Coming this May: more of the same

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Despite hopes for the contrary, the May 10 elections are likely to result in the same thing Philippine elections have been noted for since 1947: the triumph of money, of alliances of convenience, and the use of public funds for private ends.

The trapos call it democracy. But it’s no more than traditional elite politics, the poor being so out of it except as window-dressing for the futile exercises Filipinos call elections.

The practice of elite politics demands, in the first place, huge war chests running into the billions on the part of those running for national office, and millions even to run for councilor.

The candidate’s finances are thus the first thing the Commission on Elections looks into to determine his or her capacity to wage a “credible” campaign. The second is “machinery”—a word that among others means one’s possession of a party, a coalition, a network of campaigners, poll watchers on election day. In President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s case, “machinery” also means the entire government bureaucracy of over one million, from department secretaries down to barangay chairs.

In the provinces and even in certain parts of Metro Manila, machinery includes the retinue of thugs in one’s employ who can dispense both largesse as well as threats, blows and bullets. When a candidate is said to have “a machinery” what he or she may have could include—it usually does—the means with which to buy or coerce the electorate, whose sole function in this democracy is to renew every so often their rulers’ “democratic mandate.”

But wait. When Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wins next week—most likely by a comfortable margin—it shall be one more triumph for traditional, elite politics, yes. But it could also mean the end of at least one consequence of that politics’ civic bankruptcy: the myth that anyone made popular by the movies can be president.

As things are now turning out, Fernando Poe Jr.’s kingship in Philippine movies won’t make him president. For that his supporters can blame Mrs. Arroyo for having so expertly risen from third and even fourth in the surveys to first by utilizing every conceivable means at her disposal, including the release of political prisoners and finally getting the government’s peace talks with the National Democratic Front somewhere, while steadfastly supporting the United States in Iraq and elsewhere.

They can blame Mrs. Arroyo for dispensing all those PhilHealth cards, and erecting all those billboards with her face on it but paid for by the road-use tax. They can blame her for cobbling together alliances out of elements so disparate they look like Frankenstein’s monsters.

They can do all that, but the so-called opposition should blame itself first for its failure to put up candidates no better than Poe and Panfilo Lacson—and while they’re at it, it can include Roco and his Alyansa in its blame list too.

Fernando Poe Jr.’s camp so believed in the myth of the dumb voter they thought their candidate didn’t even have to campaign and would win points by being, if not dumb, at least silent. Steadfast in that belief, they were so confident in Poe’s winnability they wrote off a Poe-Lacson unity so early that effort was doomed from the start.

On the other hand, Lacson suffers from a myth of a different sort. It’s the myth that says that the support of the Chinese Filipino community is enough, and that if there’s anything the electorate loves, it’s blood, vengeance and human rights shortcuts. Thus Lacson’s belief that he can win this May over Arroyo—and over Poe himself, if it comes to that.

Blame Roco too for Mrs. Arroyo’s impending victory, whose support among certain fact-challenged columnists is undisputed. Roco started out as number one, but by no effort other than his own, has slid to number four. No, it wasn’t just his sudden departure for the United States that did it, but a string of fatal decisions starting with his choice of vice presidential candidate.

They should blame Mrs. Arroyo last, because like the Terminator, winning no matter what the cost is apparently what she does– and that’s all she does. This week—the last of the campaign period—is in fact likely to provide us not signs of whether she’ll win, but by how much.

One of the first indicators that an Arroyo victory could be more than razor-thin is Iglesia ni Cristo support. Despite denials by some INC insiders, the sect’s support for Mrs. Arroyo has been confirmed by Joseph Estrada, who’s probably the second least likely person in the world to lie about it.

The simplistic and common view is that the INC decides in council whom to endorse and forthwith commands its two million members to vote for the hierarchy’s choice. That view is chilling enough for anyone without INC endorsement, because it would mean two million votes gone to one’s opponent.

It’s actually worse than that, however. The INC supports the candidate who, in its calculation, is the most likely to win in the first place and the most likely to get the votes of its membership. What an INC endorsement of Mrs. Arroyo would mean is that it believes her to be the likely victor this May– not Fernando Poe Jr., or, for that matter, Panfilo Lacson. It knows something neither knows.

Thus would an INC endorsement first of all be a testimony to Mrs. Arroyo’s skills as a campaigner, which in one sense was focused on demonstrating her winnability to groups such as the INC so she could get their endorsement. But it would also be a triumph of her negotiating skills, the INC leadership having been unremittingly hostile to her since 2001, when she succeeded Joseph Estrada, the INC’s choice in 1998.

An INC endorsement could also trigger the bandwagon effect the opposition mistakenly fears the surveys favoring Mrs. Arroyo are triggering (they’re not), even as, in several places all over the country, now one, then two, then three and four chapters of the Fernando Poe Jr. for President Movement (FPJPM) start breaking the ranks to bolt to Mrs. Arroyo’s camp, because everyone loves a winner.

It’s thus likely to be all good news for Mrs. Arroyo as the campaign winds up, and bad news for the various opposition groups focused on unseating her this May.

But it’s even worse news for those who have wanted a change in politics first and a change in administration second, and who thought 2004 would be the time for both.

An Arroyo victory will demonstrate how resistant to change the political system is, and how doomed are the efforts to broaden its democratic and ideological bases by empowering the poor and powerless. What it will demonstrate instead is that traditional politics pays.

Because that’s exactly the kind of politics that shall have brought Mrs. Arroyo a six- year mandate by next week. Although it’s exactly the kind of politics her closest opponents too practiced, it is exactly the kind of politics in which Mrs. Arroyo is expert.

An Arroyo win will thus mean the end not only to every Ronnie, Vic and Bong’s dreams of making it to Malacanang as Estrada did in 1998 (if Poe couldn’t make, who could?). It will also mean the end of every hope the country has ever had for the new politics that, incidentally, Mrs. Arroyo pledged to practice in 2001.

For all this we have not only the Terminator herself to thank, but also her very own rivals who have proven so unequal to the task they have practically defeated themselves.

Blame Arroyo? Blame everyone else, too. But blame most of all the political system, in the dark and profitable arts of which Arroyo is now the country’s foremost master.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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