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Not a democracy, but celebrity rule

President Aquino’s disclosure that he intends to tap Senator Grace Poe as his and the Liberal Party’s presidential or vice-presidential candidate in the 2016 elections wasn’t at all surprising.

His first choice, Mar Roxas hasn’t, as it is usually put, been “rating well in the polls,” registering pathetic single-digit popularity scores.

And if he doesn’t control the next administration, Aquino is likely to end up in jail, what with such obvious anomalies under his term as the P157 billion Disbursement Allocation Program (DAP), which was essentially his hijacking of funds for purposes other than those authorized by Congress.

Aquino has issued about 5,000 SAROs (Special Allotment Release Orders) for purposes of payments unauthorized by the appropriations law, which could translate to that number of separate charges of technical malversation, and taken as a whole, of plunder.

If the next President isn’t his puppet, Aquino at best could spend his life in hearings at the Sandiganbayan, and at worst inside a prison cell. He himself and his sister, indeed, have shown some signs of anxiety over the possibility of Aquino ending up in jail.

It was a psychological slip of the tongue, revealing his deepest fears when he told an audience of Filipinos in Chicago a few days ago: “I’m the only politician in my family’s generation, I might be next [to be jailed]. Every generation in the family, someone gets jailed.”

Tapping Poe, who has zoomed up in popularity polls, for the presidency would be an appealing plan for Aquino. Right now, the talk is for Poe to run for the vice-presidency on the assumption her popularity would lift that of Roxas somehow, just enough — in a four or even five-corner fight — for the tremendous resources of this administration to buy off the required slim margins for victory.

Celebrity, not people, power: Poe’s campaign ad; Below, Congressman Pacquiao.
Celebrity, not people, power: Poe’s campaign ad; Below, Congressman Pacquiao.

For all the noble talk of striving for peace in Mindanao, the enactment of the BBL, as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has demanded, is really intended to ensure the delivery of Muslim Mindanao votes to whoever Aquino anoints.

Poe’s rise to the heights of our political firmament in just a few short years and the boost she will get as Aquino’s presidential or vice-presidential candidate mean another episode of further degrading the institution we still call “democracy.”

A real democracy involves at the very least the following:

Voters choose a ruler who, at least, has some track record of leadership or skills to govern, and a heart to serve;

They have access to information that allows them to fairly evaluate whether a candidate possesses such qualities;

Candidates who explain to voters what they stand for, what they will do in concrete terms once elected to office;

Competent, professional media to point out if they are lying or not, to help citizens evaluate if candidates are what they profess to be.

The last two items would show how far we’ve moved away from real democracy.

Despite the strength of the elite during this period, the two decades – the ‘50s and ‘60s – would seem to be an era during which we were moving, even if just inches perhaps, toward what a democracy should be. The presidents of this era — Quirino, Magsaysay, Garcia, Macapagal, and Marcos — despite their many faults, were people who went, so to speak, through the political wringer so their mettle could be tested.

The two political parties, the Liberal and the Nacionalista parties, despite regular turncoatism among its ranks, functioned, so to speak, as filters to determine their best leaders. The Senate at that period produced intellectual giants such as Salonga, Tanada, Diokno, Kalaw-Katigbak, Pelaez, Marcos, Aquino Sr., Puyat, Roxas, Recto, Osias. Even the Muslims had a very competent senator, Salipada Pendatun.

The end of the strongman rule, though, didn’t mean the start of our journey toward real democracy.

Democracy in the post-Marcos era in our country has been more and more the rule not by competent leaders, but by celebrities, defined as people who achieve fame not only because of the entertainment world but as a result of a powerful media. That fuzzy term, but politically powerful attribute, “name recall” has become the most important factor for electing our leaders.

Perhaps, she or we, didn’t have a choice, but the rise to the presidency of Corazon Aquino, scion of a wealthy clan and a housewife all her working life, was a major pillar in the construction of this new rule-by-celebrities.

Fernando Poe, Jr. spent his entire life making movies, and seemed to hate involvement in politics and any social issue. Yet he nearly won as President because of his celebrity status, his name recall. Filipinos could not distinguish between his movie persona as “Panday” and FPJ, the beer guzzler.

Cory’s son, Ninoy, had a dismal track record as congressman and senator, a feature that should have by reason disqualified him from being President. Yet he won, by sheer name recall. Perhaps, Filipinos’ superstition or the philosophical basis of Christianity – the belief in “essences” – enforced by media and the Church, explains much of the votes for Aquino.

I remember one headline reflecting such worldview, quoting a bishop during the elections: “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That’s biblical nonsense.

Senator Poe seems to me a decent and intelligent person; certainly better than most of the senators now. But she spent most of her working life as an immigrant in the US, working, according to her official website, as a “ teacher, a product liaison officer, and a product manager.”

She doesn’t seem to be too proud of her working experience in the US, as neither her website nor the Senate databank shows what exactly was the nature and scope of her job in the US, although I remember she worked for some years in a US government agency in a clerical or mid-level job. She has to settle once and for all whether she got to be a US citizen during her stay there for decades. She would be a nationalist of the highest caliber if she hadn’t, but I doubt that.

She looks dignified and honest, even comely, as a Vice President and even a President.

But I really can’t find in my rationality any justification why her three-year stint as head of the movie and television censors board and two years as senator qualify her occupying those highest posts of the land.

Her supporters, of course, would say it’s a matter of faith. They may even use the Noynoy line of the “fruit-not-falling-far from-the-tree.” The Panday’s princess?

But the Grace phenomenon is nothing but celebrity politics, and more and more we are moving to the era of the rule of celebrities.

Even the opposition — or what some wise guys in the Congress call the “Opo” positions — had been floating the idea of “pambansang kamao” Manny Pacquiao as vice president.

“People Power” is such a huge Filipino myth. The reality is celebrity power.

What kind of democracy have we become?