Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Desperately looking for “Mr. Clean”

Filipinos who have participated, as spectator, voter or active player in post-Pacific War politics are a disillusioned lot. They have been for a pretty long time.

They elected Manuel A. Roxas, the great and fiery orator and best friend of the US of A, and pinned their hopes in his leadership when the Philippines was recognized as “independent” by the “Great White Father”. The latter immediately showed Roxas and the Filipino people that no blessings came free. They exacted a high price for “independence”, including continued occupation of some 99 sites as military bases, and parity rights for Americans in the economy of the devastated nation. Roxas died shortly into his term, ironically succumbing inside “occupied” land, Clark Air Base in Pampanga. Elpidio Quirino succeeded him, and despite being hobbled by the Huk rebellion and the corruption of Roxas’ successors in the Liberal Party, he was able to slowly rehabilitate the country from the ashes of a cruel war. After a controversial election in 1949, where LP warlords got the birds and the bees to vote for Quirino in Lanao, his days were numbered, and with the help of the CIA, who never forgot how he as vice-president and foreign affairs secretary to Roxas, reduced through determined bargaining their 99 bases into two dozen, his young defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay, was overwhelmingly elected to the presidency.

Magsaysay was the first non-lawyer to be elected president since the Commonwealth, where the dynamic Quezon was political king. Osmena, the Cebuano lawyer, succeeded. In the wartime interregnum, Jose P. Laurel, brilliant Batangueno lawyer, was chosen by the Japanese. Roxas and Quirino were both lawyers. The Liberals derided Magsaysay’s credentials as a “mere mechanic”, which was counter-productive, for although “the guy” was not of humble origins, he connected to the poor as a mere mechanic, speaking their language, familiar with their ways, unlike the intellectually-remote statesman, Quirino. But like Roxas, Magsaysay died three years into his term, succeeded by his vice-president, another lawyer, Carlos P. Garcia of Bohol. He was followed to Malacanang by another lawyer, Diosdado Macapagal, who parlayed his definitely poor boy origins into the presidency. Ironically, he retired with his family in Forbes Park. Macapagal was defeated by another lawyer, the imposing Ferdinand Marcos of Ilocos, with a lot of help from beauteous Imelda Romualdez of Leyte.

Had martial law not intervened, a non-lawyer, jack-of-all-professions Benigno Aquino Jr. would have been the next president. But Marcos out-foxed everybody, and surprised the whole nation of 40 million with a military-imposed dictatorship. That was to last 13 years and a half. On his 11th year, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, which started the downfall of the dictator. Forced by American pressure to call for “snap” elections, the nation rallied behind Ninoy’s widow, whom the Marcos propaganda machinery derided as a “mere housewife”, “talagang walang alam”. The propaganda line became counter-productive when Cory admitted that she was indeed “talagang walang alam, sa pagnanakaw, sa pagpatay…”. The public was clearly disaffected, and they were desperately looking for someone “clean”, someone “un-tainted”, never mind if she was inexperienced in statecraft. At the end, EDSA’s symbol was a non-lawyer, a mere housewife, the widow of the man who would have been president.

But Cory was hobbled by an economy held hostage by gargantuan foreign loans, and several attempted coups coming from a fractious military who resented her being “soft” on their communist enemies. What began as a trek to national redemption became little more than a return to the traditional “forms” of democracy, lorded over by a return of the ways of traditional politics --- pork barrel, patronage, political feudalism. We have long been led by non-lawyers since. Ramos was a soldier, Estrada was an actor turned local politician, Gloria a textbook economist.

These days, after a miserably long reign spanning six years of dubious election and three years and five months of a “stolen” term, GMA desperately tries to hold on to power, and has kept everybody guessing on the multifarious options and sub-options she has plotted, from charter change to martial rule to failure of elections. On Monday next week, she is supposed to deliver her final State of the Nation Address before Congress in joint session assembled. She will attempt to trump her “legacy”, but the people know better. Whatever the list of projects, whatever the litany of “reforms”, the truth stares them on a seminal basis --- unemployment and underemployment, diaspora as only escape valve, corruption most gross, greater misery except for the few, disorder all over and war in the countryside and in the South, and all over ---the politics of hopelessness.

But next year is supposed to be the year when we select her replacement. Never before have so many sought, or pretend to seek, the presidency of the land. Vice-President Noli de Castro, former Pres. Joseph Estrada, Senators Francis Escudero, Richard Gordon, Loren Legarda, Manuel Roxas and Manuel Villar. Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and MMDA Chair Bayani Fernando. Bro. Eddie Villanueva and Bro. Mike Velarde, both evangelists of the born-again category. And now, Gov. Ed Panlilio of Pampanga, two years before an active Roman Catholic priest. Oh yes, Kapatiran, the openly theocratic party, mentioned one JC de los Reyes, a councillor from Olongapo. Are there any more?

Earlier. Senator Ping Lacson declared his withdrawal from the derby, followed though in rather uncertain terms, by Mayor Jojo Binay of Makati, who openly hopes to be Erap’s vice-president. It is speculated that Lacson could be the vice-presidential running-mate of Escudero, Legarda or Roxas, definitely none else.

