Money and the pres­i­dency

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - pub­[email protected]

IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE, NOYNOY Aquino, Manny Vil­lar and Erap Estrada—the cur­rent front-run­ners in the 2010 pres­i­den­tial race—rep­re­sent the three dis­tinct faces of Philip­pine pol­i­tics. Aquino draws heav­ily from the charisma of his il­lus­tri­ous par­ents. Vil­lar banks on the power of his per­sonal wealth. And Estrada con­tin­ues to rely on his movie hero charm. They also em­body, re­spec­tively, the three dom­i­nant in­sti­tu­tions that shape po­lit­i­cal for­tunes in our so­ci­ety: the fam­ily, the econ­omy, and the mass me­dia. Each one of them brings to pol­i­tics a dif­fer­ent kind of ad­mis­sion ticket—lin­eage for Noynoy, pur­chas­ing power forManny, and star ap­peal for Erap.

All of them will, of course, say they are run­ning on more sub­stan­tial is­sues, as in­deed they may be. Noynoy has made good gov­er­nance his prin­ci­pal ad­vo­cacy, whereas Manny and Erap, in their sep­a­rate ways, have framed their mes­sages as a fight against mass poverty. Th­ese two is­sues are in­ter­con­nected. Good gov­er­nance may be seen as the mod­ern ap­proach to poverty, while the pop­ulist ref­er­ence to the elim­i­na­tion of poverty may be seen as the end goal of gov­er­nance. It is a mat­ter of em­pha­sis. The first ap­peals to the mid­dle classes, the lat­ter to the poor­est of the poor.

One wishes the cam­paign it­self could fo­cus not so much on per­son­al­i­ties as on con­crete analy­ses and pro­grams ex­pressly aimed at un­der­stand­ing and ad­dress­ing cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fi­ciency in gov­ern­ment, on one hand, and mass poverty, on the other. The anal­y­sis of th­ese twin is­sues and their so­lu­tions would go a long way in ad­vanc­ing the cause of mod­ern pol­i­tics. It would make po­lit­i­cal par­ties take the cen­ter stage, forc­ing them to trans­late their opaque moth­er­hood vi­sions into clear, con­crete and de­bat­able pol­icy pro­pos­als. In this man­ner are vot­ers grad­u­ally eman­ci­pated from the se­duc­tions of pa­tron­age and per­sonal charisma.

As it is, none of the lead­ing pres­i­den­tial candidates can claim to stake their can­di­da­cies on the draw­ing power and record of their re­spec­tive po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Their par­ties are noth­ing more than brand names that carry lit­tle weight, with no dis­tinct po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy or ide­ol­ogy. This ac­counts for the ease with which politi­cians of vary­ing, and of­ten con­flict­ing, per­sua­sions and back­grounds are sworn into the same party. Noth­ing co­her­ent binds them to­gether. In truth, th­ese so-called par­ties are noth­ing but coali­tions of con­ve­nience, pro­vi­sional al­liances forged by prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions rather than by en­dur­ing prin­ci­ples.

But all th­ese are re­al­i­ties that merely re­flect the present stage of de­vel­op­ment of our so­ci­ety. The po­lit­i­cal rhetoric is al­ways far too ad­vanced of what is pos­si­ble. That is why our na­tion’s life tends to be marked by episodes of high ex­pec­ta­tions and un­ful­filled prom­ises. The power to make de­ci­sions in the name of all of us—which is what gov­ern­ment is all about—is never so­licited nor given on the ba­sis of an ad­e­quate un­der­stand­ing of na­tional prob­lems and pri­or­i­ties. To bor­row a thought from Marx, our leaders want to make his­tory, but they for­get they must do so un­der cir­cum­stances not cho­sen by them­selves. Thus they prom­ise the heav­ens just to get elected, com­pletely un­mind­ful that the con­di­tions that make the at­tain­ment of their prom­ises pos­si­ble do not yet ex­ist.

It is not to say that our so­ci­ety is not chang­ing. For in­deed it is, al­beit slowly. Pre­vi­ously, po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions in our coun­try were the pre­serve of the landed oli­garchy or their prox­ies. The elec­tion of a movie star to the pres­i­dency in 1998 ended that pat­tern. If Manny Vil­lar be- comes pres­i­dent in 2010, it will be the first time a busi­ness­man who is not from the old rich would have suc­cess­fully used hiswealth to get the pres­i­dency. Clearly, the path to the pres­i­dency is now more var­ied.

Vil­lar’s phe­nom­e­nal rise in pol­i­tics is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing. On one hand, it shows the broad­en­ing of the eco­nomic base of our so­ci­ety—a wel­come de­par­ture from the pri­macy of in­her­ited wealth. But, on the other hand, it also ex­presses a dis­turb­ing con­ti­nu­ity in the brazen use of po­lit­i­cal power as a means of eco­nomic ac­cu­mu­la­tion, and vice-versa, the de­ploy­ment of wealth to gain po­lit­i­cal power. From what­ever an­gle one may look at it—le­gal, moral, or so­ci­o­log­i­cal—it is cer­tainly symp­to­matic of the per­sis­tence of pre-mod­ern habits that the leg­isla­tive ini­tia­tives of Se­na­tor Vil­lar have been closely in­ter­twined with his busi­ness in­ter­ests.

Ac­cord­ingly, it is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve the line that if he had wanted to make more money, Se­na­tor Vil­lar would have stayed in busi­ness. On the con­trary, the pat­tern in our so­ci­ety has been for the rich to pre­cisely en­ter pol­i­tics in or­der to get more rich or to pro­tect what they al­ready have, es­pe­cially if the bulk of their wealth had been ac­cu­mu­lated through po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions.

In a re­cent ra­dio in­ter­view where he was asked about the enor­mous amounts he was spending in the cam­paign, can­di­date Vil­lar was quoted as say­ing: “I am not an ac­tor, I’m not a celebrity. I have no fa­ther whowas a pres­i­dent or mother who was a pres­i­dent. This is the only way for me to be rec­og­nized by our peo­ple. This is not il­le­gal and I worked hard for this money.” Go­ing on a spending spree to win an elec­tion, in­deed, is not il­le­gal. And cer­tainly there is noth­ing wrong with hav­ing a lot of money. But do we need to guess what kind of gov­ern­ment awaits us if money wins the pres­i­dency?

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Randy David

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