Whether or not this or that politician wants to run for President in 2010, and whether or not former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in particular is qualified to run again are both “non-stories” that are simply distractive and irrelevant at this time.
With the presidential elections so far away, the media are certainly not obliged to indulge anybody’s presidential fantasies, unless they want to distract our people from their daily struggle for moral, spiritual and physical survival., which is to misunderstand their purpose. There is a season for everything, and this is not the time to inflict anybody’s ego trip upon our people.
The nation has more than enough pressing problems, even as the global environment grows increasingly less simple. Those who covet the presidency (which is a job before it is anything else), will need to be motivated by a desire to solve the nation’s problems as their overriding objective, rather than by a mere desire to become “president.” They will need to articulate more clearly their vision for the country and their programs of governance at the proper time; but even now, they ought to be known for their principled stand on the issues rather than for any kind of clever opportunism.
This has to happen if the 2010 elections are to help construct a better future for all our people. Heaven help us if they become simply another popularity or name-recall contest with nothing to distinguish one candidate from another in terms of principles or programs. The need for far-seeing reform, in the face of profound and unheralded changes in our globalized world, cannot allow us to be led by men of ambition who will merely react to events. Our leaders ought to be able to anticipate and influence events.
The seeds of destruction have been sown, and the result is a deeply divided and fragmented nation. We are hearing the same question Rizal and Bonifacio had to answer in their time---reform or revolution? With every passing day, we are being asked to choose one or the other as division, instability and uncertainty deepen. Fundamental and meaningful reform alone, based on a clear consensus on what we must face and how we must face it, now and in the future, can hope to arrest our descent into revolution. The time to seek such consensus is now, before all ambitions get too fired up in the free-for-all for the sheer spoils of power.
The main protagonists in our prolonged internal political conflict could jumpstart the effort to build such consensus. No greater opportunity presents itself to all the parties. But do they see it at all? Does the administration seriously believe it could keep the status quo until 2010? Do the anti-Arroyo forces seriously believe the nation is aching to install the Chief Justice as interim president or imitate the Burmese and Pakistani political models? Are the factions so polarized, and what now passes for the nation so paralyzed, that we have lost all ability to find common ground anywhere?
Convinced of the need for regime change, anti-Arroyo forces have repeatedly demanded President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s resignation. She has resisted these calls, the impasse remains, and frustration and cynicism abound. Is it not time perhaps for the parties in conflict to sit down, in the same manner that belligerents in war sit down to discuss a possible settlement? Or is everyone so immersed in their own personal agendas that they have no time to think of how the nation will survive should factionalism and polarization persist, or should there be a total breakdown of the global financial system?
At the 7th Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade last April, I listened to South Africa’s former president Frederik Willem de Klerk explain how he and Nelson Mandela ended apartheid. He said he simply put himself in the shoes of the other guys and tried to understand why they wanted what they wanted. And everything else followed from there. Could we not learn from that experience?
A sincere dialogue could identify some points of convergence -- a common cause, a common ground --- where belligerents and non-belligerents alike could breathe together, even while the dispute persists. It could create a “zone of peace” in the middle of conflict, make sure the prolonged stalemate does not push the country to a final dead end. We cannot expect a one-size-fits-all approach to anything, but we need to have a common conception of, and commitment to, our transcendental goals and the democratic ethic by which we must pursue and achieve those goals.
Unwilling and unable to unite behind a political party or a political personality, we must now unite behind a common program. We need to ask ourselves: is there anything at all we still can do together as a people? Are there any areas of human activity where we can still work together as one family, for once putting what will make us a better nation above our narrow interests and personal ambitions?
Can we still rein in our passions and let reason teach us how to fix the wrong things we have been doing -- in politics, in the economy, in community life, in education and health care, in the administration of justice (which Rawls calls “the first virtue of social institutions”), in the exercise of accountability in public office, of social responsibility and individual initiative in business, professional and private life, in our daily discharge of the rights and duties of citizenship?
In looking to 2010 and beyond, can we not come into agreement on what kind of elections we are going to have, and what kind of government we shall support after the elections? Can we not agree that in order to level the playing field for all future elections, we must now put in the electoral reforms, and develop and promote the values needed to make those reforms permanently influence our political culture? Among these:
1. A law that will implement the constitutional ban on political dynasties;
2. A law that will require the state to assume a big part of the candidates’ election expenses in order to ease the financial burden of political parties and candidates;
3. A law that will declare a Senator automatically resigned if, at midterm, he runs for President, Vice President or any other office;
4. A law that will more readily allow the recall of a “popular” elected official who turns out to be immoral or incompetent or both;
5. An entirely modified and modernized voting and tabulating system comparable to the best in the world.
This list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. Can Malacanang and Congress now prioritize these measures, and others that may evolve by consensus, as proof of their sincere commitment to true democracy, development, and social progress? Will all our political, moral, spiritual, academic, media, business, civic and civil society leaders now come together and help build this common ground which we seek for all Filipinos? “The night is far spent,” we must prepare for a new day.