Glimpses of Grace Poe’s political star

Sen. Grace Poe finds herself pondering a question that materialized only after she topped the 2013 senatorial race. Should she seize the opportunity presented by her impressive ratings in preelection surveys and make herself available as a presidential contender in next year’s election?

Despite her initial reservations and modest appreciation of her limits, she inched closer to accepting a draft when no less than President Aquino himself began talking to her about the 2016 election. What was not clear in this political courtship, however, was whether she was being eyed for the presidency or for the vice presidency. It is reported that the President spent a good part of his conversations with her trying to establish the compatibilities and the differences in their perceptions of national problems and issues.

She was clearly flattered by the President’s attention. Indeed, she could be forgiven for presuming that P-Noy was choosing between her and Mar Roxas, the then presumptive presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. It was an impression that many people shared. Mar’s survey ratings appeared incurably weak, and voices within the administration coalition itself warned against an easy win by Jejomar Binay if the party could not offer a stronger candidate.

P-Noy has since proceeded to endorse Mar as his presidential candidate. In retrospect, P-Noy’s courtship of Grace had nothing to do with the presidency; it was all about getting her to run as Mar’s vice president. In that role, she could keep her wish to remain independent, unbound by any commitment to defend the administration’s record. But, for a presidential contender, P-Noy needed someone who not only believed in the administration’s program but also was prepared to defend it. For P-Noy, that person could be none other than Mar Roxas.

People tend to forget that Aquino and Roxas are stalwarts of the Liberal Party, one of the oldest surviving political groups in the country. As third-generation members of the nation’s political class, they consider themselves, for better or worse, loyal stewards of a venerable political tradition. They are rare specimens in a liquid political landscape where electability as indicated by surveys, rather than political affiliation, seems increasingly to count for everything.

It would have been unthinkable for the leaders of the Liberal Party, being the party in power, to adopt an outsider for the top position and, in so doing, cast aside one of their own. That would have rewarded mistrust and penalized loyalty. Roberto Michels, who wrote extensively about Europe’s earliest political parties, reminds us about what he calls a “salutary law” in politics.

“This law,” Michels wrote, “prescribes that men, in every enterprise requiring collective action, must submit their particular movements to the rule of the single will of a leader, and that, of the two possible attitudes, loyalty and mistrust, to be assumed toward that leader—to whom democracies must have recourse—the former is the only one that is constructive and generous.”

Mar Roxas projected only unwavering loyalty to the President, especially in the aftermath of the Mamasapano tragedy, when mistrust for the party leader appeared justified. Mar could not have acted the way he did solely out of personal friendship. His respectful action seemed to manifest a deep understanding of what was at stake at that point—namely, the entire program of government that bound him and P-Noy together as leaders of the ruling party. He took a lot of brickbats for this, and some say he missed a golden chance to project himself as his own man.

In contrast, Grace’s approval ratings seemed to rise with every critical comment she made that zeroed in on the President’s seeming inability to accept full responsibility for the debacle at Mamasapano. The public stance she took in the subsequent investigation of the incident affirmed for many not only her independent streak but also her readiness to call to task the nation’s powerful men. This is what accounts for her immense popularity today. We can’t seem to have enough of brave voices that feed our cynicism for those who rule us, just as we admire powerful individuals who have a feel for their power and are able to use it resolutely. On the other hand, we seem to reserve only grudging praise, if not contempt, for the quiet workers who plod on to make collective governance possible.

I am glad that Grace has the next two months to reflect before she declares herself a presidential candidate in 2016. She may realize that some politicians are prodding her to run not because they believe in her, but because they expect to run her government in case she wins. She may see how some groups are shrewdly using the threat of her candidacy in their negotiations with the ruling coalition. She may realize soon enough that these same people will not hesitate to dump her if they can cut a better deal with the other candidates.

It is what spells the difference between being a candidate of an established party and running as a lone ranger hoping to attract company along the way. While we don’t have strong political parties as they do in the United States and Europe, we do have enduring ties and loyalties on both sides of the political divide, which have lent some stability to our political system.

If Grace intends to make a difference in the nation’s political life, she has to assume a position of influence in an existing party, or build her own. One can rise in politics as an independent, but one cannot hope to shape politics in any significant way without a party.

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