Field of choices

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A five-corner fight now appears likely in 2004 with Jesus Is Lord founder Brother Eddie Villanueva’s seeming determination to run for president.

Preacher Villanueva’s Bangon Pilipinas movement has applied to the Commission on Elections for accreditation as a political party. Villanueva is expected to file his certificate of candidacy once Bangon’s application is approved.

Villanueva has said that only God can make him change his mind about running. Since God, says Villanueva, had Himself told him to run in the first place, it’s not likely that He will suddenly urge him not to.

Add Villanueva’s name then to the list of likely candidates for president of this unhappy republic. As of this month, that list already had President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former senator Raul Roco, Senator Panfilo Lacson, and actor Fernando Poe Jr.

The by now conventional wisdom is that the more candidates there are for president, the more likely a Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo victory will be. Malacanang, however, was apparently not buying that notion as far as Villanueva is concerned. It was sufficiently alarmed over the prospects of a Villanueva candidacy for Mrs. Arroyo and House Speaker Jose de Venecia to have vainly tried to dissuade him.

The surveys do show, as Pulse Asia’s Felipe Miranda will tell you, that Mrs. Arroyo’s support seems to be fairly firm. Public perception that Fernando Poe Jr. would run for president, and his subsequent announcement last November that he would, resulted in a swing of support for him at the cost of Roco’s and Lacson’s, while Mrs. Arroyo’s support remained more or less the same.

The uncharitable say that among the many tricks Malacanang has up its sleeve to insure an Arroyo victory is to persuade Senator Noli de Castro to run for president, so he can take votes away from the millions upon millions Poe could get come May 10, 2004. The more candidates the merrier—and the more likely an Arroyo victory.

But a Villanueva candidacy would be entirely different from, say, the candidacy of a Gregorio Honasan. It would theoretically mean some five million plus votes less for Mrs. Arroyo. The Jesus is Lord Movement Villanueva heads claims that many members in the Philippines, plus tens of thousands more in other cities abroad where there are Filipinos—and there are Filipinos everywhere on the planet, including in places whose names they can’t even pronounce.

JIL has been supporting Mrs. Arroyo since day one of her presidency, which to Malacanang meant that many votes in Mrs. Arroyo’s column in 2004. But the assumption that Villanueva’s candidacy means Mrs. Arroyo’s loss is that what the JIL leadership says goes.

As some analysts have pointed out, that assumption is unproven. Among religious groups in this country, only the Iglesia Ni Cristo leadership has demonstrated through several elections that it can command the votes of its followers—or that it’s pragmatic enough to know whom its flock favors.

That’s more than can be said of the Catholic Church, the leadership of which has several times supported candidates who ended up last in past national elections. In recent times, that leadership has seen some of its least preferred candidates, like Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, catapulted to Malacanang by the votes of the Catholic majority.

Mrs. Arroyo and company’s counting on JIL members’ votes before Villanueva declared his candidacy could have been overly optimistic because JIL is untried as a political force in the manner of the INC. But it could be more realistic in assuming that Villanueva would take the votes of JIL members with him, away from whoever they might have preferred before Villanueva decided to run.

What would assure him his group members’ votes is that Villanueva himself is running, which must be the first time that the leader of a fairly large religious group has ever done so. Imagine if Jaime Cardinal Sin had himself run in past elections. He might not have won, but he would certainly have amassed millions of votes from the Catholic faithful.

There’s a difference between a religious leader’s endorsing someone and his running for office himself. As the Philippine experience has shown, unless you’re Erano Manalo it’s at least doubtful if your flock will heed your endorsement, no matter from how many pulpits its delivered.

But, assuming that the religious group does have the numbers it claims, its leader’s running for office himself would naturally awaken those feelings of pride, unity and hope—of putting one of your own in office so he can finally put his plans into practice, not to mention the thought that whatever he does would be to the group’s interest—that mean votes on election day.

Because of this inherent advantage, Villanueva could end up with more support than anyone would expect of a newcomer in Philippine electoral politics.

His entry into the fray could also upset every other candidate’s calculations, including Malacanang’s. It could also be argued that the electorate’s choices have widened by one, particularly for the millions of religiously-inclined who think that what we need are officials with a strong sense of sin.

Perhaps more significantly, however, if Villanueva’s candidacy prospers in terms of credible support, it would also encourage the greater involvement in Philippine politics of leaders of other religious groups.

The demonstration effect of Villanueva’s candidacy could be evident in more candidates from religious groups in the future. Some of those leaders could be no more than the nuisance candidates every election attracts in this country. But some of them could be in the same league as Villanueva, whose following seems fairly established.

There is no shortage of people who will argue that what Philippine politics and governance needs are God-fearing candidates and officials. True enough—if that fear of God indeed found expression in honest governance. But the fear of God alone is not enough to map out the country’s future. The danger to its being the sole guiding principle in governance is a focus on corruption to the detriment of equally urgent issues—and ignoring the concerns of the considerable number of non-Christian Filipinos.

This multi-ethnic country needs leaders with perspectives broader than the religious, which in the nature of things tends to be limited to the Christian view of things. There are a number of pretenders to those broader perspectives, as there have been in the past.

Our problem is that none of them seem to be in the running in 2004. Not one of Villanueva’s co-candidates has so far told us in terms other than motherhood statements what they intend to do with this country the minute they win the presidency. The most popular in the field has steadfastly refused to say anything much. The second most popular has recently taken to issuing outlandish statements to match his favorite shirts, while the incumbent has promised us only more of the same.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 23, 2003)

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