loren. Whatever is left of FVR’s Lakas just might stubbornly field the stubborn Bayani Fernando. PMP will have Erap, with PDP’s Jojo Binay as his vice-president, if KBL’s Bongbong Marcos does not beat him to it.

So there you are --- my scenario for 2010, again with the caveat that first, I still am not too convinced the road is clear towards elections, and second, my personal belief that reforms will be slow and tedious even if we are able to elect the best instead of the least, such that to me, only revolutionary catharsis, admittedly a giant leap of faith, can bring about meaningful change. Only a discombobulation of the puerile and destructive system would give this benighted land a chance at redemption.

Next week, circumstances permitting, we will ask --- Is there no one else?