The Long View
Brains without bodies (2)
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:13:00 04/01/2009
When the late Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez quipped, “Politics is addition,” he probably never thought that the day would come when politics, in this country, would be about subtraction and even division.
Democracy, we are told, is the rule of the majority (with safeguards in place, of course, to prevent the persecution of minorities, who must always be heard). The president, in particular, as head of state and head of government, is supposed to be the president of all the people. And yet when was the last time we had a president elected by a true majority of the voters?
You can pick one of two options: In 1969, Ferdinand Marcos registered the last real landslide, with 61 percent of the votes. And in 1986, Marcos, according to the Batasan Pambansa [National Legislature], garnered 54 percent of the votes, while the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections had it at a 53 percent for Corazon Aquino, and the country prepared to fight it out in defense of that verdict until the EDSA People Power Revolution overtook the planned civil disobedience campaign.
Since 1987, only one president has been able to claim a landslide win: Joseph Estrada, whose 1998 victory with 39.86 percent of the votes gave him a 2-to-1 lead over his closest opponent, Jose de Venecia Jr. (15.87 percent). And yet in percentage terms – which is the only figure that counts over time, because our population is always increasing – even Estrada’s victory was still smaller than the only plurality victory of the entire Third Republic: Carlos P. Garcia’s 1957 win, when he garnered 41.28 percent of the votes. In that election, Garcia also garnered nearly twice as many votes as his nearest rival, Jose Yulo (27.62 percent). Yet Garcia never claimed, and no one ever attributed to him, a landslide victory.
In 2004, we came close to a revival of the two-candidate presidential race. Setting aside the controversial nature of the final results, with 39.9 percent officially for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and 36.51 percent for Fernando Poe Jr., it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if the three other candidates (Panfilo Lacson with 10.88 percent, Raul Roco with 6.45 percent, and Eddie Villanueva with 6.16 percent) had somehow united with one or the other of the main contenders. It might have been a landslide one way or another, making efforts to cheat academic, as was widely assumed to have been the case in 1998.
The only way Estrada could have been stopped in 1998 was for four or more of his rivals to unite. Put another way, the only thing that prevented an immediate repudiation of EDSA People Power Revolution just six years after the event, was that Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. (18.7 percent) and Imelda Marcos (10.32 percent) split the anti-EDSA, Marcos loyalist vote. The veterans of Marcos’ KBL party learned their lesson by 1998, uniting behind Estrada, while the EDSA People Power veterans kept on squabbling and fragmenting their votes.
You would think 2010 would be even more of a two-candidate race, with the country dividing on the basis of the current dispensation. But it seems it will be like 1992 all over again, with a swarm of presidential candidates, none of which can claim more than a sliver of the overall electorate.
None of the parties – not even the ruling Lakas-CMD, which dwarfs all the other parties in terms of size and scope -can foster unity because the political strategists have mastered the present rules, which call for the hedged bet and never the big throw of the dice. There is simply no incentive for putting together a truly broad-based, nationwide coalition that can meet the public expectation of being able to govern once elected.
The assumption of the candidates is that the powers and resources of the office are so vast that if you just manage to get the job, you can go shopping for a constituency afterwards. The only problem with this is that a president who has to shop for a constituency is stuck focusing on retail politics for the rest of his term, while a population with no historical memory but a kind of pre-programmed political consciousness instinctively rebels at the idea of a minority president.
We aren’t alone in rebelling at the idea of a president elected merely by a minority. Charles de Gaulle recognized in his countrymen the same tendency to be ungovernable unless a president was armed with a clear, majority mandate; and so, run-off elections were instituted. The Indonesians, sharing many of the same characteristics as us, are said to have taken a cue from our post-EDSA People Power experience and instituted run-off elections to prevent minority presidents being bogged down from day one of their terms. The writers of our Constitution apparently overlooked the possibility that a multiparty system is more suitable to a parliamentary government than a presidential one.
Obviously neither President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo nor Congress is interested in instituting run-off elections. The parties have no incentive to coalesce and divide along the lines of administration and opposition candidates, either. The only one who sees the dangers of this clearly is Estrada, who threatens to run unless the opposition unites: you only have one opportunity to put forward a presidential election as a referendum on the incumbent administration, and a divided opposition essentially guarantees that the administration can anoint – in public, or behind the scenes – its successor.
Everyone assumes that the President’s endorsement would be a “kiss of death” because half the country dislikes her. But beware the lesson of the past few years! A majority of the country opposing the President means nothing when she has the hardcore support of 25 percent of the public, with another 25 percent being more ambivalent but disliking the opposition more than they dislike her. Even if these two blocs fragment, in turn, on the question of the President’s successor, she has enough residual clout (government patronage and dirty tricks aside) to throw chunks of these blocs behind whomever she deems to be an appropriate successor.