Where to, Grace?

Sen. Grace Poe’s rise in politics has been, by any measure, meteoric. Not even the opinion surveys—those modern instruments that cultures like ours piously consult as oracles of what the gods favor—gave any hint of its phenomenal trajectory.

In 2010, when she first thought of running for the Senate, no political coalition could give her enough assurance to make her sustain her bid. Her father, Fernando Poe Jr., continued to command tremendous respect and sympathy even after his loss in the fraudulent 2004 presidential election and his untimely death that same year. But she wanted to show she was more than just the legatee of an illustrious name. She was keen to prove she had capabilities and strengths of her own that she could bring into public service. The opportunity to do that came when President Aquino named her chief of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board in 2010.

When Grace finally decided to pursue her senatorial bid two years later, the opinion radar picked up her signal and ranked her 28th among potential senatorial bets. Her ranking improved to 15th soon after she filed her certificate of candidacy. Six months before the election, she was in the winning circle of 12 in all the surveys. But, no one foresaw that she would top the 2013 senatorial race. She has since been on a roll, impressing the public with her poised and confident interventions in Senate hearings.

Today, the surveys show her as the leading contender in the 2016 presidential election, wooed by every political group that is bidding for power, and courted no less than by President Aquino himself, who wants to make sure she stays with the administration coalition. She campaigned with the administration’s Team PNoy in 2013, even as she registered as an unaffiliated candidate. She has remained an independent senator without a party.

How does one explain Grace Poe’s meteoric rise? What is it telling us about our current political system?

The key to understanding Grace as a political phenomenon rests, I think, in the romantic notion of nonpartisanship—an illusion that acquires a seductive glow in political settings perceived to be corrupted by the naked pursuit of power. The flawed concept that seems to underpin her desired public image is that a leader without party affiliation can stand above politics, and is thus accountable only to the people. To me, that projection betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of politics.

Most Filipinos are tired of or disillusioned with politics. They hate corrupt politicians in particular, even as they seem unable to resist electing them. But, the fact is, there is nothing intrinsically evil or immoral about politics. Politics is just a society’s way of producing decisions that bind every member of society. It begins with the manner of choosing the individuals who will make those decisions—elections and meritocratic appointments, in the case of societies that claim to be democratic and modern.

Political parties are modern society’s tools for aggregating a broad range of societal interests, replacing families as the main instruments for leadership recruitment. These political organizations allow society not only to develop long-term programs and train professional leaders, but also to mobilize stable mass constituencies that can push for these programs across election seasons. A society without strong political parties will always be at the mercy of personal dynasties, or of political impresarios who specialize in the opportunistic recruitment of cultural icons and rising stars to serve as mascots of entrenched political and economic forces.

In 2003, the immensely popular but apolitical FPJ was inveigled into running for president by groups that told him that he alone could end the evil reign of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He knew that politics was not his world, and that he was severely unsuited for the role into which he was being cast. He was a reluctant candidate who was aware of his limits. But having agreed to run, he tried his best to study and prepare himself for the role.

But, apart from his unfamiliarity with the world of politics, he was also bugged by a deep skepticism of politicians in general. He was wary of them, including those who ran his campaign. Being a person of basic integrity, he knew that stopping Arroyo was not the best reason to seek the presidency. He demanded to know what difference he could make to the lives of ordinary Filipinos if he was elected. I suspect that becoming president terrified him as much as being interviewed as a presidential candidate did.

I am sure Grace Poe knew what her father went through before he finally agreed to join the 2004 presidential race. Facing a formidable administration machinery, and without a solid party of his own (he ran under a hastily assembled Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino), FPJ found himself basically alone. Having survived her first election with a stellar showing, Grace probably has less of the ambivalence toward politics that had gripped her father. Still, I can imagine what it is like for her to be besieged by people who are pressing her to run just because the surveys say she is the only one who can stop Jejomar Binay in 2016. This was the same line that was used to persuade her father to alter the course of his life and run for president in 2004.

I think it is time we stopped thinking of the presidency as destiny, or as a gift that fate thrusts into someone’s hands. The presidency is a role that a responsible politician painstakingly prepares for—not a crown for anyone’s ego, but a vision a leader willfully commits himself/herself to achieve.

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