Those who expected the politicians to stop politicking because of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s December 30 speech will be disappointed. They won’t. It’s what they do, and despite the conventional complaint that they do too much of it, what they do is indispensable to the democratic process.

There’s a reason for all that attention on who’s going to run when, and under what circumstances. Politicians’ eyes are necessarily focused on elections, and there’s no helping that, because elections are what get them employed. The primary issue in our case should not be politics by itself, but politics for what purpose and in whose interests.

Of course, we in the Philippines—and in most other, equally “democratic” settings—have every right to complain about the politicians’ focus. Primarily they focus on the little things and seldom on what ails the country and what can be done about it. Far too many of them also spend an inordinate amount of time maneuvering for advantage, maintaining high media profiles, and lying through their teeth.

That’s how they appeal to the worst instincts of an uninformed electorate, whether here or, say, in the United States (where, despite a media system that’s the most developed in the world, and despite their government’s preparing to carpet- bomb it, vast sectors of the population still can’t locate Iraq on any standard map).

It need not be. But the voters in this country, as every political scientists and public administration expert will say, tend to vote for the man or woman who sings and dances best, or whose media presence has imbued them with instant name recall. The politicians complain when pressed that they have to sing and dance their way to office because that’s what the electorate wants. They forget, how- ever, that that’s what the electorate has been conditioned to want—by generations of politicians who have insisted on singing and dancing rather than discussing platforms and programs with it.

The Arroyo appeal to a halt to the political bickering that she said is partly responsible for the country’s poverty has thus met exactly the opposite response. There’s been more politicking than less, despite the Christmas holidays, and it has meant politics as usual.

The major component of the administration coalition, Lakas, for example, responded with a public display of concern about who to run in 2004, now that Mrs. Arroyo has said she won’t. That concern has resulted in public bickering, with the partisans of Fidel V. Ramos saying the former President would be the coalition’s strongest candidate, and with resigned Secretary of Justice Hernando Perez saying it should be Raul Roco.

The opposition has responded by saying Ramos, assuming he’s still qualified, would be the best candidate the administration could field in 2004 because he would be a pushover. Behind these public displays of disaffection, however, is frenetic maneuvering within both the administration coalition and the opposition, the primary focus of one (the administration) being to keep power after 2004, and of the other (the opposition) being to take it.

The context of politics as usual has also affected the reception to the by now much-maligned “government of national unity” proposal of House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. After thinking it over and after its initial puzzlement, the opposition appears to be developing an antipathy toward it. I suggest that it’s because of the proposal’s inclusion of representatives from the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, for example, opposes the inclusion of these groups in any united government, and sarcastically suggested that Abu Sayyaf representatives might as well be invited, too. The overrated and overbearing Francisco Tatad has also wondered out loud what the proposal is all about. But the most candid response has been that of Sergio Osme

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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