President Erap

So much has been said and written about the alleged economic illiteracy of Erap that one wonders if there is anything he could do from here on that is not likely to be greeted by a smug “I told you so.” Typical remarks about Erap are unrelenting in their meanness. Among my bourgeois friends, the kindest line I have heard about the prospect of an Erap presidency is a resigned  “At least the country will be in for interesting times.”

Behind all the disparaging comments about Erap is an ill-concealed contempt for the great unwashed that voted for him in the last election. Erap’s voters from the so-called D and E classes are  viewed as shortsighted, ignorant, and unable to transcend the logic of their stomachs. The ruling classes fear that Erap might start to take his own populist rhetoric seriously and embark on a costly program of social redistribution just to satisfy the short-term needs of his hungry constituents.

My own fear, on the contrary, is that by the time he assumes the presidency this year, Erap would have been so subdued and chastened by all the arrogant heckling that has come his way that he would check his own pro-poor instincts and give free rein to the calculations of his technocrats.  Everyone has been telling him how complex the economy is, and how sensitively he must manage international perceptions in view of the Asian crisis.  I am afraid his hecklers have not left him much room to discover the meaning of his professed preferential option for the poor.

Erap has sometimes been likened to an unguided missile.  But perhaps it is not  the peril of an unguided missile that we should worry about as much as the fatal effects of an entrenched economic paradigm that has been rendered irrelevant by volatile times.  For there is no way Erap can properly serve the poor in our country without boldly reassessing existing economic policy.  There is no way we can avoid the recurrence of the financial crisis without reexamining current models of growth.  And perhaps, most important of all, there is no way we can avert the looming ecological crisis unless we review our conventional notions of development.

Leadership is about discernment, the ability to make acute distinctions, to see things – not neutrally – but from the perspective of what they can be and what they should be by the light of one’s personal philosophy.  It is not a skill one gets from formal education. Rather, it is a sensibility one sharpens, usually in emergency or critical situations, when one has to assume  responsibility for the lives of others.  By giving Erap a mandate much larger and firmer than what Fidel Ramos got in 1992, our people are telling him that they trust Erap implicitly and therefore he too must trust his own instincts.

Good leaders are never the leaders who play safe and go by the tested formulas.  It is rather those who, guided by the power of their simple commitments, listen to all sides, weigh the options, and, when necessary, go against the tide in order to uphold what they believe is right.

There are no schools for future presidents.  Those among our veteran politicians who know the government very well are often not the ones we would like to see become president.   They tend to be too clever, too glib, and too experienced in the ways of power.  Voters everywhere seem to prefer presidents who combine strength with a certain humility of character – a fundamental humanity with which they can identify.

That is why among our past presidents, Magsaysay has remained the most popular.  The educated would often laugh at him because of his lack of sophistication.  But that was precisely his principal asset – his accessibility to the popular mind.  People understood his personal demeanor and awkwardness with power.  His American sponsors capitalized on this folksiness and made it the launching pad for his presidency.  The bright leaders of his time, with far superior minds, like Don Claro M. Recto, had to step aside to make way for this simple man from Zambales.

We have often doubted the political maturity of the Filipino voter. Maturity is, of course, a relative term.  I prefer to measure the maturity of a political system by the openness and smoothness by which it can choose its leaders and transfer power to the successors.  At a time when all around us in Southeast Asia nations seem gripped by a mood to expel leaders who have lost their trust, should we not consider ourselves fortunate that we have an outgoing president who continues to be respected and appreciated by our people, and an incoming president who seems to personify the highest hopes of the underprivileged of our society?

A president is important because he sets the mood of our national life. Whatever the intelligentsia might say about Erap’s personal qualifications for the presidency, no one can deny or take away the basic trust that our people have given to him.  It is good for the morale of a democratic nation that the people they have elected to represent them can claim their seats without having to fight for them all over again.  Yet nothing perhaps can be more demoralizing than a governing class that refuses to hand over power to the winners in a fair and honest contest.

A hundred years ago, the founders of our nation fought a bloody war to establish our right to govern our country.  Today we can take pride in the fact that in spite of the aggravations caused by an obsolescent voting system, we have managed to protect the substance of a democratic process, and elect the leaders of our country in a peaceful and orderly way.  It is an achievement we must learn not to take for granted, as we watch with great concern and sympathy neighboring Indonesia’s own painful transition to democracy.


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