The Fernando Poe Jr. candidacy was a mistake from the very start. It’s not so much because he could win, but because he could lose.

When Poe announced his candidacy last December, the whining and gnashing of teeth among the so-called intelligentsia of this country was loud enough to wake the dead. It was primarily because the A and B classes resident in Makati and suburbs assumed Poe’s victory. They thought that, with Poe declaring himself a candidate, it was all over except for the inauguration. They thus accepted the Estrada proposition that his kumpadre would beat Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo and, through the not-so-subtle use of presidential power, throw out the plunder charges against him. They also accepted the prediction by Poe’s other partisans that Poe would come to power on a crest of a tsunami of votes (an unfortunate metaphor suggesting that destruction would be its inevitable result).

This acceptance was based on the unfounded assumption that Poe’s popularity via the movies he’s made over the last 30 years was enough to hand him the presidency. But the subtext of that belief was their contempt for the masses– the poor and unlettered a retired justice of the Supreme Court who lives in Forbes Park once accused in his newspaper column of debasing the political process through their ignorance.

Ignorant is not stupid, however. The first state is based on a lack of information, the second on a genetic incapacity to learn. One can accuse many Filipinos of stupidity, but not all of them would be either poor or unlettered. Many would even be in uniform. Some could even be judges.

But in accepting the myth of a Poe victory, the people who would be the poor’s betters also accepted his and his partisans’ belief that his popularity would be enough for the unthinking masses to elect him president, despite the clear absence of support for Poe anywhere near what Joseph Estrada enjoyed months before the 1998 elections.

Last December this column pointed out that the fear of Poe was largely exaggerated. Poe’s victory while possible was not certain, and a Poe candidacy could even be instructive to the Arroyo government by pushing it to put together the programs the country needed.

Instructive it has indeed been– in terms of the mistakes Poe has made, not the least of which was his running, in the first place. Poe was from the very start burdened by his kumpadre’s “blessing”. Although Estrada still has a considerable following, much of it had been eroded by his being out of power and in detention as well as by the determined, three-year efforts of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to win the sympathies of his constituents among the poor.

Estrada’s support was at best a mixed blessing. It was a curse at worst, especially among those groups and sectors that sincerely wanted an alternative to Mrs. Arroyo, but whose disaffection was based on allegations of corruption– or exactly the same reasons for which they disdained Estrada.

Poe did try to distance himself from Estrada—vainly, it turned out, as he accepted into his senatorial slate not only the trapos who had supported the then president in 2000-2001. As if to make his identification with Estrada even clearer, Poe topped that by adding Jinggoy Estrada to his list of candidates for senator.

Besieged by the usual media hordes and unable to answer their questions, Poe followed the fatal decision of packing his senatorial slate with Estrada’s creatures and son with a consistent refusal to be interviewed most of the time, and by being incoherent when he couldn’t avoid facing the media.

Then, in a culture in which everyone including your barber, the plumber and the balut vendor has an opinion and is prepared to defend it to the death, he refused to participate in the presidential debates, mumbling something about its being divisive rather than unifying.

While all this was happening, it was the incumbent who was feverishly uniting with anyone and anything that could be united with, extending the concept of the united front to everyone including her worst enemies save Poe and Panfilo Lacson, but including even Estrada himself. Mrs. Arroyo at the same time plotted and implemented a strategy worthy of Napoleon by maximizing the use of all the government resources she could get away with, and cobbling together alliances of convenience backed by generous largesse down to the last barangay.

At the same time, in contrast to the cacophony of conflicting claims from the Poe camp, Mrs. Arroyo has led and orchestrated a symphony of voices united in the common message that what this election is all about is a choice between experience and a well- thought out program on the one hand, and the exact opposite on the other. Or, as she put it before the Makati Business Club last Wednesday: “You can vote for a six-point plan of action and a record of accomplishment, or vote for someone who has no plan for education, no plan for clean water, no plan for job creation, no plan for energy and no plan for international relations.”

While it has been argued that Mrs. Arroyo’s plans sound like afterthoughts, and her supposed achievements mostly air, it’s been downhill for Poe and over the top for Arroyo right from the very start of the campaign. Now two events, one quite possibly an act of God, but the other perfectly within Poe and company’s control, are in addition likely to add to Poe’s woes.

The first is Raul Roco’s departure for the United States, very likely for the medical reasons he stated. Although Roco and his Alyansa ng Pag-asa (Alliance of Hope) have denied that he’s withdrawing from the presidential race, his departure will very likely be interpreted as a withdrawal by most of those who were ready to vote for him. Assuming they will still want to vote this May, unless Roco returns hale and hearty soon, they’re likely to swing their support to Mrs. Arroyo, Panfilo Lacson, or Eddie Villanueva.

Roco’s mostly youth and intelligentsia constituency support him because they want an alternative to Arroyo, but can’t abide Poe for reasons that need not be mentioned because they’re so obvious. If, come May 10, Roco is perceived to have withdrawn, they’re likely to go for Mrs. Arroyo, Lacson, or preacher Eddie Villanueva, with the possibility that they will vote for Poe practically nil. But a swing to Arroyo by only five percent (about 225,000) of Roco’s (as of this week) 12 percent support among the electorate (or some 4.5 million votes) could mean an Arroyo victory, given her current 34 percent support. The same numbers would hardly make a difference to Lacson—whose claim that the results of the surveys by Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia have been manipulated is simply wrong, and whose support has remained static at 10 percent.

The second event is Poe’s open, much publicized, and probably unnecessary alliance with the Marcos family. Although the Marcoses retain a considerable following in the Ilocos, that cannot be said of them nation-wide. The Marcoses nowadays are in the tradition of the feudal lords of medieval Europe whose influence is limited to the Ilocos and parts of Leyte, courtesy of Mrs. Imelda Marcos’ relatives. In addition, although President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself has made a few anti-Marcos noises, her minions have also been at work in Marcos country, putting together at the local level alliances that could work wonders in her favor come election day, while refusing to antagonize the Marcosistas with anti-Marcos statements.

In the meantime, Poe’s agreeing to what the Today editorial described Thursday as “that stupid performance in Ilocos” has provoked a litany of condemnation Poe and company including Juan Ponce Enrile, who said he regretted his role in unseating Marcos in 1986 (What would he have done? Gone peacefully to jail, his and Ramos’ plans for a coup having been discovered by Marcos?), are likely to hear no end of till election day.

Like certain local “brandies,” Poe is turning into that advertising nightmare, the unsellable product, primarily because, untutored in the ways of politics in the first place, his mistakes have not only been legion; they have also been devastating, though only to himself, thank God.

Mao Zedong once said of his prospects for winning the civil war in China something to the effect that his forces grew stronger by the day while those of his enemies continued to rot. That sounds like an apt description of what’s happening in these elections—with Mrs. Arroyo standing in for Mao.


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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