Filipinos know instinctively that the election season has started when the surveys pare down the presidential choices to about five frontrunners. The faces of the so-called “presidentiables” get front page treatment. Strategists warn their principals against the peril of peaking too early, and dissuade potential candidates for lesser positions from making firm commitments prematurely. The analysts chime in with their assessments of alignments in flux. And the voices of politicians fill the airwaves, creating a sense of a nation taking on its collective tasks seriously.
But are we? Are we content with the current way we choose our leaders? Surveys fulfill a vital function in a democracy. Their radar screens capture the promise of light in the political firmament, but they cannot tell if it is the brightness of stars or merely of satellites. I suggest that we do not allow surveys to drive, pre-empt, or determine the process of leadership recruitment. To do so would be to place the nation’s future at the mercy of political financiers with no accountability, and of technicians who specialize in the fabrication and simulation of charisma.
In mature democracies, political parties prepare for elections by holding a series of caucuses with their constituencies. The aim of these meetings is to identify the key issues that must take center stage in the coming election. The issues that are expressed in these caucuses mirror the values of the party — for an issue becomes an issue precisely because there is a felt threat to fundamental values.
The identification of leaders is intimately linked to this process. It is not divorced from it. The leaders that emerge from this process not only reflect the party’s stand on the issues. More than that, they personify, at that precise moment, the urgent yearnings and aspirations of the party, if not of the whole nation. They are leaders because they stand for something that resonates with others. They are not leaders merely because they got it in their heads to stand for election.
There is great advantage, obviously, even in this system, to being a good speaker and having a charismatic personality. But here charisma has to be validated, and placed in the service of the party’s program. Barack Obama had to go through this grueling exercise, notwithstanding his immense charisma, and there were moments when he seemed close to losing the Democratic nomination to the more experienced Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, John McCain’s bland and uninspiring personality did not prevent the Republicans from choosing him as their standard-bearer. In our system, in contrast, it’s the other way around – mass appeal or celebrity status (or “winnability”) not only comes first, it is the main factor. The political program becomes no more than an afterthought, a catalogue of sound bites with no internal coherence.
When issues take the backseat — qualification, competence, political record, personal history, and political vision also become peripheral. The whole system gets fixated with popularity. As observational tools, surveys are generally indifferent to the basis of this popularity. They may alert us, as they sometimes do, to the state of the prevailing political consciousness – but they do not make it their business to fathom the depth or shallowness of voter preference.
Yet, to be fair, even Filipino politicians know that it is not enough to be merely popular. Not that they would demand of themselves that popularity must be paired with a vision, but simply that popularity has to be converted into votes. Given the weaknesses of our political system, what this means basically is that our politicians are expected to have enough money to ensure that their fans actually register to vote, that their supporters are not bought, that their votes are actually counted, and that they have adequate protection against all forms of vote padding and manipulation.
In general, these real practical concerns drive nearly every aspiring politician to turn for assistance to the various operators that inhabit the system. They exist at all levels of the political system – from the barangay to the national level. They are the political entrepreneurs who keep the machinery of the patron-client system running. They fix, they facilitate, they organize events, and they bridge the gap between levels, acting as part-time agents for the politicians who take time to seek them out and give them importance. They are however not the real problem.
The most dangerous are the king-makers with the fabulous war chests. These masters of the rent-economy are the most vicious segment of the Filipino elite. It is they who think of politics as nothing more than an extension of the economy, and of government as merely a department in a business empire. When the politics of a country is captured by such king-makers, leadership is divorced from the national interest, and is created and traded just like any other commodity.
This is where we are today. We must beware of those who style themselves as alternative leaders, when they are no more than the new recruits of the same business blocs that have monopolized economic and political power in our country since independence. We need leaders who are cognizant of their roles as servants of the people and as builders of the nation. We must actively search for them in the bosom of our own communities, for their names will not figure in the surveys, nor will they be identified for us by the kingmakers.
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