Although the prospects for a united front between Panfilo Lacson and Fernando Poe Jr. seem dim, neither has dismissed the possibility. Precisely for that purpose, Poe and Lacson were scheduled to meet yesterday, April 19, as this column was being written.

As befits a most critical time in the opposition’s prospects this May, the statements from both camps were cautiously upbeat. But there was no escaping the somber tone from Lacson, Poe’s more articulate coalition mates, and even former President Joseph Estrada.

Lacson, for example, asked those in attendance in one of his sorties in Mindoro to pray for opposition unity, although he did emphasize the “me” factor when he asked those present to “Please help me (not us) with your prayers.” Repeating one of his favorite mantras—that the administration’s K-4 coalition actually stands for crime, corruption, poverty and graft—he added that it was “important that the opposition unite to fight K-4.”

Lacson didn’t say “defeat K-4,” but the subtext of that message was clear: only a united opposition can hope to defeat President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her motley crew on May 10.

Mrs. Arroyo is now about three percentage points ahead of Poe in the presidential horse race, said Pulse Asia. She has also improved her approval ratings from minus three last year to plus 30 last March, said Social Weather Stations. At the time of the Pulse Asia survey, Raul Roco was third with 12 percent of the votes, Lacson 10, and preacher Eddie Villanueva 4.

Lacson has dismissed these numbers as part of some conspiracy to deny him a mandate this May. He argues that he amassed over 10 million votes when he ran for the Senate in 2001, and that he is greeted with enthusiasm everywhere he campaigns. Therefore, he concludes, he could not possibly win only ten percent of the votes—or some 3.8 million—this May, as the surveys say he would.

But this time Lacson is running for president, not for senator. The difference is that the voters have twelve choices to make for senator, and only one for president. In 2001 they could spread their votes around. They can’t do that, at least not for president, this May.

Enthusiastic receptions do not necessarily gauge how people will vote, either. Filipinos will turn out in large numbers for this candidate or that, among other reasons because of the latter’s prominence or notoriety, or because of the actors he or she has in tow. It’s part of the celebrity syndrome the poorest Filipinos are fixated on, for reasons best explained by social psychologists. The very same voter who was cheering a candidate on last week could be writing someone else’s name on his ballot come election day.

Meanwhile, Lacson’s claim that Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations are involved in a grand conspiracy to put him down is easily said but extremely difficult to prove. Run by former associates who’re now rivals, the two firms actually serve as checks on each other. A key indicator of the integrity of their methods at least is the fact that the findings of both firms have been similar. The consistency of their findings with each other tends to validate the results each has so far generated.

One can read between the lines of Lacson’s as well as Estrada’s statements hints that despite Lacson’s dismissal of the surveys, in their heart of hearts they suspect that the surveys could be right. Hence the sense of somber urgency that has prevented Poe and Lacson’s camp from dismissing the possibility of unity.

The same surveys Lacson dismisses say that Poe is doing better than Lacson. But that has primarily been due to Poe’s having a huge fund of popularity to begin with. But Poe’s popularity has not been enough to make him the runaway winner almost everyone once thought he would be.

Poe’s refusal to say much beyond certain famous lines from his films, the (former?) disarray in his campaign organization, plus such disturbing displays of bad manners as his targeting TV journalist Sandra Aguinaldo, and more recently his identification and alliance with the Marcoses, have eroded that popularity.

The key factor in that erosion seems to be Poe’s refusal to reveal his plans of governance, as well as his inability to issue the one-liners that made Estrada the darling of the poor in all the elections he’s won. The poor—among whom everyone has an opinion and expects the of his or her leader–seem to think it strange that Poe doesn’t have any original one-liners to offer, and can only repeat lines from his movies.

These have not been well received in the media either. Poe’s attempts at one-liners, like “Lilipad na ang agila patungong Malacanang” (The eagle will soon fly to Malacanang) are too much of a mouthful, and doesn’t particularly say much about his views. Estrada’s “Walang kama-kamag-anak, walang kai-kaibigan” on the other hand was easily translated, while it also suggested a state policy.

Meanwhile, through a combination of wily tactics and plain luck, Mrs. Arroyo—on whose victory this May only the most reckless were once willing to bet—has managed to improve her own standing in the presidential race, and to raise her job approval ratings besides.

Add to the waxing of Mrs. Arroyo’s fortunes the perception, quite possibly mistaken, that Raul Roco is withdrawing from the contest. If that were indeed the case—though it now seems unlikely as Roco’s early return to the country becomes more probable—Mrs. Arroyo would be its principal beneficiary, with Poe the least likely to capture a share of Roco’s support. Meanwhile, Lacson’s ten percent showing in the surveys would benefit only marginally from a Roco withdrawal.

Whether Roco withdraws or not, however, Mrs. Arroyo could still widen her lead over Poe in the next three weeks of the campaign. It will not necessarily be because, as she loves to claim, she is the better candidate. It will be because she’s the better campaigner. Tireless, completely in tune with all the traditional means of using and winning power, capable of uniting with anyone and anything, and with the minimal scruples to match, Mrs. Arroyo is the quintessential trapo who’s always won Philippine elections, and against whom a relative amateur like Lacson can prevail only in the most ideal conditions.

Ideally there should be one opposition candidate if Lacson and company even hope to win against Mrs. Arroyo. Everyone in the opposition knows that by now, as their over-confidence wanes and their divisions take their toll.

But knowing is different from doing. Though they do understand the need for unity, neither Lacson nor Poe seem willing to give way to each other. Lacson has made it clear—and demanded the ouster of Vicente Sotto III and Edgardo J. Angara from the KNP as additional conditions—that he will agree to unity only with himself as the presidential candidate, and with Poe as his vice president.

Poe has seemed equally adamant, although his spokesmen have not explicitly ruled out the possibility of his running as Lacson’s vice president, in which case—has anyone noticed this?– Loren Legarda can kiss her ambitions goodbye.

Be that as it may, and assuming that some kind of opposition unity is forged regardless, it will not guarantee its victory this May. The handwriting on the wall seems clear at this point. Despite everything else, and regardless of the validity of the issues that have been raised against her– which have ranged from corruption and misuse of public funds to the recklessness of her foreign policy– Mrs. Arroyo could win a full term this May. That’s a possibility that could have its own grim consequences for the country of our despair.


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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