Wasting political capital

So great is our desire to see our presidents succeed that, unless they were thrust into office under dubious circumstances, we usually give them, during their first three years in office, higher approval ratings than could be reasonably accounted for by their actual performance or by the size of their electoral base. It is as though, after a divisive election, we find it necessary to make the results unanimous, as a manifestation of national unity.

Leaders who understand the meanings of these gestures typically reciprocate with magnanimity, stressing the common goals that bind erstwhile political enemies, and pledging to be worthy of the trust that the nation has reposed on them. These are not tired clichés or useless rituals; they are, rather, important reminders that election to the presidency is essentially a mandate to serve the common good, not a personal reward given by the electorate to individuals they like, for them to use as they please.

The term for this is “political capital.” It is the generalized medium of public support that accompanies the mandate to serve. A hopeful nation confers it almost unconditionally upon its highest official, expecting solutions to its persistent problems. Once given, it is not easily withdrawn.

Electorates, in general, do not like being told that they have made a mistake. They find ways of affirming their trust even in the face of a new administration’s missteps. Thus, it takes a while for disappointment to set in. But, sooner or later, it comes—first as nervous laughter, then as derisive humor and cynicism, and finally as manifest disapproval and active protest.

Leaders who have been thrust into positions of power under improbable circumstances may take for granted the import of the political capital they have received. Lacking a clear direction and a far-reaching vision of what they want to accomplish during their term, they tend to waste it on the myopic settling of personal scores, or the issuance of bold decisions that carry a lot of shock value but pack little by way of careful thought. Less than halfway through their terms, such leaders start to express an inexplicable disdain for the office they occupy, needlessly professing a sense of exhaustion and frustration.

They blame their critics for their own failure. They blame the inadequacies of the people they have indiscriminately brought into government. They blame unnamed “destabilizers,” foreign governments and external conditions. They blame the past and even Nature itself. They blame everything and everyone else—including the hopeful citizens who voted them into office—but never themselves and the incurable habits that have kept them from persevering and seeing through the complexities of governance.

Rather than being a steady source of inspiration and wisdom, such leaders intensify the public’s despair and resentment by making fun of the real problems that people face in their daily lives. They think that laughing at problems is a way of enduring them.

It may be obvious at this point that this essay is about the sad spectacle of Rodrigo Duterte’s wasted political capital. He had burst into the national scene as the colorful and autocratic city executive from Mindanao who transformed his chaotic city into a model of peace and order and prosperity. He came across as a simple, tough-talking, authentic politician who would not be bound by political correctness in his pursuit of concrete results. He seemed like someone who had outgrown the city and was impatient to replicate his success in Mindanao on a national scale.

His speech was staggeringly straightforward and unadorned, replete with earthy humor and cusswords. To many Filipinos, this was the kind of leader they have been waiting for. Brimming with passion, he seemed to infuse a new level of energy into the country’s political life.

Two years have now quickly passed. Many of those who listened to the Mayor’s rambling speeches and had found them different and entertaining, have begun to tire of hearing the same pointless and incoherent discourses about everything from their President.  They fail to see how his determination to punish critics like Sen. Leila de Lima, former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV can help bring down prices, create more jobs, put more food on the tables of the poor, or do something to ease Metro Manila’s horrendous traffic. They can’t figure out how killing drug users and neighborhood drug peddlers might solve the drug problem, unless the main source of drugs is plugged by going after the big-time syndicates that bring in the drugs into the country.

For now, the vast masses that continue to idolize him grant his sincerity. They know that our problems are many, and that the President might know something they don’t. What they are beginning to question, however, is his system of priorities and competence, not yet his integrity. They are hanging on to the bare thread of their ungrounded optimism, praying that the inflation that has multiplied their hardships is temporary.

Mr. Duterte had sold himself in the last election as the nation’s last card. As the Filipino people begin to wake up to the cruel reality of a worthless last card, they may, hopefully, also realize that the nation’s future has never lain in the exaggerated promises and simplistic solutions offered by strongmen with redemptive pretensions.