Escudero, Gordon and Teodoro are lawyers, the first, at 40, the youngest candidate in the long list, the third the second youngest at 44. Roxas, 52, is an investment banker, who served in the cabinet of both Estrada and Arroyo. Villar, 60, is a multi-billionaire, who parlayed his wife’s real estate holdings in the suburbs into a giant real estate empire built during his years of political influence. Legarda, 47 and de Castro, 60, are broadcast journalists. Estrada, 73, while a college drop-out, was elected mayor, senator, vice-president and short-lived president. Fernando, 63, is a civil engineer. Bro. Eddie finished economics in college, became an activist, later a tele-evangelist. Velarde was, and is, a real estate businessman who has become a preacher of a Catholic born-again denomination. And Among Ed, until March of 2007, was a practicing diocesan priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

Because evangelists like Bro. Eddie and Bro. Mike have either thrown their hats into the ring or threatened in the past to do so, their appearance in the presidential lists are greeted with ho-hums. But the entry of Among Ed has been grist of the political mill for several months now. First built-up by Harvey Keh and his band of moralist-seekers in the Ateneo and beyond, some in media are now stripping the Panlilio presidentiality statement after statement, as if to reprise Cory Aquino’s reluctance in 1985. But as Cory’s entry was exciting, Panlilio’s is well, just curious.

For there is a basic difference. In 1985, the nation was seeking a figure who could unite the opposition, and more importantly, the people --- to rally against a well-entrenched dictator. They glossed over Cory’s lack of political preparedness, qualifications even, because they needed a symbol to rally to. What better symbol than the widow of Ninoy Aquino? Thus even Doy Laurel, Ninoy’s best friend, had to gallantly give way to his widow. Two against one became one versus Marcos.

But up until the 1987 Constitution and its confused multi-party set-up, our people were used to one-on-one battles. Quezon vs. Osmena, Roxas vs. Osmena, Quirino vs. Laurel, Magsaysay vs. Quirino. Briefly in the case of Garcia were four political heavyweights pitted against each other: the incumbent Garcia, the erudite and wealthy Yulo, the intellectual giant Claro M. Recto, and Manahan, the Magsaysay faithful. Then it went back to Macapagal vs. Garcia, briefly with a failed attempt by Manglapus to prevail over Marcos vs. Macapagal. Then Marcos vs. Osmena, and thereafter, until Cory and Edsa Uno threw him out to Hawaii.

From 1992 and onwards, it has always been a contest of many seeking one office. Seven sought it in 1992, another 7 in 1998, five in 2004. And in 2010, after the field has been winnowed, expect a minimum of four, and up to seven.

In 2009, the nation is not lacking in alternatives for 2010. But what it currently seeks, after suffering the years of lying, cheating and stealing, is someone best approximating “Mr. Clean”. In looking at Among Ed as Mr. Clean, as trumpeted by his band of motley followers, the voters have yet to inspect the rest of the field, as to whether they too are Mr. Clean, or failing to be super-clean, at best be close enough.

And this is where media and civil society, as seekers of and purveyors of the right information, should come up to the challenge and be useful to the voters of 2010 (if there will be elections, a caveat I still cannot give up).

Let us rate each and every candidate according to their public record of acts and statements, in terms of whether they have cheated, lied or stolen. It should be a pretty simple thing to do. Did Noli de Castro and Loren Legarda, as broadcasters and public officers, lie, cheat or steal, from public as well as private coffers? Did Mar Roxas and Manny Villar, both super-wealthy, earn their assets through lying, cheating or stealing, or abused their power and influence to obtain or multiply their wealth? Did Francis Escudero, as three-term congressman of Sorsogon, and within his two years in the Senate, commit acts of cheating and stealing, or has he lied in his several public statements? Ditto for Gordon, and Gibo, Bayani and whoever else. As for Erap, whose candidacy hangs on the lifeline of legal and constitutional question, beyond fact of conviction for plunder, do we as citizens believe he lied or stole, because clearly he never had to cheat to win (well, don’t ask me about mahjjong games).

There was one candidate who by most assessments did not steal from private or public coffers, eschewing even pork barrel, and in his time as PNP chief, stopped even petty corruption in the form of the kotong of public officers, and earned even his commander-in-chief’s ire because he dared to raid jueteng lairs of known compadres, and that was Ping Lacson. But he chose to bow out, precisely because he did not have personal resources, or could not get the backing of those who thought him pretty “unreliable” in quid pro quo. I did not influence that decision, and when informed, questioned the timing. But that is water under the bridge.

And the same scrutiny should now be focused on Among Ed. Did he, as priest and as governor, lie, cheat or steal? As priest, it is up to his parishioners and his superiors in the numerous Church, to speak up. As governor, his record must now be an open book. He earned more in one year than the Lapids in four terms combined as far as quarry fees are concerned. But is that all there is to aspiring for the top post in the land? And is that everything a gubernatorial post should achieve? Has Among Ed displayed the ability to unite his people and get them to work together for Pampanga’s welfare, which is a test both of competence and character? Does his governance of Pampanga stand as model for the rest of the country, beyond the accounting of gravel and sand?

Being perceived as “Mr. Clean”, I respectfully submit, is not enough.

In a larger sense though, and beyond the lying, cheating and stealing test, what the public should be looking for, if the elections of 2010 should proceed the way we know it should, is a “Mr. Right”.

Not right or left from Joma’s or Palparan’s ken of vision, but “right” as tested in the twin crucibles of character and competence. One for 2010 cannot be without both. Lying, cheating and stealing are tests of character, incomplete as they are, for character also means the ability to withstand fleeting pressure, and the strength to persist despite temporary setback. But passing the lying, cheating and stealing test is certainly no test of competence.

In our short history of 63 years as a “republic”, thirteen of which were under martial rule, there have been several instances when we succumbed to the cry of the moment --- to an idealist choice based purely on perceptions of character, or a genuine admiration of competence. Search from collective experiences, and read contemporary governance history. “Sawa na kami sa abogado…sundalo naman, or artista naman” should not willy-nilly transform into “pari naman”.

In the crossroads of our life as a nation, and 2010 certainly is, while nobody can ever be perfect, we have to choose based on an informed calculation of who best approximates our “Mr. Right” and not just our perceptions of a “Mr. Clean”.