Fiesta Elections 2004!

12 March 2004

Fiesta Elections 2004 will surely come to pass. Whatever the outcome, our brush with or opting for an FPJ presidency will be a passage in our history books that will be highlighted by generations of students of Philippine history to come.

by Peter Wallace
February 5, 2004

Quad erat demonstratum (translation: what you see, is what you get more or less). In this case it's about President Arroyo. And even though the economy did respectably well last year (4.5% GDP growth) businessmen continue to struggle. The mood is distinctly negative, with few in business making much money and many looking at a not so promising market prospect in the near term. It's a time of belt-tightening, not expansion. And there's a general concern that somehow the country is not moving forward.

This perception is driving future reality: Businessmen are not optimistic, not spending. Investors are deferring with the foreign ones going elsewhere (last year saw about half the investment of the previous year) to the permanent loss of the Philippines. I put it down to the image the President has projected. What is it? And that's the problem, no one seems to know. She's everywhere, in everything and, consequently, in nothing. She tries to please everyone (to curry votes is the widespread belief) and thereby pleases no one. This is a dedicated woman, determined to make her mark in history but being diverted by short-term exigencies. She's allowing herself to be positioned as a populist president. Waylaid by the sad belief in the Philippines that popularity is everything. And it's true, in the present, distorted system popularity can win elections.

Look at Estrada. Look at the widespread belief that Fernando Poe will win. What kind of society is that? It's one where the thinking class are not thinking. They have not, it seems, recognised the seriousness of the situation. They can influence the masses but they aren't - at least as actively as they must. In fact, in a recent meeting several leading Filipino businessmen were "charmed by Fernando Poe" and felt he could be a good president. A man with no, I repeat: no experience relevant to running a country. They wouldn't hire someone who was inexperienced to lead their business. Yet they pander to him, instead of denouncing him. I can give you names of business leaders (some of them these same ones) who fawned on Estrada because they thought that would be good for their business. Well it wasn't good for the country. It's time businessmen took a stand for what is right for the country, not just their own business. This is their country. It's a country down the tubes (just look at the statistics on Asia and where the Philippines lies if you don't believe me). Their businesses will thrive best not by being protected, or close to the powers that be, but by being in a dynamic, growing, open economy, where personal relationships are not necessary to get business. Just good performance.

The country needs a strong, determined, focused leader who is supported by the elite. Actively supported. But for the national good, not for their own vested interests. Just look at the U.S. The world's greatest economy because of its openness and fairness to all. With strong institutions and minimal political favouritism. Also, minimal corruption 20-30% of the economy is not being stolen. It's also a country with roads and railroads, phone lines and power. Public utilities that work.

It's no good arguing that the U.S. is an advanced economy, so we can't compare. The U.S. wasn't an advanced economy a hundred years ago. But it did the right things. If Americans can do it, so can Filipinos. In more recent times Koreans did it, so too did the Taiwanese. Even Malaysia and Thailand have moved more rapidly than the Philippines. And now Vietnam is beginning to move ahead.

And it's leadership that has done it. Marcos had it, but corrupted it. Mrs. Aquino didn't want it. Mr.Ramos had it but for only 6 years. Mr. Estrada couldn't spell it. The general consensus is that Mrs. Arroyo has had difficulty in taking that leadership role. At least this is so in the business community, where they believe that the qualities of a leader have escaped her.

The clearest example of this, they say, is her inability to have firm convictions and sense of direction and stick to them. She has swayed too often into populism, clearly intent on having a longer term. This has dominated her actions. So the question is: if given a fixed, 6-year term, with no chance of re-election will she change? It is, of course, a possibility. There's no question but that her overwhelming ambition has greatly coloured her decisions. Once there can be no more ambition (unless she does a Marcos) does she then decide her course, and stick to it? There are those who know her who say she will. But if that's the case why didn't she exert that single-mindedness and make the tough decisions she'd promised when she said she wasn't going to run. To this there's been no satisfactory answer unless, even then, she knew she didn't mean it. And that's possible too.

