The fear factor

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News of Fernando Poe Jr.’s announcement that he would seek the presidency of the Republic made it to CNN last Wednesday. It wasn’t just because here was another actor seeking public office a la Arnold Schwarzeneger. That’s hardly news nowadays, actors of all stripes including porn stars being in the running for public office from India to Italy. Poe’s announcement was news even to CNN primarily because Filipinos had already elected an actor to the presidency in 1998, but had removed him from office in 2001 and detained him on charges of plunder.

The process of Joseph Estrada’s removal Filipinos had labeled EDSA 2 or People Power 2, recalling thereby that in 1986 there had been an EDSA or People Power 1, during which another president, Ferdinand Marcos, had been thrown out of office.

People Power 1 was widely acclaimed as the triumph of democratic will over dictatorship, but People Power 2 has been regarded by much of the rest of the world as either illegal or whimsical or both—as the recourse of a people who don’t know what they want, and who correct their errors at the polling booth by taking to the streets.

This was the subtext of the CNN anchor’s asking the CNN stringer in Manila what Poe’s chances were, considering that Filipinos had gone to all the trouble of electing an actor in 1998 only to throw him out of office in 2001. There was no removing the incredulity in the anchor’s face—will Filipinos never learn?—when told that Poe was very popular, and that there was a strong possibility that he could win in 2004.

Poe indeed could win in 2004—if popularity automatically turned into votes and if the votes were all counted right. Although he had been running fourth or fifth in early surveys on voter preference, he was running second to former Senator Raul Roco, if not tied with him, just before he announced his candidacy. A November survey of the polling firm Pulse Asia found Poe and Roco in close contention, whether in a three- or four-cornered fight for the Presidency.

If the presidency were contested by Poe, Roco and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said Pulse Asia, Poe and Roco would tie for first place (35 and 34 percent), with Mrs. Arroyo coming in at second with 29 percent of the votes. In the event of a four-cornered fight involving Poe, Roco, Mrs. Arroyo and Senator Panfilo Lacson, Roco would lead with 30 percent of the votes, but Poe and Mrs. Arroyo would tie for second place (28 percent), while Lacson would come in third with 12 percent.

Without Poe running, on the other hand, and with only Mrs. Arroyo, Lacson and Roco in contention, Roco would win 40 percent of the votes, with Mrs. Arroyo getting 33 percent and Lacson 23 percent. Pulse Asia also said that the poorest sectors of the voters, Class E, would support Poe if the contest were among Mrs. Arroyo, Poe and Roco, although it would provide almost equal support for Poe and Mrs. Arroyo if Lacson were a candidate.

What these figures amount to is that the results of the May 2004 elections would be too close to call at this time, and that there will be a close fight for the presidency among Roco, Poe and Mrs. Arroyo. It also suggests that Poe’s candidacy would be disadvantageous to Mrs. Arroyo primarily, which could give credence to reports that Poe’s announcement of his candidacy was greeted with panic at Malacanang.

The Pulse Asia survey was taken when Poe had not yet announced his candidacy, which means that there’s likely to be a boost in Poe’s numbers by the time the next survey results are published.

Despite that possibility, and Pulse Asia’s findings that, indeed, the poorest and most numerous of the electorate would vote for Poe, what the business community and the middle class fear most, a Poe victory, is far from being certain, however.

For starters, there’s none of the vast groundswell of support for Poe that characterized his pal Joseph Estrada’s candidacy months before the elections of 1998. There was no contest that year for the presidency, Estrada being so widely popular it was thought impossible to cheat him through the usual dagdag bawas and other means including partisan Commission on Elections functionaries.

In Poe’s case one can detect second thoughts among the poor over their once again voting for an actor, no matter how popular he may otherwise be, given their experience with Estrada.

Poe does not have a political party either, and whether he will end up the opposition standard bearer was, at the time of this writing, still uncertain. An election is as much about machinery in this country as it is about popularity, and while the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino’s Edgard J. Angara’s support for Poe could provide him the political machine any candidate needs to win, whether those LDP members supportive of Lacson will indeed go with him rather than with Lacson is still uncertain.

On the other hand, the Nationalist People’s Coalition’s Eduardo Cojuangco does seem likely to support Poe, which should take care of much of the billions needed for a national campaign.

The close fight Pulse Asia predicts, however, is nevertheless still likely, given the resources available to the incumbent, which include travel at government expense, the printing of posters and other publicity material by a National Printing Office firmly in the grip of the brother of one of Mrs. Arroyo’s closest advisers, considerable influence over some, if not all, of the members of the Commission on Elections, and other advantages.

Without the overwhelming popularity that Estrada enjoyed months before the elections, and which proved unshakeable on election day itself, like Raul Roco whose campaign is burdened by lack of resources, Poe could lose the elections to Mrs. Arroyo next year.

Add to that other factors as well, among them the already distinct positioning of the business community (some of whose members greeted Poe’s announcement by sniffing that Poe doesn’t have a program), and, sooner or later, the Catholic Church’s declaration of its preferences.

The Church has so far been silent, perhaps because Jaime Cardinal Sin has retired, but most likely because it’s in a state of watchful waiting. One can reasonably predict, however, that for the usual reasons the Church won’t be asking the faithful to vote for Poe in 2004. No, it won’t be because Poe’s a drinker and a gambler because he isn’t, but because, as the degreed and pedigreed never tire of reminding everyone, he doesn’t have a college degree and has no experience in governance besides.

While some would argue that Filipinos heed the Church only when its views coincide with their own, the fact is that the middle class and the rich—the major constituencies of a Church that claims a preferential option for the poor, but which as an institution has stoutly stood by the wealthy and powerful for centuries—are fairly clear about their preferences come May.

Those preferences have narrowed to either Roco or Mrs. Arroyo: for Roco because he is regarded as sincere and bright, and quite possibly armed with a workable program of government (which he has so far kept secret, however), or for Mrs. Arroyo because she’s so much one of their own, meaning protective of business, and pro-American to the core, among other endearing qualities.

As for Panfilo Lacson, neither the middle classes nor the wealthy are inclined to vote for him, primarily because they fear his reputation as a shoot–them-up policeman unconcerned with anyone’s rights whom they also suspect to be mixed up with organized crime and of keeping accounts abroad. Survey after survey also says Lacson no longer has the same support he used to have among the poorer sectors of the electorate, who today would tend to vote for Poe, and that, should he insist on running in a four-way fight with Poe, Roco and Mrs. Arroyo, he’s likely to end up fourth.

Roco is the odds-on favorite yes, but the same principles apply to his case. Supported by minuscule political groups that seem unable to build the machinery and raise the funds needed for a credible campaign, Roco could win the elections but lose the count for lack of inspectors on election day.

All of which adds up to the distinct possibility that the country could end up with six more years of Mrs. Arroyo come 2004, rather than witnessing the realization of the worst nightmare of the middle classes and the wealthy—a Poe or Lacson victory.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, November 29, 2003)

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