The impossible team

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If the results of the most recent Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations surveys are correct, there is no political reason why Senator Raul Roco should abandon his candidacy for president and instead run as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s vice president in 2004. Neither does he have any ideological cause to do so.

Despite doubts raised by Roco himself over the SWS’ November 8-24 survey—and the rantings of the usual media “pundits” who think they know better about public opinion polling than the experts—its accuracy can be assumed.

SWS has a proven track record of over a decade in gauging public opinion through the use of well-established scientific methods. It is also unlikely that its president Mahar Mangahas would risk his own as well as the company’s reputation by manipulating survey results five months before May 10, 2004.

The SWS said December 4 that actor Fernando Poe Jr. and Senator Noli de Castro (who has so far not declared his candidacy for either the presidency or the vice presidency) had leapt ahead of Roco, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Senator Panfilo Lacson in voter preference during the period November 8-24. Poe, said SWS, was the choice of 25 percent of its 1,200 respondents, de Castro by 24 percent, Roco by 18 percent, Arroyo 17 percent, and Lacson 10 percent.

While those results are bad news for Roco, it’s at least as bad for Mrs. Arroyo, whose standing in the polls has been at best static, and who’s been shopping around for a vice presidential candidate who can offset the electorate’s apathy towards her candidacy.

But even worse for Mrs. Arroyo, through great news for Roco, were the results of Pulse Asia’s November 4-17 survey, which showed Mrs. Arroyo trailing Roco in either a three- or four-cornered fight, and as running second to the last, with only Lacson behind her.

Ideally for Mrs. Arroyo, her vice presidential partner should be Senator Noli de Castro, whom the electorate at this point apparently approves of as much as it does Poe.

While past experience, including that of Mrs. Arroyo in 1998, suggests that the popularity of one’s vice presidential partner is not transferable (Mrs. Arroyo won the vice presidency that year while her team-mate Jose de Venecia lost the presidency by a huge margin), one can always hope that other factors would be in place this time to make it possible.

Teamed with a popular vice presidential candidate, Mrs. Arroyo’s camp hopes, she just might prove the polls and pollsters wrong come 2004.

Unfortunately, all that talk about Mrs. Arroyo’s using her influence over the Energy Regulatory Board to grant the Manila Electric Company its request for increases in electricity rates next year in exchange for the Lopezes’ prevailing upon De Castro to be her vice presidential candidate seems to have led De Castro to resent the idea. Among other implications, he has said in so many words, such a deal would suggest that he has no mind of his own and is the creature of the Lopezes, via whose giant TV network, ABS-CBN, he became a household face and name.

Mrs. Arroyo’s camp apparently thinks that the next best thing to an Arroyo-De Castro team would be an Arroyo-Roco team, and they’ve tried to put that team together by arguing that by running against each other Roco and Arroyo would be taking votes from each other. The subtext of this argument is the fear factor: that Mrs. Arroyo and Roco would lose to either Fernando Poe Jr., or—a possibility civil society groups, professionals, and businessmen consider even worse—to Panfilo Lacson.

The surveys do suggest that much of Roco’s support would be coming from voters disillusioned with Mrs. Arroyo, and who can’t abide voting for either Poe or Lacson. But the surveys also show that those likely to vote for Mrs. Arroyo would vote for Roco if she doesn’t run.

Roco has thus rejected the offer to be Mrs. Arroyo’s vice presidential candidate at least thrice, describing such an arrangement as “politically impossible.” Instead Roco has suggested that Mrs. Arroyo withdraw her candidacy, on the argument that there is near-universal agreement that the Arroyo government has to go, the only issue being what to replace it with.

If an Arroyo-Roco team is “politically impossible,” however, it is even more unlikely on the basis of principle.

Roco was a member of the Senate minority that argued for the opening of the infamous second envelope during the Estrada impeachment trial in 2000-2001. He was partly instrumental in Mrs. Arroyo’s ascent to the presidency, and was a leading member of the People Power Coalition that won a precarious majority in the Senate in May 2001. Roco also served as Secretary of Education in the Arroyo government.

Despite their past partnership, however, Roco and Mrs. Arroyo have been poles apart in outlook and orientation. It is thus doubtful if there can be any principled basis for their unity in 2004.

It is even misleading to describe Mrs. Arroyo’s views and policies as ideologically-driven. Although instinctively conservative, Mrs. Arroyo does not appear to hew to any baseline principle in her decision-making. Looking at her record as a politician and as president, the truly skeptical could have cause to wonder if Mrs. Arroyo has any firm convictions at all.

No principle except political expediency guided Mrs. Arroyo when she broke from Joseph Estrada’s government only at the last moment in 2000. While Roco and other politicians for and against Estrada (who were equally concerned with the impact of their actions on the voters) made their positions clear long before the outcome of the 2000-2001 political crisis had been decided, Mrs. Arroyo resigned her post as Social Welfare Secretary in the Estrada government only after being certain that the Estrada government’s days in power were numbered, and that her decision was likely to hand her the presidency.

No principle other than political expediency has guided her decision- and policy- making as president either. The better to assure her election in 2004, since 2001 her focus has been on becoming popular, and assuring the support of the power brokers in Philippine society including the United States.

Despite his near-legendary bad temper, Roco does seem to believe in certain principles, for which he has been willing to risk even his political fortunes. In more recent times, Roco and Arroyo’s positions on the death penalty illustrate an unbridgeable divide even more clearly.

The only candidate to announce his opposition to Mrs. Arroyo’s December 5 announcement that she would no longer stop the execution of death convicts starting January, 2003, Roco reveals that while a senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had abstained in striking down the death penalty, on the argument that her constituents death for criminals convicted of certain crimes. In contrast, Roco had led the campaign in the Senate to repeal the death penalty provision in the revised penal code.

Arroyo’s reversal of her own statement last November 25 that the death penalty does not deter crimes in fact illustrates how vast the distance is between her and Roco. Political expediency—her belief that the resumption of executions during her term would be popular—was at the heart of that decision.

In contrast Roco, without regard for possible voter backlash against his candidacy, had immediately condemned Mrs. Arroyo’s decision, arguing that the death penalty has not only failed to deter crime, but has also victimized mostly the poor and innocent.

A flawed justice system in which the rights of the poor are routinely violated, and in which they cannot afford to hire competent lawyers, has led to the conviction of people innocent of the crimes they were accused of, Roco said, while the rich and the powerful are able to escape conviction and even prosecution because of their connections and wealth.

Valid arguments all, these will not gain Roco points with the death penalty crowd. In making these statements Roco virtually assured himself not only the non-support of the richest Chinese Filipinos, but also risked the erosion of his support among the vast number of Filipinos who favor the death penalty. Roco made them nevertheless.

On the other hand, while claiming to adhere to some vague notion about the immorality of “taking a human life,” Mrs. Arroyo lifted the four-year moratorium on the death penalty anyway—and with no other consideration than her perception that it will be popular not only in the Chinese Filipino community but also among most Filipinos whose votes she desperately needs.

An Arroyo-Roco team-up? Impossible, politically or otherwise.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 13, 2003)

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