The Three Faces

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

And then there were three.

With Grace Poe declaring her candidacy to the people, 2016 will see at least three major players running for the presidency. Some believe that Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City was serious when he said he would not run anymore, though others believe that he still might. So might former Sen. Ping Lacson. For now, at least, we have three, and the most important three if we go by polled sentiments of the Filipino.

The three faces, then, that were shown on the digital screen in the House of Representatives when President Benigno Aquino III gave his last State of the Nation Address last July 27, are now declared candidates for the 2016 presidential elections. No one was surprised when the three faces of Jejomar Binay, Mar Roxas and Grace Poe were shown on the screen then, and no one is surprised today. In fact, if any one of the three had not decided to run, that would have been the surprise.

All presidential candidates will begin by saying that they will need the support of all Filipinos, and I don’t mean their votes but their contribution to the country under the next presidency. All presidents have said that, especially in the beginning of their terms. Just how well the people understood the message is debatable and largely suspect. What is primordial in the minds of people is good governance, or good leadership, not good citizenship.

A nation of mostly poor citizens has little understanding of good citizenship, except maybe not to join an armed rebellion. In their minds, there is not much more that can be squeezed from them by government. Good citizenship is a crucial factor in building a strong nation but nothing serious beyond rhetoric has been rolled out by presidents and politicians along this line. If not for the schools, the idea of good citizenship is not an appreciated virtue.

Citizens do not run a country no matter how many times they are call “boss.” Politicians and bureaucrats do. And these same politicians and bureaucrats are quite tentative in pushing for participative governance because that would mean sharing power and perks, sharing, too, the decision-making process that is usually highly politicized. Why did the “pork barrel” concept and practice evolve in the first place?

In a democracy such as the one we have, government officials are elected. Those who have appointive positions are put there by elected officials. That is why the greater power rests on the Executive Branch even if the Legislative and the Judiciary would like to be co-equals. They are not, and they never will be, not for as long as Filipinos are mired in poverty.

The masa, powerless though they believe they are, actually set the manner and tone of governance in the Philippines. For as long as they are weak, those in power will remain few, and fewer still will be those who control the wealth. True democracy, then, remains a nebulous concept with only one freedom for the majority—the freedom to vote every three or six years.

Worse, poverty makes it impossible to restrain corruption. A weak people cannot be effective guardians of the law. Their basic needs will drive them to lower the bar of ethics and expectations, will make them—not just compromise—but actually pursue politicians and bureaucrats who hold the power and resources of the country. Poverty worsens corruption even if it is greed that is its fundamental cause.

Come election time, it is those with power and resources that have the great edge over their opponents. There is only one other force greater—and that is charisma, charisma that translates to popularity, charisma that translates to trust. Who the people believe they can trust, who the people believe have the heart and the will to help them, they get elected.

Of course, vote-buying can swing a crucial percentage, but few candidates for the presidency can manage to buy votes on a national basis. What is easier is for administration candidates using the national budget in their favor, rolling out projects and enabling massive temporary employment. Unfortunately, at least three past presidential candidates with this kind of an edge all lost to those with less resources but more charisma.

The worst fear of the charismatic and the popular is, of course, election cheating. Presidential candidates cannot be cheated nationally except if it is the Comelec that actively cheats them. The history of the Comelec has made this institution very suspect and has ranked among the most corrupt. That is why people accepted automated elections despite their unfamiliarity with the process—because the record of cheating by people was more feared. Comelec has a new Chairman with a spotless record in his stint as the head of PCGG. So much rests on his integrity and vigilance.

What many do not realize is that good citizenship has a very familiar face called volunteerism. In fact, volunteerism has been the major weapon of presidential candidates who had smaller campaign funds but stronger popularity. It worked for Cory Aquino, for Fidel Ramos, for Joseph Estrada and for Noynoy Aquino. It should have worked all the more for Fernando Poe, Jr. but that’s a long and painful story. It almost toppled Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, forced her to say, “I am sorry,” and basically why Filipinos today accept her extended detention.

Volunteerism, though, wanes after elections. Sometimes, it is killed, deliberately. Those who ascend to power do not like to share it. Citizens are sidelined in favor of the politicians and the bureaucrats. They tire of the politicking and the red tape, give up, go about their own personal lives and just carry the resentment. Partisan politics is about power and control after all. Believe it or not, it worsens after elections and remains a great deterrent to nation-building.

But that’s democracy, still waiting for good and empowered citizens.

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