THREE THINGS stand out in the latest Social Weather Stations Pulse Asia survey.
The first is that Benigno Aquino III’s numbers represents the highest percentage for a candidate since the multiparty system was introduced in 1987, surpassing the record set by Joseph Ejercito Estrada in the 1998 surveys. The second is that he almost has a 2-to-1 lead over the next strongest contender, Manuel Villar Jr. The third is that both Aquino and Villar’s numbers puts them way ahead of all the other hopefuls, meaning that in the public’s mind, the two are the main contenders for the presidency.
The time-honored conventional wisdom is that politics is addition, though of course elections are also about division: you have to choose sides. While political analyst Ramon Casiple believes it’s a stretch to think that the two-party system is back, since the consensus seems to be the two serious contenders are the Aquino-Roxas and Villar-Legarda tandems, I’ve been arguing for some years now that 2004 signaled a return to the voters perceiving the presidential contest as a two-man race. I would add that elections since 1987 have become about subtraction. Since we’re still under a multi-party system with no runoff elections, the minor candidates still matter, in their ability to whittle down the votes of one or both of the leading contenders.
With slightly under six months to go before election day, the 2-to-1 lead of Aquino over Villar presents a problem. Aquino’s candidacy has overturned the conventional wisdom that the one who postures best as a patron has more appeal to the mercenary instincts of voters.
A leader devoid of credibility, such as President Macapagal-Arroyo, has to appeal to mercenary motives and the lowest common denominator to defuse the appeal of idealism. Thus that favorite tag line of the administration, with reference to its opponents, is that “they’re all the same, after all.” If you cannot deflect accusations of wrongdoing, then you might as well argue that you may be a crook, but you’re a crook that delivers.
To appeal to pragmatism or to chest-thump as the patron par excellence is a winning strategy if you’re competing in a field of aspiring patrons-to-be. But if you are faced with a candidacy anchored on the belief that the public aspires for a government that insists on integrity and which refuses to be ruled by cynicism, then you have a problem.
The patron doles out goodies on the basis of grace and favor and reciprocal rewards for loyalty. A leader crazy enough to believe that one can be honest and so serve as an example can put crazy notions in the voters’ minds that as citizens they can expect benefits from government, not as a result of a transaction, but because it’s the right thing for government to do and for them to expect.
How to counter this? Foster the impression that everyone else is a crook. Or if that is too patently a lie, resort to some other form of creative fiction. The best defense is a good offense, and a confluence of interests means there are plenty of temporary allies able and willing to mount a sustained assault – even if one of the collateral victims is common sense.
The tone of one such campaign was set by Ernesto Maceda (so old and still so much the same as when he was young) when he put forward the idea that Noynoy Aquino is autistic, which was gleefully picked up by a minor broadsheet, and then embroidered further by columnist Butch del Castillo. Unfortunately the campaign fell apart when Raissa Robles decided to do an internal consistency check on Del Castillo’s column. The results were hilarious.
Among other things, Del Castillo painted a picture of a hyperactive Noynoy literally on a leash in his toddler days, because he’d had a near-fatal run in with a Doberman on the loose, adding the only reason he wasn’t mangled was due to the timely and courageous intervention of an even younger Kris Aquino. Robles pointed out that the problem with the Super Kris story is that it supposedly took place when Noynoy was three. Since Noynoy is 11 years older, for Kris to have saved her supposedly hapless brother, she would have had to have traveled back in time to eight years before she was even born!
And it gets better: Del Castillo wrote darkly of Noynoy being put in a “special school” when he was five or six, implying it was a specialized institution for autistic kids. But it turns out, after Robles consulted the official record, that the school in which the young Aquino was placed at that time was the Ateneo de Manila.
There were other problems with the Del Castillo attempt at fiction, revolving around internal inconsistencies in his tall tales. In one paragraph, the baby Noynoy is portrayed as catatonic and drooling, in another, he’s hyperactive. Robles tartly wondered if Del Castillo had a stint working for Marcos propaganda czar Greg Cendana (perhaps she should ask Juan Ponce Enrile).
We forget that politicians are people, too, and there are times when their aspirations don’t deviate from that of the electorate, precisely because they’re psychologically needier than most in that they crave public approval. Leaders who promise them patronage are commonplace, but a leader who will welcome them without benefit of under-the-table deals is not only refreshing but also liberating.
You saw it on the face of Vilma Santos who hasn’t done badly playing the usual political game. For once she could hold her head high with her choice of candidate. In every politician, as Christian Monsod says, lurks the potential to be a statesman, and it begins with recognizing that logistics and money aren’t everything.