Sunday, December 2, 2007

In Washington, D.C. last month, I had the chance to follow the CNN-sponsored presidential debate, featuring Senators Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and five other Democratic hopefuls. Each one tried to appeal to their tv audience, but somehow I felt the most engaging American minds were not there. I found myself for the nth time agreeing with Walter Bagehot’s claim in The English Constitution that the parliamentary system is likely to come up with more substantial political leaders than the presidential. Nonetheless, there was no mistaking how seriously each one wanted to become their party’s standard bearer.

Back home, I had not completely overcome my jet lag when I saw the footage of Senator Mar Roxas’s coronation as Liberal Party president. Nothing should take your breath away about the presidency of a political party, especially one that has been recycled after more than twenty years of being inactive. But this was a pompous extravaganza completely out of proportion to its legal cover. It was clearly calculated to project Mar Roxas’s presidential candidacy in 2010, and it made no bones about it. Oras na! (repeated several times).

Some people could wear their presidential ambition like mumps, if they don’t mind the aesthetics. But everything in its place. The extravaganza would have been expected in 2009 or even late 2008, but not now. Indeed, because of its proximity to the 2008 United States presidential election rather than to the 2010 Philippine one, one was momentarily misled into thinking that Mar Roxas was out to dislodge Hillary or Obama from the Democratic race.

Everything about it seemed wrong. First of all, it was being held amid foul weather. The nation, Bicol region in particular, was bracing for yet another super-typhoon, and the news headlines were all about Albay Governor Joey Salceda trying to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Albayanons in preparation for the typhoon. The region had not completely recovered from the last super-typhoon that had buried whole families in Albay and destroyed at least 25,000 homes in Catanduanes. It was simply not prepared for a new one, or for some people’s presidential ambitions. Neither was the nation.

Not to be outdone, Villar followed with his own launch. Since then the Nacionalista Party commercials have tried to edge out the Christmas carols in the air. As its last secretary-general before the NP went under the KBL juggernaut during martial law, I am familiar with how its old political leaders lent their substance to the party. But it will take more than ambition or money to regain that glory. The same with the LP.

In fact, the past record of these two parties is what shows up the tatterdemalion politics of their new leaders. The 2007 senatorial elections showed their utter lack of principles. Both the NP and the LP fielded three senatorial candidates each on the two opposing 12-man senatorial tickets---one candidate each under Team Unity (TU), two candidates each under Genuine Opposition (GO). The NP also ran one senatorial candidate whose sister was already sitting in the Senate until 2010. Neither the LP nor the NP said it was wrong for candidates to spend hundreds of millions of pesos to land a job that paid less than one million pesos a year. They still are not prepared to say so.

Where the party processes are alive and well, it matters not if one announces his desire to become president upon reaching the age of puberty. The party convention, which is normally held a little before the start of the legal campaign period, ultimately decides. But where every candidate is self-proclaimed, without his peers having to anoint him in a party convention, one who heads his own party and has billions to burn becomes a candidate the moment he says so.

Such is the case of Mar and Manny. They are not going to submit to an UNO or GO convention in 2009 or 2008; they are presidential candidates as of now, three years before d-day. Not because the masses madly want any of them to run, but because they have lots of money to throw away. The 90-day legal campaign period is only for those who take the law seriously.

But until the presidency is formally put up for sale to the highest bidder as in Christie’s or Sothby’s, it seems reasonable to require those who want to become president to show some principled stand on fundamental issues, and some ideas on how to address the country’s most serious problems.

For instance:

There’s no end in sight to the war in Mindanao. What ideas have we heard from the “presidentiables”? None.

Family incomes are declining amid claims of economic growth. Access to health services and educational standards are falling, while hunger and homelessness are shooting up. What have we heard from them? Nothing.

The national debt continues to climb, so does the national budget. But the country’s infrastructure remains degraded and the basic services under-funded because of syndicated corruption disguised as pork and perks for the elected and the Comelected. What concrete proposals have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

Many can no longer seem to distinguish truth from lies, good from bad, right from wrong. What have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

The weakening of the dollar and the artificial rise of the peso is hurting the very people who are bringing in the dollars---the 12 million or so Filipino overseas workers and the last remaining exporters who have not been wiped out by the Chinese. What have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

The political stalemate between the administration and the opposition continues. Members of the Executive Department continue to ignore summonses from the Senate in violation of the Constitution. Too many investigations are piling up in the Senate but not a single court case against the alleged grafters. What are the “presidentiables” saying? Nothing.

Last July, the Senate’s inaugural session was presided by a senator who did not have the legal authority to do so. Last week the Senate allowed a Cabinet member to speak at the plenary session during the budget debate, in violation of the Rules. Senators habitually use unparliamentary language, without it being expunged from the record. What have the Senate “presidentiables” done about these? Nothing.

The electoral system is thoroughly corrupted. We need a brand-new Comelec, computerized counting, and some basic electoral reforms as a precondition for the next election. We also need a law that would bar political spending beyond what an elected official will earn legally from his elective office. And a law that considers automatically resigned a sitting senator who runs for President or Vice President at midterm. What are the “presidentiables” saying? Nothing.

A few days after the Roxas- Villar launch, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and Brig. Gen. Danny Lim, both under military detention on charges of coup d’etat, walked out of the courtroom in Makati, marched to the Peninsula Hotel some five kms. away, and kept the police at bay for most of the day. The standoff ended only after the police drove an armored personnel carrier into the lobby and arrested everyone, including one retired bishop, one priest, one former vice president, and all the mediamen covering the event. The police then declared curfew from midnight to five a.m. without a prior proclamation of a state of emergency.

What have we heard from the “presidentiables”? Nothing.

While Trillanes and Lim premised their action on well-known grievances against the Arroyo regime, some have suggested that the ill-disguised premature presidential campaign may have caused them additional pain. Thus they struck back by displacing the high-octane premature campaign from the political headlines and the tv screen. If only for that, the apparently unplanned exercise did achieve something, after all.

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