Fidel Ramos mouthed all the right reasons in arguing that Fernando Poe, Jr. should give way to Panfilo Lacson’s presidential ambitions. But he didn’t mention the real one.

Ramos did put foreign perceptions at the top of his list—he said the country needs a credible government when dealing with foreign organizations—but he also said the Philippines needs someone with experience. Lacson has had some, unlike Fernando Poe, Jr. To gain that experience, Poe could be vice president until 2010, by which time he could be better qualified for the presidency.

Ramos didn’t mention that by 2010 Poe would also be all of 70 years old. While deep thought seems to have left no cruel scars on his matinee-idol face, by 2010 Poe could be afflicted with ailments worse than the arthritis he’s reported to be already suffering from. But Ramos could have been thinking of his own excellent state of health, and assumed that gift to be equally distributed among God’s creatures, actors included.

No matter. Lacson was pleased, and “surprised” at what amounted to Ramos’ endorsement of his being the sole standard bearer of the Estrada wing of the opposition. Lacson also said maybe Ramos loved the country more than he did Mrs. Arroyo, whose candidacy he’s supporting.

One newspaper recalled in a news report that Lacson had served in the defunct Philippine Constabulary, which Ramos commanded during the Marcos dictatorship. Lacson also commanded the PC’s successor, the Philippine National Police, and while it may be argued that running a corrupt agency whose members’ idea of police work is to beat confessions out of suspects was the limit of his experience, so was Ramos’. That seemed to imply that it was their common backgrounds that had moved Ramos to weigh in with his opinions on opposition unity.

Lacson shouldn’t have been surprised, least of all pleased. It’s not for love of him or of country that Ramos sees him as the ideal opposition candidate. What Ramos didn’t say was the real reason he prefers Lacson over Poe. That reason is no other than Lacson’s being number four in all the surveys on the electorate’s choices for president.

Ramos cited his own case in 1998, when he too was behind Miriam Defensor Santiago in the surveys, but won, anyway. In his case, however, he wasn’t too far behind, and he had months to campaign, while Lacson has only three weeks. By this time it’s next to impossible for Lacson to even catch up with, much less pull ahead of, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s 35 percent share of the votes.

Fernando Poe Jr.’s campaign may be foundering on the shoals of the arrogant presumption that his popularity is enough to hand him the presidency, but he’s either still neck-and-neck with Mrs. Arroyo, a few percentage points behind, or is ahead of her by a slim lead, depending on the survey of the moment. His withdrawing from the presidential contest will not mean a shift by his supporters to Lacson. Poe has his own constituency, Lacson his. Like the tons of money Lacson says he’s getting from the Chinese Filipino community, Poe’s support is not likely to be transferable.

There’s also the fear factor. If businessmen and the middle class fear a Poe victory, they fear a Lacson victory as well, though for different reasons. Because a Lacson victory seems far-fetched at the moment, those fears have receded. With Lacson as the sole candidate of the Estrada opposition, those fears will resurface with a vengeance—primarily to the benefit of Mrs. Arroyo, and only peripherally to that of Roco and Villanueva. The result: an Arroyo—and Ramos—victory.

* * * *

You don’t need a degree in political science to see through Ramos’ ploy. But it’s not as if Mrs. Arroyo desperately needs that kind of help. Unity between the Lacson and Poe camps is as unlikely as the United States’ finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, given the refusal of either candidate to give way to the other. Ramos needn’t have gone to the trouble of trying to influence the opposition’s decision, because no such decision is forthcoming. That means almost certain victory for Mrs. Arroyo on May 10.

Unless of course something truly dire happens. The good news for Mrs. Arroyo is that while her success at overcoming Poe’s lead could be catching up with her, it may be too late.

A demonstration being planned for May 1 has managed to enlist the support of all the opposition parties including party-list groups, but may not succeed as well as its spokesmen claim. Coincidentally, however, the announcement that such a demonstration would take place at EDSA was preceded by what looked like confirmation of that demonstration’s purpose, which is to denounce Mrs. Arroyo’s alleged use of government funds for her campaign.

Pangasinan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, provided last Thursday the numbers to support that widely-held suspicion. The Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), said Archbishop Cruz, has spent nearly 70 million in support of the Arroyo candidacy. Not only did Pagcor purchase 180 motorcyles, 35 multicabs and Ford Ranger pick-ups (Cruz said 50, but Pagcor said 5) with Mrs. Arroyo’s face and name on them. The agency has also fielded its employees as advance parties during some of Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign sorties—at government expense, of course.

In addition, said Cruz, Pagcor was also the source of the by now well-established dole-outs to barangay leaders charged with campaigning for Mrs. Arroyo at the grassroots level.

Pagcor claims that the purchase of motorcycles, etc., and its other high-visibility projects are part of its continuing programs. But there is no denying that putting Mrs. Arroyo’s face and name on the purchased vehicles as well as on posters and billboards declaring this or that to be her priority project are constant reminders that the citizenry should vote for her.

The Supreme Court did dismiss the complaint filed by two of Poe’s candidates for senator alleging Mrs. Arroyo’s use of public funds for her campaign. But that was mostly because the two had asked the Court to declare Mrs. Arroyo on leave if not resigned. At best the merits of the complaint have not been settled. At worst they’re presumed to be fact by even the least observant.

Despite Bishop Cruz’s expose, however, the demonstration being planned for May 1, with its echoes of 2001, may not necessarily attract the large crowds EDSA I, EDSA II and the Estrada opposition’s version managed to summon.

At least part of the reason is how close May 10 is. EDSA I occurred in the aftermath of the failure of the February 1986 elections; and EDSA II as well as the opposition’s version of it on May 1, 2001, three years before the next presidential elections. In both instances the general perception was that there was no other way out of the country’s predicament. This time, what is still considered a way out, an election, is about to be held.

Elections are escape valves through which citizen disgust and disaffection with governments and government officials are channeled—except that in the Philippines they have become occasions for choosing among evils.

The problem the various groups involved in the May demonstration will have to face is that given the decline in the quality of the two leading candidates, Mrs. Arroyo is almost universally regarded among the middle class, the intelligentsia and the business community—the primary backers of both EDSAs—as the lesser evil, and as the only line of defense they have against a Poe victory.

Roco and Villanueva may have the programs, the vision, and even the character. But the general perception is that neither can’t win. For good or ill, that perception has led to many citizens’ decision to vote for Arroyo rather than risk a Poe victory.

It is unlikely that the main constituencies of both EDSAs—and these include the rank-and-file members and sympathizers of the legal Left groups among whom standing shoulder to shoulder with Estrada’s minions would be discomfiting at best—would have the enthusiasm for a demonstration that could only favor Poe’s chances against Mrs. Arroyo this May. The planners can do worse than to call it off, and to allow the elections, as flawed and as problematic as they already are, to proceed without the added complication of an event that could lead to the worst of results.


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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