Although they make it sound like a joke, it’s a possibility even the most nationalist think is hideous enough for them to immigrate to saner climes. The possibility is that of a Fernando Poe Jr. presidency, and of Noli de Castro’s winning the vice presidency in 2004.

It’s true that Fernando Poe Jr.—at least as of this writing—has yet to declare his candidacy, and Noli de Castro claims to still be weighing his options. But Poe’s declaration seems to be only a matter of time, and de Castro’s candidacy all over except the announcement. In May 2004, Poe would thus be the opposition candidate, possibly with Senator Loren Legarda as his vice president. De Castro would be running as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s vice president under the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats.

Unlike in the United States, Filipinos vote for president and vice president separately. They have perversely managed to elect them from contending parties. In 1992 Filipinos elected Lakas’ Fidel Ramos president, but put the NPC’s Joseph Estrada in the second highest post in the land. They did the same thing in 1998, when they elected Estrada president and Lakas’ Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vice president.

In other climes, such a situation would be alarming. In the event of the president’s incapacity to continue his term, executive powers would pass to the rival party, which could then mean drastic and destabilizing mid-stream changes in the Cabinet as well as in government policies.

In the Philippines in 2001, however, the fact that Estrada was from one party and Macapagal-Arroyo from another made an Arroyo presidency much more attractive than if she had been from the same party. Despite the reservations of the groups that sought Estrada’s ouster over Mrs. Arroyo’s commitment to change, her being from another party made change seem at least possible.

That it didn’t happen was as much a function of Mrs. Arroyo’s focus on 2004 as of the absence of any distinction between the parties as far as policies and programs are concerned. Despite Estrada’s ouster, government policies under Arroyo remained substantially the same, and in some instances (for example in Philippine-US relations), were even more of the same, with minor changes only in certain areas. If no one among the declared candidates for president (Arroyo, former Senator Raul Roco, and Senator Panfilo Lacson) has so far seen fit to lay-out his or her economic programs if any, it’s because programs have never won elections in this country.

Popularity has, which is where the emphasis of both the opposition and the administration on “winnable” candidates comes in. In the calculation of the decision- makers in the opposition, Fernando Poe Jr. can win the presidency hands down, and it doesn’t matter that he has absolutely no experience in government service. What does matter is for him to return the opposition to power, among other reasons so it can rescue Joseph Estrada from detention and the plunder charges he’s facing.

Enter Ambassador Eduardo Cojuangco, who probably has more at stake in who or what will be president next year than any other tycoon in the Philippines today. Head of the giant San Miguel conglomerate, and once in undisputed control of the huge coconut levy funds, Cojuangco has to weigh his options carefully insofar as supporting anyone for 2004 is concerned.

His considerable economic clout makes Cojuangco this year’s biggest kingmaker, the one individual who’s being wooed by opposition and administration alike, and whose goodwill both need. Thus the transparent effort of Mrs. Arroyo to get on his good side, which probably helps explain why she didn’t lift a finger when Cojuangco’s boys ram-rodded the Davide impeachment complaint in the House.

Beyond king-making, however, Cojuangco after 2004 could be the power behind Malacanang, depending on whom he chooses to support. The very bottom line is who’s likely to win. Unfortunately for Mrs. Arroyo, Poe seems to have that distinction.

Poe’s reluctance to runwas obvious when his pal Joseph Estrada first mentioned him as a candidate for 2004. But his resistance seems to be weakening under the combined pressure of Estrada, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino leaders particularly Senator Edgardo Angara, and—so it would now seem–Cojuangco’s own Nationalist People’s Coalition.

The Davide impeachment was, among others, a test as to how far the Arroyo-De Venecia coalition in the House would go in winning Cojuangco’s seal of approval. It has not only failed that test. Mrs. Arroyo’s popularity is also sinking daily while that of Poe is undeniable, and could result in his being president by 2004.

In these circumstances a Poe candidacy seems likely, to counter which Mrs. Arroyo and company will apparently field an Arroyo- de Castro team. De Castro is undoubtedly popular, but whether enough of that popularity will rub off on Mrs. Arroyo for her to defeat Poe is at best uncertain, and at worst improbable. Should Senator Loren Legarda end up as Poe’s vice presidential candidate, De Castro, whose performance in the 2001 elections was short of incredible, and whom all the polls say is a sure bet for either the presidency or the vice presidency, could conceivably defeat her. Thus the doomsday scenario.

The wringing of hands over the possibility of a Poe-De Castro win in 2004 is focused on the belief that neither would have the experience or the intellectual capacity to creditably lead the country. But it has also been suggested that the more urgent peril is that of having the two highest positions in the country in the hands of individuals beholden to narrow political and economic interests. If Poe ends up in Malacanang on the wings of Cojuangco support, De Castro would be vice president with the support of the Lopez family, which controls not only one of the two biggest radio and TV networks in the country, but also the troubled Manila Electric Company and Maynilad Water.

The first fear presumes not only the incapacity of Poe and De Castro for learning. It also suggests that their predecessors–most of whom undoubtedly had the experience and the intellectual preparation everyone has suddenly discovered are needed for governance—have at all done any better than the last actor to occupy the presidency.

Some of them have actually done worse. Ferdinand Marcos certainly had the experience and was a lawyer besides, but ended up using both his experience and his intellectual capacities for no purpose nobler than staying in power and enriching himself, his family, and his cohorts. There’s Mrs. Arroyo as well, who’s been senator and vice president, on top of possessing a PhD in economics, but whose main accomplishment so far has been to drive the country closer to the edge of economic ruin.

This is not to suggest that either Poe or de Castro could do better that their presumed betters—only hat their inexperience and alleged lack of intellectual preparedness do not guarantee that they will do badly if and once in office.

The second fear presumes, meanwhile, that Poe and De Castro would be the first candidates for office in this country to ever be beholden to political and economic interests.

On the contrary. Philippine elite politics has always depended on the patronage of such interests—on kngmakers as well as, once they’re in power, Grey Eminences from Church, business, the military, and the United States. It’s not as if contests for the presidency, the vice presidency, or for most other offices whether national or local, have not depended on the patronage of various interests, including gambling and drug groups and other criminal syndicates.

The truth is that the dependence of Philippine politics and governance on such interests has always been the one compelling argument that has driven many Filipinos to write off any future for, and even to abandon the country of their birth. Whatever happens in 2004, it can’t be any worse than what’s been happening since 1946, when the country held national elections under a supposedly independent regime. The economic and political interests of the local and foreign elite were so dominantly involved in those elections no one paid any attention to the interests that really counted—those of the voters. It’s been doomsday ever since.

(Today/, November 22, 2003)

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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