In mature democracies, people run for president or prime minister because there are fundamental priorities or goals they want to pursue through the political system. As these are typically complex and interconnected, no one can realistically aspire to accomplish them by oneself. Thus, modern politics involves the organization of a lead group called a party, whose task is to mobilize a constituency to support a long-term program of action.
Unfortunately, we Filipinos seem to have lost our taste for party politics even before political parties have fully matured in our system. That is why, today, we have the spectacle of two politicians seeking the presidency and the vice presidency, but making a point of not wanting to be affiliated with any political party. How does a political trick like this work?
First, some political impresarios search for a fresh face who, based on the surveys, appears to have a good chance of winning the presidency. Having persuaded this person to run, they then proceed to cobble together an assortment of politicians and business leaders to provide initial funding to launch the campaign. The expectation is, to paraphrase a line from the film “Field of Dreams,” if you build, the voters will come.
In this setting, ideas count for little. Yet, the candidate has to be able to say all the right things to attract the widest possible public support. That is how Sen. Grace Poe’s recitation of her 20-point program last Sept. 16 struck me—a mishmash of hot-button topics that seem to have been drawn from a content analysis of the news.
This was not at all a program of government, but a buffet of assorted topics whose connection to one another remained unexplained. The young presidential aspirant, more significantly, offered no clue where she stands on the hard issues that swirl around these topics.
These were Poe’s priorities: corruption, freedom of information, peace talks with rebels, the West Philippine Sea, infrastructure development, road traffic, tax reform, Internet speed, education, agriculture, high cost of power, OFWs, crime and illegal drugs, human rights, PhilHealth, arts and culture and sports, climate change, tourism, and school feeding program. I’m afraid I have space to discuss only a small sample from this enumeration.
Corruption is at the top of her list. She said she would hold wrongdoers accountable. That is a hollow statement. She could have explained why some wrongdoers were being allowed to go scot-free. I would also have liked her to tell us where she thinks the biggest corruption in our society happens, and why. What new initiatives against this scourge would she launch if she became president?
She said she would pursue peace talks with all the groups that are fighting the government. But the issue has always been under what conditions such talks should be pursued. Does Ms Poe, for example, think the Aquino administration exceeded its mandate, as some have argued, when it signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front? Will she agree to release all detained members of the CPP-NPA as a condition for the resumption of talks with the communist movement?
Tax reform is another important topic that could have signaled the guiding philosophy of her presidency. But, apart from saying she wants the present income tax rates cut and intends to be stricter in collecting taxes, she gives no inkling as to where she would raise the revenue to make up for the expected shortfall. Does she believe in making the rich pay more?
Education is also high up in her list. It’s time, she said, that we maximize the use of digital technology in our schools. I wonder if this entails distributing tablets to all public school pupils in mid-school and thus eliminating printed textbooks. It’s difficult to imagine the costs and the Internet connectivity required to make full use of digital technology in education. Our needs remain basic: more classrooms, continuing teacher education, better textbooks, etc. Indeed, some sectors complain that the new K-to-12 program imposes new burdens on families. Does she agree?
Senator Poe wants to put in place a school-feeding program in public schools. This is a worthy advocacy. But, again, the budgetary and logistical requirements of such a program are mind-boggling. A president with a strong commitment to social reform must have a clear idea where to get the money to support new programs like this. Will a Grace Poe presidency consider reallocating the automatic appropriation for debt service?
The young senator hopes to develop the arts, culture, and sports so we could at last win a gold medal in the next Olympics. She intends to form a new department of emergency management to prepare for the consequences of climate change. Curiously, she has not said anything about one of the biggest problems that trouble the poor—the lack of housing for low-income families and those living in dangerous sites. She seeks to lower the cost of electricity, but says nothing about the one critical resource that will increasingly become scarce—water.
This is the trouble when a presidential aspirant offers a list of unconnected topics rather than a clear vision of what it takes to solve the nation’s basic problems and to prepare our people for the challenges they will face in the coming years. Poe strikes me as a fast learner. But, her speech at the launch of her presidential candidacy tells me in no uncertain terms that her three-year stint in the Senate has not given her a broad enough perspective from which to tackle the complex responsibilities of the presidency.
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