Money and the presidency

In more ways than one, Noynoy Aquino, Manny Villar, and Erap Estrada – the current frontrunners 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 for Manny, 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 socalled 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 becomes president in 2010, it will be the first time a businessman who is not from the old rich would have successfully used his wealth 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 Sen. 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, Sen. 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 who was 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?