The Long View: A grudge match

A grudge match

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 09:42pm (Mla time) 02/04/2007

MANILA, Philippines—NATIONAL Artist F. Sionil José says he lost his respect for Claro M. Recto when he personally witnessed him express hatred for Ramon Magsaysay.

In his book, “Why We Are Poor,” José recounts the incident: “Recto was opposed to agrarian reform … not as a matter of principle but because it was championed by … Magsaysay whom he loathed. He described him thus: … ‘That ignoramus—he stole the presidency from me’…” The joke among Magsaysay’s intellectual contemporaries was that he was so dumb, he wanted to repeal the law of supply and demand.

And yet—though the unprincipled chant it and understand it the wrong way—it is true that politics is a numbers game. A leader is not measured by the bridges and highways he builds but by the ballot box and the numbers it disgorges on election day. By that measure, the victorious aren’t necessarily the winners.

Magsaysay was unique: he got 68.9 percent of the votes cast, in the first (and only) time he ran for president. No president before or since could match it: only one came close in a first term victory (68 percent in 1935); and only two are comparable with regard to second term victories (81.78 percent in 1941, but that was with a one-party state; 61.5 percent in 1969, but that was after spending one-fourth of the national budget on electioneering).

This is why I’ve always insisted on keeping Joseph Estrada’s victory in 1998 firmly in perspective: it was massive only in terms of his competition, and not in terms of past elections. His victory was on par with the only plurality, and not majority, president of the premarital law era: Carlos Garcia’s 41.3 percent in 1957.

And it is no wonder vice presidents have given incumbent presidents nightmares—since Sergio Osmeña Sr. obtained 87 percent in 1935 and 92.1 percent in 1941. Estrada’s 33 percent in 1992 made him the man to beat; Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 49.56 percent gave her the confidence to eventually break with Estrada; Noli de Castro’s 49.8 percent in 2004 makes him impossible to ignore. There may be reason to say that a voter decides on a vice president in a manner different from the way he picks a president, but it has no effect either on a president’s insecurities or a vice president’s bloating ambitions.

This also explains why every senator who obtains more votes than an incumbent president in an election becomes convinced he or she can do a better job. The votes can exceed a president’s in colossal terms. President Arroyo claimed 12.9 million votes in 2004; De Castro, 15.1 million. Four senators that year obtained more votes than the president: Roxas, Revilla, Pimentel, Madrigal; while Gordon, Cayetano and Santiago obtained only slightly less. Two senators exceeded the vice president’s votes: Revilla and Roxas.

To say that senators fight each other less than, say, presidential or vice-presidential candidates, and are picked wholesale by the voters, is, again, irrelevant to a senator’s ambitions, and in a sense, to the expectations of voters when they see the results. Post-election, people pore over senatorial results to see who is in play for the presidency as much as to find out if they helped pick winners in the race.

The weakness of the present administration can thus be best seen by its current sad excuse for a slate it’s trying to cobble together. The historian Mina Roces once observed that, politically, candidates are measured by voters on whether they’re “malakas.” Strength being measured not by machismo (though that has always helped), but by their being able to bring home the bacon and, more importantly, by being perceived as winners. The voters who pick an underdog, thinking that by so doing, they’re producing a victor, play up to the cult of the winner.

This is one reason I’m convinced too many politicians attempt a campaign, even though they’re doomed to lose, only to wonder why their being the underdog killed off their political careers. The reason is, they didn’t win, and the voter has no scruples about abandoning an underdog who lacked the will—or luck—to be top dog.

Not being “malakas” enough to anoint her own loyalists as senatorial candidates, the President lacks a fundamental attribute of an effective president. Estrada, too, has been unable to totally get his way, even within the opposition—which is why even some of those formerly deemed his loyalists have gone, tails wagging, to the President’s camp.

Obviously, the national portion of the May elections is more than a fight between Arroyo and Estrada. To be sure, their grudge match is part of the campaign; but the campaign is larger than them.

A strong President, two years into a crisis, should be gunning to obtain victory on her terms; instead, victory is so obviously a long shot such that the least common denominator, media exposure, reigns supreme among her candidates. Never mind what that says about the gigantic gulf between what the President claims to represent and the best her administration’s advantages have to offer: merely money, not leadership.

An Estrada really adored by the public should be acting as the supreme arbiter of an opposition lineup; instead, from detention, his concern has been to preserve his two-seat bloc in the Senate, and bargain away everything else, for in the end all he has is money—but never as much as the Palace can produce. As for charisma, it can only rub off so much, and never as much when lent from a jail cell and when not freely given as a free man.

The Senate race is a test—a chaotic one as any democratic experiment has to be—to see who will be in line for the next top dog race. And so it’s about two things: who will keep the administration in its place, and who is poised to replace it. So it’s a grudge match—between the President and the public.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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