Even if we assume she is prepared to be tough minded the question still remains: will she have the leadership ability to get others to follow and bring the nation together - something it's certainly not now. In fact, the disaffection today is as bad as we've ever seen it. And an attempted coup is a most glaring example of that disaffection. Coups are not attempted against strong leaders. Nor does anyone take over a control tower to complain of the high level of corruption in government if there's a strong, respected leader. It's that simple.

Without that leadership quality the major, societal reforms needed can't happen. And the divisive environment (that the President admitted she was a contributor to)we've witnessed for the past 3 years is likely to be repeated. Particularly, as seems increasingly likely, the elections are chaotic1 and the results questionable But if not her, who? That is another question. And the answer is not particularly reassuring.

The opposition in its infinite (lack of) wisdom has chosen Fernando Poe, Jr. Nothing wrong with the man, they say, he's a decent sort, not the drunkard, womaniser that Estrada was (but are they aware he does drink quite heavily, and he does have at least one illegitimate son?). Their rationalizations border on the ridiculous. They are trying to project that a man with no political experience, no leadership history, no educational background can competently lead 82 million people. The fundamental assessment must be that he's not cut out to be president of a fractious struggling, failed economy. Yet that is what is being sold to the public.

And he knows it. In an interview with THE AUSTRALIAN newspaper (December 15)the newspaper asked "what do you consider to be the most significant event in recent Philippine history?" The quote from the paper: "He pauses for more than a minute before saying: "That's tough. I wasn't aware of what's really happening . . . My younger days it was all movies. Politics just passed you by'" Is this truly what the Philippines wants? Will he win? "All of us will vote for him" says a Manila street vendor. Why does she say so? "He is good-looking. He has no bad history. He helps people wi thout publicity, and his wife is very pretty and looks like a first lady (yes, that's what she said)." That he has no experience (of any relevant kind), no expertise in politics (He admits he's never even visited Congress or the Senate. And the palace only for parties.), or in management (running a limited film company, successful as it may have been, doesn't prepare one to run a country) or, in economics surely can't be qualification for running a country. Can it? His so-far cited priorities are: peace and security, agricultural reform and, education. Fine, but why? "because of his experience of visiting the rural provinces where his movies are shot." Hardly a professional way of determining a country's future. What is even more incredible is that he (according to the interview) admits he privately fears victory "I am terrified. And how."

So why on earth is he running? And if he does win, what then? The opposition claims (although they seem to have retreated from this stance recently) it will only be a transition presidency, there for long enough to effect a change in the constitution to a parliamentary system wherein a prime minister chosen by parliament would manage the country. The presidency becoming a mainly titular position. But President Arroyo also supported that shift, so they don't need to put up Fernando Poe to effect that change. They could just support Ms. Arroyo on an assurance she will lead into that transition. There's little likelihood they'd do so. So the real reason is something else. That something else is that they want the power. And the chief architect behind the move to draft Fernando Poe for the presidency was Senator Angara. So it must be logically assumed that Mr. Angara believes he can be the real power. Certainly he's a more formidable person than Mr. Poe. Well-educated, a long career in academic management (president of the University of the Philippines), a corporate lawyer, banker, legislator and former executive secretary and agriculture secretary under deposed president Joseph Estrada.

And now leader of the opposition. There are others, too, mostly from the Marcos era or who were close to Mr. Estrada (hardly the best recommendations for a leadership job in the Philippines). But they've overlooked one thing, as was clearly demonstrated in the Estrada regime. Once you are president you are president. This society forces the role onto the president whether he wants it, or not. Whether he's capable or not. And he takes it - whether he wants it, or not; whether he's capable, or not. So Mr. Angara, et al may think they'll be running the country, but they won't. The system won't allow it.

Where then are the alternatives? Mr. Roco and Mr. Lacson have some intriguing attributes - and could (or, of course, could not) be the leader this country needs. But in the reality of Philippine elections they have little chance of winning - unless a major upset occurs (e.g. Mr. Poe being declared a non-Filipino, something the evidence seems to point to. Although this won't necessarily be the final outcome).

