THE Filipino likes the underdog, the maligned, the oppressed, only when the victim fights back and becomes a winner. We like people who are daring and fight great odds –but we also reserve a special contempt for those who have everything, and gain nothing –or lose everything. We like our heroes flawed, even tragic, but reserve little pity for the losers.
Fernando Poe Jr. enjoyed the adulation of his fans and luxuriated in the hope his candidacy represented for many ordinary Filipinos. He may even have relished the dread and depression his candidacy inspired in his political opponents. Certainly the moment he announced his willingness to be president, he became the man to beat. The story, the reasons, behind his campaign ending up in failure are worthy of the big screen –or at least, a political novel.
But the story of his defeat lies in the very thing that made him such a formidable candidate in the first place: the myth and mythology surrounding his very being.
A self made man, a conservative man, Poe incarnates many traditional Filipino values: endurance, gallantry, loyalty, personal integrity, courage. And yet as a public figure, he was a maverick, just as his primacy in the showbiz world was exercised in a manner distinct and unique from other big stars. In a society that puts little premium on privacy, he was an intensely private man. In a society in which gossip reigns, the showbiz press found itself thoroughly cowed. Rigid and authoritarian by instinct, he lacked the pliability, the adaptability –the dynamism- that is required of public men. He therefore suffered from too politically-fatal flaws: a reluctance to endure media intrusion, and the unwillingness to do what it takes to be a team player in a team effort.
His opponents, after their initial panic, devoted time and effort to studying and devising means to chip away at the mythology surrounding Poe. An unabashed nationalist, Poe’s very being as a Filipino was placed in doubt when his citizenship was questioned. The attack on the veracity of his Filipino citizenship had little impact on the public, which views citizenship as something more than what the law says, but had a devastating impact on Poe’s financiers and political allies. Citizenship, mainly a question of convenience for most Filipinos, was a valuable tool in frightening Poe’s supporters among the elite. With a Supreme Court perceived as being firmly in the pocket of the Palace, there was a certain plausibility to the fear that Poe would be disqualified. Businessmen ready to bet heavily on Poe began to hedge their bets, to the benefit of his opponents. Fellow members of the opposition were also inspired to take a wait-and-see attitude, in the off chance that they would need to rally behind an alternative bet.
The result was a shortage of funds and more significantly, the continuation of opposition disunity. This affected Poe’s candidacy fundamentally as Poe, who had proclaimed himself a healing and unifying candidate, began to be criticized for being unable to foster unity in the opposition. It was double body blow: his Filipino-ness was put in doubt, and his self-proclaimed mission was seen as already a failure.
What followed next –and quite early on, too- is something similar to culture shock. The remote reigning monarch of Philippine movies, used to tact and deference from the showbiz press, was irritated –and irritated, in turn- the news media. His opponents rejoiced with every incident of brusqueness, every example of a short temper, every imagined or real slight aimed at the political press. The myth was tarnished further. Irritation was transformed into acts of unpardonable machismo; the gallant Poe was reported as a bully who verged on the misogynist. When Poe then declared he had no intention to participate in any presidential debates, he then opened himself up to a feeding frenzy on the part of an antagonized press (and public): the macho man who was rude to women became the macho man not macho enough to debate his opponents.
The belief that Poe was tied with near-mystical bonds of understanding and empathy with the masses was punctured by this refusal to debate. Poe may sincerely feel, as he said at the time, that the time for talking had long passed. But he forgot that Filipinos are addicted to debating: his refusal to debate, in fact, sparked a big debate among his constituents. In barbershops and roadside stalls, in markets and beer gardens, in small towns and big cities, the big buzz was Poe’s refusing to debate. Pro or con? Overwhelmingly, the sentiment was pro debate. For the first time, he was attacked on AM radio: was Da King a coward? Who’d ever thought anyone would ever dare think such a thing?
A little-noticed undercurrent in the campaign kept lapping up against his candidacy, eroding it the way even small ripples can eventually destroy a sand castle. This undercurrent was the generation gap between the Poe campaign and electorate. The handlers and backers of Poe were heavily of the senior citizen generation, whose political dictums belonged to an earlier age. The attempt to create a showbiz juggernaut, crushing everything in it path was derailed by a low key but noticeable revolt within showbiz circles along generational lines. The big stars were for Poe –but not all the big stars, and with enough younger stars and showbiz folk drifting to other camps to weaken the illusion of a solid professional cadre of support. Even among the masses, there were perceptible signs that Poe wasn’t as real an idol as he was to, perhaps, the majority of those 35 and above. Showbiz circles reflected the larger problem of Poe: fostering and maintaining, unity.
Still: Poe could rely on the disenchantment of the unemployed, the poor, and the middle and upper classes of a populist bent. Why, then, did he fail to harness them effectively? The answer doesn’t lie with Poe, but with his political lieutenants.
His handlers and backers suffered from a fatal flaw in politics, which is to lack a healthy respect for their constituents. A hard-nosed, realistic appreciation of one’s constituency requires the realization that they may be (although not necessarily are) smarter than you think. Most of all, it requires the ability to see the logic behind previous decisions by, and inclinations of, the electorate.
The specter of Joseph Estrada haunted Poe and his campaign. They failed to see beyond the showbiz glitter that continues to surround Estrada, without being able to see the other factors that contributed to the Erap phenomenon. Show business gave Estrada a head start and provided him with a natural advantage in terms of communicating with his audience –whether at the box office or during elections. But Estrada’s success was built on hard slogging over two decades of holding various local, then national positions. It was built as much on the ability to reach out and get along with people –in building and nurturing alliances- as it was on popularity born of inherent charisma and the magic of the silver screen. To Poe’s handlers, the equation was as simple as movie star plus politics equals electoral success. Estrada’s career was always much more than translating box office receipts into ballots.
When Fernando Poe Jr. decided to assert some leadership and imposed Loren Legarda on his campaign as his running mate, he experienced a backlash from his own people. Estrada went as far as making noise in public, belligerent at times (at least until he had his son restored to the opposition senate slate), piteous for the most part. In politics, when a leader attempts to impose his will, he has to ensure that he has laid the groundwork for successfully cracking the whip: Poe, instead, succeeded in causing a temporary rift with Estrada, a near-permanent revolt by those who disliked Legarda, and the further erosion of his image as strong, intimidating leader. When Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez quipped that “politics is addition,” he also meant that all political decisions must be in the nature of what Fidel Ramos likes to call “win-win.” No one won when Poe tried to enforce his will on his partymates –not even Loren Legarda.
In the end, the Poe campaign suffered from a combination of having a Da King who could not rule, a party that lacked the wherewithal to properly fight his fight, and a public disillusioned with the disparity between Poe the legend and Poe the novice politician. It was a candidacy born of the suicidal notions that afflict those who believe their own propaganda.