A successful politician is someone who has been elected, and/or who has managed to stay in power. As those who thought him presumptuous for aspiring for the presidency have begun arguing, Fernando Poe Jr., by this definition and despite his success as an actor, was a failed politician.

That judgment leads to another: that the political impact of his death is being deliberately exaggerated despite his supposedly having lost by a million votes to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. This view contests the validity of warnings that, despite his widow’s appeal to keep “politics” out of it, Poe’s funeral tomorrow could morph into an anti-government demonstration focused on the Arroyo government’s downfall. The same view argues that the political significance of Poe’s funeral is not in the same league as that of Ninoy Aquino’s in 1983, and thus unlikely to signal the beginning of the process that ended with the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

It is true that there is some effort by the usual suspects–for example, the politicians, some of whom describe themselves as Poe’s pals, as well as various rightwing groups armed with authoritarian agendas– to whip up enough anger among Poe’s millions of supporters against the Arroyo government.

It is equally true–and you don’t need a dissertation in political science or 50 years’ experience as a journalist to find out–that Ninoy Aquino had been assassinated, undoubtedly by the government of Marcos, if not on the orders of Marcos himself. On the other hand, Poe died of apparently natural causes. This last, some commentators further emphasize at the risk of encouraging atheism among Poe partisans, was due to divine action rather than to genetics.

If these arguments are meant to assure a nervous Malacanang and a skittish stock market that no political upheaval is in the making, they have not been very convincing.

The efforts by such Poe associates as former President Joseph Estrada to agitate Poe’s followers do not seem to be as concerted as the conspiracy theorists believe.

And while the belief that his disappointment and anger over the fraud that undoubtedly characterized the last elections led to his stroke is impossible to prove, it seems to be shared among Poe’s followers.

Estrada echoed, he did not propose, a political reason for Poe’s stroke. Poe’s followers did the latter. If Estrada’s remark to that effect showed anything, it was how much in tune he is with the poor whom he claims to be his and Poe’s constituency.

As outlandish as the view may seem that Poe suffered a stroke out of disappointment and rage over the last elections, this is how some of his followers see it– because they feel the same outrage and disappointment. These sentiments should be evident from the opinion polls that have uniformly found Mrs. Arroyo to be extremely unpopular. They are logically directed against the perpetrators of the fraud that cost Poe the elections– and more than half of all Filipinos not only believe that Poe was cheated. They also believe that it was Mrs. Arroyo who did the cheating.

The resentment against the Arroyo administration has also grown over the few months since Mrs. Arroyo was supposedly reelected. In those few months the country has witnessed demonstrations of incompetence, political weakness, arrogance, bare-faced lying, and sheer idiocy rare even in a failed African state.

The arrogance was obvious when Mrs. Arroyo, with absolutely no regard for how it will be received by the public, began rewarding her political hatchet-men and underlings with posts for which they barely qualified, if at all they did.

The political weakness was evident in the way General Carlos F. Garcia’s military gang mates were allowed to hijack the general’s prosecution, and another Garcia (Winston of Social Security) allowed to continue in office.

The lies were more than evident in the aftermath of the flood and mudslide disaster of early December, when Mrs. Arroyo blamed carabao-loggers and the NPA for the country’s deforestation–a process the government has been repeatedly warned about, and which is going on at the rate of 100,000-200,000 hectares a year.

The idiocy has been amply proven in the last several days in which the Arroyo administration, despite its resident PhDs and other learned political advisers, demonstrated how frantic it was to appease Poe’s family and supporters by offering to name Poe a National Artist, burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a Presidential order of merit, and flying the flag at half-mast.

As for the obvious differences between Ninoy Aquino’s death and Poe’s, the differences are only in the details. Poe was certainly not the victim of a political assassination as Aquino was. But he was no less the victim of a political system whose partisanship was as evident last May as it was during the martial law period.

If the measure of a politician’s success is being elected to office, by the same measure was Ninoy Aquino a failed politician in a system that Marcos had seized control of. Ninoy Aquino “lost” by a huge margin in the 1978 Batasang Pambansa elections in which one Imelda Marcos was the number one winner. Then as now, the majority of Filipinos knew the incumbent had cheated. Although it provoked no widespread demonstrations, that and several other events including his murder in 1983 led to EDSA 1986.

Malacanang can console itself with the fact that during the martial law period Filipinos proved themselves incredibly patient, requiring affront upon affront and outrage upon outrage for them to finally rise. That may well be demonstrated again this time. Despite the crackpot claims of some Poe partisans that the Arroyo regime will last only until February 2005, and despite Joseph Estrada’s readiness to return to power, it may take years, if at all, before the Arroyo government yields to the pressure of its own unpopularity.

On the other hand, it may not take that long, given the experience Filipinos have had since 1986 in the skills of ousting governments. Although those skills are widely derided and are even a source of amusement in some countries, they are skills developed in response to a political system whose failures invite extra-legal measures to correct. These are skills they have mastered.

In 2004, the political system demonstrably failed when the Estrada impeachment process could no longer proceed because of the partisanship of the eleven senators who voted not to open the “second envelope” which contained the details of one of Estrada’s secret bank accounts. In 1986, that system was shown to be so bankrupt as to allow its manipulation by the incumbent–which is exactly what the elections last May proved this year.

In terms of successfully seizing power through the flaws of that very same system, both Marcos and Arroyo were eminently successful politicians. Aquino and Poe were not. Marcos and Arroyo, however, were failures where it matters: in their inability to capture and hold the people’s imaginations, and to earn their trust. This is a failure particularly evident in Arroyo’s case.

On the other hand, Aquino and Poe were eminent successes in their capacity to develop vast constituencies, and to command their loyalties. Poe had an advantage in that he was a movie star who usually played the avenging hero Filipinos hungry for justice could identify with. By choosing to run for office last May, he wedded his popularity as an actor with the historic longing among the poor and powerless for a champion who would give them not only a voice in their own governance, but also a future they can believe in.

In measuring Poe’s political impact, this is the context many analysts miss either out of bias against “a mere actor,” or inability to transcend the conventional measure of success in politics as winning power through whatever means. It isn’t winning power, in a failed system, but winning the people and their faith, trust and loyalty that matters. The events in the succeeding weeks should show whether Poe was a political success in these terms–or merely another politician whose passage will merit only a minor footnote in this country’as turbulent political history.


Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. Good article with a balanced view. My friend, a western foreigner in the Philippines, however know the sinister side of elements apparently close to the Arroyo administration. He just had confirmation from more than one source that the order was given to have him (and another youngman)killed – all because his knowledge of certain fraudulant deals is a threat to someone (an American living in the Philippines and “somehow” protected from justice) who happens to have a powerful lady friend in the Philippines. Let it be known that if anything bad happens to my friend, I will make known and have published ALL the material and evidence I have against these persons (also the evidence connecting them to an order to kill) and that I mourn for your beautiful country and it’s gentle people, to be subjected to such corruption and brutality and elite cronyism!! I’ve been there just prior to the election and as an outsider, it was clear to me that the general population is not a concern of the government. When the election-results were made known, I was much surprised.

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