I think we have to abandon the idea that there can ever be a president for all seasons, a leader suitable for all times, representing in distilled form all the virtues of our race. Such a president exists only in the imagination. We would have to stay home on election day and not cast our votes if we were looking for such a leader.
Choosing a president, I suggest, must be approached less like seeking the truth and more like solving a problem. It would be easier to find a useful president who can personify our people’s yearning for a better life in the next six years, a leader who can be at the same time our ladder to the next century. Such a president exists in real life. But this leader’s identity would depend on the kinds of problems to which we think he or she is the solution.
On the centennial of our independence from Spain, a year characterized by patriotic palpitations, it would be natural, of course, to look for a president who best resonates the ideals of the founding heroes of our nation. But it would be futile to do that. Heroes are historical figures that cannot be transplanted in time.
Our problem is the next six years, and the dangers and opportunities that lie ahead. We should be looking not so much for a leader who reminds us of a heroic past, but for a leader who can bring us closer to a desired future. A president with a genuine appreciation of the global forces that are even now shaping nations and cultures in unimaginable ways. A president who knows that a nation must continually reinvent itself in order to survive in a world made dangerous and different by mind-boggling revolutions in technology. A president who listens and who has such a close affinity and rapport with the people that he/she can move them through persuasion than through coercion. A president who knows and cares about environmental degradation, and is sensitive to nature’s limits.
These are not the same 19th century problems of nationhood that our heroes faced, where political identity was a paramount concern. Filipinos are no longer struggling for recognition as a free nation. Our identity may often lack substance on account of our unfamiliarity with our own history, but we do not have trouble stepping forward and identifying ourselves as Filipinos before others. Our institutions may be flawed and may not enjoy the same level of enforceability throughout the country, but we have managed to run our affairs without having to change systems from regime to regime.
We are a free nation, but also a nation in the throes of globalization. The centennial prods us to look back and we find every reason to celebrate. But the election prompts us to look forward and we find every reason for disquiet. The Asian financial crisis that has swept the region since the middle of last year shows what rapid and massive transfers of short-term capital can do to national economies that liberalized too fast. The crisis is just one of the manifestations of global forces at work, forces made more vicious and mobile by the new communications technology. “Welcome to the ‘risk society’,” the sociologist Anthony Giddens would have told us, in reference to a world in which institutions become obsolete overnight and risks are compounded by the speed by which they are inflicted on unprepared societies.
We have only seen the tip of this postmodern iceberg. New products and new technologies with far-reaching effects on our bodies and our environment are even now being released in the world market. They will open up new horizons, but they will also generate new problems. They will change the way we think and the way we organize our everyday lives. They will transform our priorities, question the relevance of existing institutions, and challenge our long-standing concepts of government.
In the face of this, we will need a president who is fascinated by change, who looks upon every problem as an opportunity to move up, to remake ourselves for the tougher problems ahead. A president less concerned with explaining or lamenting our inadequacies as a people, than with inventing ways of overcoming them. A president who will not measure the nation in terms of what it should be by some imagined historic or divine mandate, but only by what it sets out to be by its own lights.
Such a president can be anyone of those now vying for the office, with the exception of one or two incoherent individuals who cannot seem to rise above their private pains and prejudices. I do not buy the idea that the victory of some of the front-runners in the pre-election surveys would spell an economic disaster. I think what would most certainly spell catastrophe for the whole country would be a failure to elect and proclaim the next president within a reasonable period of time.
It is easy for some of us to play the role of aloof intellectuals who spend their days figuring out the world, disdaining the present, and waiting for the right moment to act, when the point, as Marx once put it, is to change it. I think dramatic changes in society do not come as the result of carefully drafted programs, but as the consequence of movements sparked by political romantics who act with the courage of their visions.
Our community was formed by the power of such visions, and today it is being reimagined by leaders who may seem to pale in comparison with the great heroes who founded this nation. But that is only a first impression. The job of a president is heroic enough. If the person chosen does not bring further greatness to the position, there is every reason to hope that the position will bring out the best in the person. Our vote on election day represents that hope.
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