Desperate times, desperate measures

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Something positive could yet result from the Liberal Party’s (LP) failure to find a popular candidate: the possibility that rather than just another popularity contest, the 2016 presidential elections could be about issues and platforms.

In a television interview on Wednesday this week, the LP’s Franklin Drilon said President Benigno Aquino III is likely to announce after his July 27 State of the Nation Address his endorsement of Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II as the LP’s candidate for President in 2016.

If Aquino does that, it would mean the end of his and the LP’s search for a candidate with the popularity of a Grace Poe or a Jejomar Binay. Fielding Roxas for President will compel the LP to focus on the issues, in this case Aquino’s claims of good governance, and the supposed need for someone like Roxas to consolidate the gains he alleges he has achieved during his term and to build on them.

The level of discourse in 2016 could thus rise enough to compel the other candidates to offer their alternative platforms of governance (if they have any), and to address such issues as the shortfalls in social services, corruption, Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, and the unequal distribution of wealth, among a legion of others.

The crisis among the factions that call themselves political parties over whom to field is the consequence of a system in which winning an elective post is premised on popularity and name recall. Many have lamented that emphasis as the primary reason this country has had to deal with officials whose popularity is in far too many cases inversely proportional to their capacity to govern, or to even utter a straight sentence.

Popularity as the ultimate — and at times the only — criterion for elective office is so obvious a flaw that even some politicians themselves have had occasion to bewail it. Speaking to the media during the launch of his book the other day, for example, Fidel V. Ramos, who in 1992 became President by winning less than 24% of all the votes cast, declared that rather than being the first and last qualification for the Presidency, popularity “is the least of all qualities” leaders should have, “especially for a country as diverse as ours.”

Reiterating what has been painfully obvious to thinking Filipinos for decades, Ramos said a track record in government service and honesty are primary requirements, and that the ideal candidate should be free even from allegations of corruption. He also said that he or she should not be from a political dynasty. Ramos said he was not necessarily referring to anyone. But his statements could not but be interpreted in the context in which they were uttered.

If the surveys are to be believed, Senator Grace Poe is the most popular choice for President among the electorate, with Vice-President Jejomar Binay, who used to be first, in second place.

But the popular Poe’s track record in government service is limited, her service as chair of the Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board being her first involvement in government, from which post she migrated to the Senate. As popular as she is, she would not meet Ramos’ first condition. Binay, on the other hand, while possessing a long track record in governance, has been the subject of numerous allegations of corruption and official wrongdoing — and what’s more, doesn’t meet Ramos’ “non-dynasty” standard.

The closest to Ramos’ concept of an ideal candidate for President is Roxas. Roxas has been a congressman, a secretary of trade and industry, a senator, a secretary of transportation and communications, and now the secretary of the interior and local governments. Roxas has so far been free from allegations of corruption, and while some may claim that he too is part of a political dynasty since his grandfather was President of the Philippines and his father a senator, it could be argued that that was all of several decades ago.

The fly in Roxas’ ointment is his low numbers in both popularity and voter preference. As sound as the argument is that popularity should not be the primary qualification for anyone to run for an elective post, the reality is that it is, primarily because that is what the politicians have encouraged, and accustomed the electorate to expect. Although Roxas won a Senate seat with some 19 million votes, and for a time was the most popular choice for President, his giving way to Benigno Aquino III in 2010 seems to have adversely affected his approval and preference ratings.

In the calculations of both Aquino and the Liberal Party, Roxas’ popularity needs a massive boost from — who else? — Grace Poe, whom they apparently think would be his ideal running mate for Vice-President. Poe has repeatedly declined, but so desperate has the LP been that Aquino has met with her at least three times over the last three weeks in an apparent effort to make her change her mind.

The frantic search for a popular running mate for Roxas has reportedly led the LP to consider fielding Batangas Governor Vilma Santos for Vice-President. Santos won her present post through her popularity as a former movie star. Apparently, the assumption is that not only is she popular enough, some of that popularity could also rub off on Roxas.

As for Binay, he has so far not named anyone for his running mate in 2016. In an effort as desperate as the LP search for a candidate for Vice-President, Binay has gone to the extent of filing libel complaints against 12 officials, including two senators plus a Manila newspaper, in an apparent effort to make it appear that all the allegations of corruption that have been made against him are false so his approval and preference numbers could rise enough to defeat anyone the LP — or any other group — may field next year.

How many candidates for President there will be in 2016 would indeed be crucial, but not only for Binay. As in the case of Ramos in 1992, who ran against six other candidates, Roxas too could win an election in which there would be at least four candidates including himself. He has never said so, but Ramos was not a popular candidate, having won the Presidency by the lowest plurality in the history of all Philippine elections. In this country of endless possibilities, Roxas could yet be another Ramos.

The fielding of Roxas despite his low approval and preference numbers may be a desperate gamble for the LP. But it could help relegate popularity as a qualification for office behind such other, more legitimate criteria as those Ramos mentioned: experience and honesty, plus — Ramos did not mention it — a vision of where to bring this country.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
July 23, 2015

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