Mr. Roco certainly gets a lot of support from the youth where he appeals to their idealism and has a loyal, volunteer staff working for him. But his egotism and unwillingness (according to his peers) to listen would put his ability to make the right decisions in serious doubt. And how will he get the cooperation of congress if they refuse to work with him because they don't like him in this personalistic society, which is what many of them have said? Not that that matters, leaders don't have to be liked, but they do have to be respected. But even there, there is some doubt. Teachers were openly antagonistic to him when he was secretary of education. But in fairness, this could have been, in part, because of the reforms he introduced and the crackdown on corruption he initiated. But it's not only a matter of doing it, but how you do it that matters. Maybe this is something he needs to learn. He is also hamstrung by limited funds and an inability to protect his vote. Unless hecan get enough volunteers trained in fraud detection, and tough enough to blow the whistle (a dangerous task given the ruthlessness of many politicians), he can't win. Particularly now a manual, manipulative system is back in place. Although, if Mr. Poe is eliminated and the opposition picks up Mr. Roco (which would be a smart move in their place, if they want to win) he'd stand a good chance. He could also swallow his ambition as Doy Laurel manfully did (when he stepped aside from a presidential bid in favor of Cory Aquino) and withdraw from the competition - and support Ms. Arroyo. She'd be much strengthened.

Then there's Mr. Lacson. He will have difficulty winning the presidency without the major opposition parties supporting him. He appears to be well-funded (certainly many in the Filipino-Chinese community are actively supporting him financially) and organised. But the massive party machine strength of Ms. Arroyo,and Mr. Poe could undo him. And he doesn't have the popularity, as Mr. Estrada did, to overcome those machines. He'd need Mr. Poe to be declared non-Filipino, and the opposition to fully support him for him to have a chance. Outside of Ms. Arroyo whose policies are now generally known, he's the only one those come out with some concrete statements of policies he'd adopt. And he's prepared to address the population bomb, which none of the others have, as yet, faced up to. As to the kind of leader he'd be he's an enigma. People either love him (well not love exactly, but respect and loyalty which, in this context, is better) or hate him, claiming he's ruthless and vindictive. Certainly he'd be a tough leader. The risk might be worth taking, because the country so desperately needs fundamental change. He could do it, but in which direction?

Then there are the others COMELEC agreed to include out of the 79 crackpots (yes, 79) who registered to run for the presidency:

- Bro. Eddie Villanueva ? a charlatan posinng as an evangelist
- Eddie Gil ? a businessman no one's ever hheard of

We will continue not to hear of them.

So it would seem the choice comes down to a woman who is intelligent, well-educated, obsessively hard working and determined to do well - but unable to gain the support needed to do so. She has just lacked that ephemeral thing called "leadership" so necessary to pull the Philippines out of the quagmire it has sunk into. Without it, (can she develop it?) the social instability we've seen over the past 3 years will inevitably continue as power-hungry losers attack her.

Or, a man who has admitted his unreadiness for the job - but still is prepared to do it. His naivet´┐Ż ´┐Żould cost the country dearly.

These are the two with the party, with the machine, with the money and public awareness to make them the front runners. Sadly, while each of the primary four candidates has strengths and could (or, at least, three of them could) lead the country with some competence they do not at this stage seem to be of a sufficient whole as to be that leader the country needs to make the massive, unpopular reform it must make. The message I want to get across is that none of them seems to have that combination of leadership qualities, single-minded vision and passion that could project the country's growth into the 7%+ bracket on a sustained basis. Without it the Philippines will remain trailing the rest of Asia. All indications are that Vietnam (now growing at 7%+ per annum) will be the next country to leave the Philippines in its dust. It's truly amazing that a country with so many natural advantages and such lovely people can squander them so wantonly. But it does. When, one wonders, will it sink into the collective leadership mind that they must truly act for the nation - not just mouth the platitudes that say they will.

Until they do act truly in the national interest, and work together, the Philippines will repeat its recent history - and just muddle along. At best.

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