Manila Abuzz With Rumors

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Manila Abuzz With Rumors

by Manuel L. Quezon III

At the time I’m writing this, mid-afternoon on Valentine’s Day (a day usually spent by Filipinos on lining up for movies, dinners, theater seats or in a motel), Manila’s media is abuzz with yet another round of coup rumors. The rumors have been sputtering along for weeks, to be sure, but were particularly active during the weekend. They came back to life today, and this time, were particularly specific. Troop movements were supposedly afoot, coming from Nueva Ecija and Bulacan provinces. Their mission? To seize IBC-13, a government television station in Manila, and proclaim Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a leading oppositionist and former head of the Philippine National Police, president.

The high level of what American intelligence people call “chatter” at the very least must have been noticed by the government. Military mutineers attending a hearing on their rebellion case (dating to 2003) were surrounded by 400 government troops. Military sources contacted by media colleagues would neither confirm nor deny if something was afoot. Government troops were definitely edgy; there was a silly fight between the reporters of GMA7, one of the two major networks, and government soldiers over a handkerchief one of the rebels dropped, of all things. As if that rumor wasn’t alarming enough, the rumors further suggested that Sen. Lacson had reached an accommodation with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: It would be, in effect, a self-coup, on the model of Ferdinand Marcos or Alberto Fujimori of Peru. A skeptical media colleague (who, unlike me, is neutral in the political goings-on locally) was immediately skeptical: Was this, he asked, some kind of wish-fulfillment on the part of oppositionists hostile to Sen. Lacson?

Right now, of course, who knows? After a rather extended period of being out of the limelight, however, it serves as a good reminder that Lacson remains a figure to watch. At a time when the anti-Arroyo opposition is still searching for a leader, it is, indeed, a curious phenomenon that one of the people most qualified to lead, remains mistrusted by most of the opposition. Of the candidates for the presidency that ran against Ms. Arroyo, two are dead: The leading opposition standard bearer Fernando Poe, Jr. and former Sen. Raul Roco, the darling of youthful reformists. That leaves only two candidates still alive: Lacson, the soldier turned politician, and Eddie Villanueva, a protestant pastor turned politician.

The two, by virtue of full-page advertisements a few months ago, seem to have a de facto alliance.

Lacson approached his campaign for the presidency methodically and observers commented at the time, like a suicide operation. He refused to sing and dance on stage, in contrast to most Filipino politicians who think campaigning involves putting on variety shows. He showed a marked disinclination to make deals helpful to his candidacy. What he did roll out was one of the most complete, if not the most complete, programs of government of any candidate. And if the observations of media colleagues are accurate, he also showed a thorough and firm grasp of his plan of government’s details.

Always modestly but well dressed, always cool and collected, in fact typically rather remote and cold, what Lacson lacked was charisma — at least the kind to mobilize the masses. He certainly possesses a kind of guarded, clinical charm when it comes to law-and-order types from all walks of life. But it’s precisely his no-nonsense, shoot-first and ask questions later reputation — earned from decades as a police officer during the Marcos dictatorship and afterward, as a leading figure in efforts to stamp out drug-dealing and kidnapping, that made him a person to view with fear and suspicion. He has never overcome a celebrated case in which apprehended criminals were killed while supposedly either resisting arrest or trying to escape. For a society that has a lingering trauma over military abuses, it has been enough to overshadow whatever appeal he might otherwise have for the broader public.

In following Lacson’s career over the past decade, certain things seem clear. Unlike most of the prominent leaders in Philippine political life today, he is stingy when it comes to speaking out. Whether to conceal his strengths or hide his weaknesses, he prefers to keep people guessing. His military career — he belongs to the famous Class of 1971 of the Philippine Military Academy, a class notable for its politicized nature — has demonstrated his own personal courage and a streak of ruthlessness people fear. He obviously has a capacity for planning, and strategizing, alien to his rival politicians; and he has a practical familiarity with commanding people — and their loyalties — that goes beyond the ties politicians usually establish merely through patronage.

So were the Valentine’s Day rumors black propaganda against him, or a sign of things afoot (or even things to come)? At this point it’s premature to tell. However, one thing is sure: After having been discounted for some time, the spotlight’s returned to him. And how! In a country treading water, is he being deliberately put forward as the one with the lifeline? Or is it simply fate conspiring to make him so? That only he could answer the question — and that he’s not a man known for giving answers — may be a large part of the problem.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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