Politics as slapstick

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

The Philippine media as of this writing (December 16) was having a field day reporting the “slapping challenge,” the fistfight, or even the gun duel between Rodrigo R. Duterte and Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II. Both, for the enlightenment of anyone who’s been living in a cave during the last six months, are running for the presidency of the Republic. Either — imagine that — could actually end up governing it for the next six years after the 2016 elections.

If the prospect of either of these two gentlemen’s being president seems too incredible and chilling for words, consider this: the country has arguably had worse so-called heads of state than the present lemon it has, although the possibility that Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. could be vice-president in 2016 (he’s number two in the surveys) and in 2022 president would be in contention for the grand prize in the Philippine theater of the absurd.

Speaking of the absurd, presidential hopeful Duterte, who, after months of equivocating, has finally declared himself a candidate for the country’s highest office, said that if they ever meet in the course of the campaign, he’s going to slap the Liberal Party’s Manuel Roxas II for saying that Davao City’s reputation as a safe city is a myth.

The “punisher” claimed — as if it were the most important thing in the world — that it’s Roxas’ graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business that’s mythical.

“You did not graduate from the Wharton School of Economics, Mr. Roxas. Wala ka doon sa listahan (Your name is not on the list) that you have completed a four or five year course for a degree. Your name is not there. ”

Instead of ignoring the taunt, or refusing to honor it by not replying in kind, and thereby taking the moral high road, Aquino III’s would-be successor decided to out-macho his rival by saying that if his Wharton degree “is not for real (sic), he may slap me. I won’t avoid him. But if my Wharton degree is for real, I’ll slap him.” What’s more, said Roxas, he would write Wharton for documentary proof that he did graduate from that School (which incidentally Duterte kept referring to as the Wharton School of Economics instead of as the Wharton School of Business, the Wharton School, or simply as Wharton).

As if his attempt at demonstrating his alleged maleness by agreeing to be slapped if he’s been lying was not enough, Roxas threw in the claim that “we’re all men here, are we not?” (Are we? Isn’t more than half of the population women?)

Duterte’s popularity among certain types, he must have been thinking, is after all based on his “maleness,” as supposedly evident in his womanizing, his free use of profanities, and, of course, his advocacy of execution for criminals. Currently running third or fourth in the surveys, Roxas apparently thought that he could earn a few brownie points by aping Duterte, even if only for a few seconds.

Duterte later raised the challenge to either a fistfight or a gun duel, about which the media even asked Commission on Elections Chair Andres Bautista if he could referee a boxing match between these two worthies of the Philippine political menagerie.

Unnoticed through all this display of macho ludicrousness was the “we’re all men here” comment of Roxas and Duterte’s dismissing a slap fest as something only women do — both of which are sexist remarks that should be enough for any woman voter to vote for someone else.

Least of all did it occur to anyone to ask whether Roxas’ Wharton experience if not degree has prepared him any better for the presidency, or to question the claim that Duterte’s interminable watch as Davao City mayor makes him fit for the same post. For that matter, what in their experience, background, and track record in governance qualifies them for the highest elective post in the land should be asked of every one aspiring for it, whether it’s Grace Poe, Jejomar Binay, or Miriam Defensor Santiago.

But as if by common agreement, everyone including Duterte assumed that graduating with an MBA (that’s the degree it’s known for) from Wharton was by itself proof enough of one’s fitness for the presidency, thus their focus on whether or not Roxas did graduate from that institution, rather than on what it would mean for the Philippines if he did — or did not.

That no one really cares to ask what in their backgrounds and experience qualifies a candidate to run this country demonstrates, more than anything else, that even the electorate isn’t taking Philippine elections seriously. After all, few have seriously asked that question of any one of the individuals who, over the last 29 years since EDSA, became president of the Philippines — and the voters certainly did not raise the question in 2010 when the presidency fell like manna from heaven on Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s lap.

But the slapping, fistfight, or duel challenge did get Roxas and Duterte in the news pages and the network news. Unbeknownst to either, few Filipinos were buying into it as something that could prove anything as to their fitness for the presidency. Most Filipinos were sniggering in amusement — as, this early and two months before the actual campaign, they’re already being entertained, thus proving once again that Philippine politics is a major source of Filipino diversion.

Not only God but every politician in this land also knows that Filipinos can use a lot of distraction.

This is after all the country where words such as “tuwid na daan” (the straight path), “human rights,” “democracy,” “the end of poverty,” “reform,” and “inclusive growth” mean the exact opposite, or mean nothing at all when they fall from the lips of officialdom. This is where the world’s worst traffic mess has been described as a sign of development; and where the increase in the number of OFWs returning to the country for Christmas is interpreted to mean that there are more jobs available in this country, while 6,000 Filipinos leave daily for employment in places whose names they can’t even pronounce.

As they wage a daily, unremitting struggle against pollution, crooked officials and murderous policemen, holdups and rapes, the sky high prices of the basics of existence, and a transportation system made in hell by some of the most corrupt and most incompetent bureaucrats on planet earth, the long-suffering Filipino at least has the monkeyshines of politicians to look forward to every three years.

Far, far from divine, but a comedy nevertheless, Philippine politics is both the cause of the terrible realities of existence as well as the means of Filipinos’ distraction. It is all at their expense, of course, the laughs concealing the tragedy behind the whole, every-three-years’ exercise in futility: a circus cum freak show that’s been running for decades with no end in sight.

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
December 17, 2015

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