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‘Grace’ is a disease of our politics

First of Two Parts

The meteoric rise in two years of Senator Grace Poe Llamanzares to a point where she is now believed to have a shot at the presidency next year is a symptom of our deepest malady as a republic.

This malady is an affliction that has worsened since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.

The symptoms first broke out with Joseph Estrada’s winning the vice presidency, and then the presidency itself. It was followed by the attempt, nearly victorious, of his bosom friend, fellow actor Fernando Poe Jr. to also become President. The more recent break-out of the disease was the voting into the presidency of a mediocre politician just because of the wave of sympathy for his mother’s death – President Benigno Aquino 3rd. And most recently “Grace as president”.

This disease of our politics is the electorate’s incapacity to choose leaders based on their qualifications and track record to rule our country.

It, instead, puts into power — for the local level — those who have the money to buy their way into local office directly from the masses, or indirectly through local bosses.

On the national level – for senators, vice presidents, and presidents – the system puts into power not the most qualified leader, but a celebrity, somebody from the movie or portrayed as such by a powerful media. “Name recall” has become the requirement for electing our national leaders.

How Filipinos choose their leaders, in six images.
How Filipinos choose their leaders, in six images.

A celebrity becomes fit for public office when he or she displays certain Filipino stereotypes of a “good” person or a leader, or when Filipinos become deluded that a candidate’s movie roles make up his real personality.

Joseph “Erap” Estrada wasn’t voted into the presidency because of his track record as San Juan mayor for two decades. His 12 years in the Senate and in the post of vice president were mostly forgettable.

He won not just because the masses, but even those in the middle and upper classes, confused him – the person Estrada – with his movie roles as the righteous champion of the oppressed. Even if his film career’s glory days were before my time, Erap’s movie persona as the tough Asiong Salonga is etched in my mind.

Erap’s person – as distinguished from his movie persona, from a Latin word referring to the mask actors wear in ancient theaters – very quickly was unmasked barely two years into his term as President: a drunkard, womanizer, a most corrupt politician.

FPJ was almost totally like Erap, which is the reason why they were bosom buddies. FPJ was just more discreet. And unlike the Erap who was taught by his Chinese cronies to like expensive wine, FPJ never gave up his cases of San Miguel – to the extent that he once made a scene in a restaurant in San Juan, where the only beer served was Lucio Tan’s Carlsberg.

In contrast to Erap, FPJ didn’t like social functions, preferred to be alone with a small circle of friends (including one who became a friend of mine), hardly cared about social problems, and hated politics.

But Erap begged him to run for President because he thought, in 2004, that he would rot in jail the rest of his life, and even thrown to Muntinlupa if President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stayed in power.

“Hindi ka gagastos ni isang kusing, at kikita ka pa,” Erap reportedly told him. Erap’s timing couldn’t have been better. FPJ’s box-office take was steadily going down: It was a new generation of movie audience, who thought “Panday” was so laughably corny in the era of Spider Man and X-Men movies. A friend of his said FPJ couldn’t bear the thought of fading into obscurity.

But as sociologists, even those who study the most advanced and most educated countries in the world, say, modern man confuses reality with the make-believe world of cinema and the entertainment world. After all, even Californians couldn’t distinguish the real Arnold Schwarzenegger from his hero persona as Conan or the good version of The Terminator.

It is, in fact, so difficult for Filipinos to distinguish the real from the reel person. I was so reminded of this when, of all people, a sociologist, a learned academic, and a veteran journalist like Randy David could write a column entitled the “Immortal FPJ.”

Read that paean to FPJ and you would have no doubt that he obviously confused the FPJ person with FPJ’s movie persona. David in that piece for instance confuses FPJ, the rich actor, with his movie character as a jeepney driver “wearing the same clothes (as the masses), eating the same food, and wiping their faces with the same cheap towels permanently slung over their necks.” He should have asked his colleague at the UP, FPJ’s cousin Mahar Mangahas, what clothes the actor preferred – Hugo Boss, I was told.

If such a learned man like David couldn’t distinguish FPJ’s real person from his persona, how much less able the unschooled masses could?

This problem is compounded by the Filipinos’ basically medieval Christian, or superstitious, frame of mind that believes in people’s “essences” to people. (The contrasting frame of mind would be, in a way, existentialism, which sees persons as what they make of their lives.)

The medieval Christian view is that a person is either essentially good or essentially bad, just as God is essentially good and the Devil bad.

In human history, such view partly explains why hereditary monarchical systems persisted for centuries, why the oppressed majority didn’t revolt for ages. A king’s son carries his noble “good blood” and, therefore, has the right to rule a kingdom. “Kung ano ang ama, ganun din ang anak,” as Llamanzares’ campaign poster in the 2013 senatorial elections put it to follow that medieval frame of mind. That was of the same genre as a campaign line used by Aquino in 2010: “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Such nonsense is quite common in modern Philippine society, i.e., the son or daughter of an haciendero or a billionaire is basically good because he or she comes from a “buena familia.”

The country certainly didn’t elect Benigno Aquino 3rd because of his very mediocre track record as senator. Filipinos put him in power because in their fairy-tale thinking, he is the prince of the Royal House of the Cojuangco-Aquinos, whose Queen brought us out of the land of darkness (of the dictatorship) and into a new, illumined world after the 1986 revolt.

These irrational notions continue to keep the Filipinos’ political mind hostage.

Would Aquino have appointed Llamanzares to be chief censor at the MTRCB and then push her to run for Senate if she had not been of the Royal House of FPJ? Has anyone bothered to scrutinize her track record as MTRCB head?

C’mon guys, if she were not a mestiza (which means: from a buena familia, or with a Spanish or even American parent), and was, instead, as dark as, say, Nancy Binay, or if she were just another intelligent, articulate balikbayan, and not the adopted daughter of “Panday,” would she win even as a barangay chairman?

In a recent event, a friend educated in the US, a veteran of politics, as well as a keen student of geopolitics, astonishingly painted Llamanzares as the best presidential candidate, introducing her as the guest speaker as follows:

“She has the brains, the good heart, the right sense of public service, the guts, and most importantly, the capacity for command, control and leadership that we need today.”

How on earth could my friend, who claims to have a very analytical mind, conclude that, with Llamanzares having been a legislator for only two years? As far as I can tell, the only “command and control” she has demonstrated has been, as MTRCB head, to pixel out breasts and beep out F words in movies shown in theatres and TV. I suspect my friend was simply smitten by the comely Llamanzares, as his FB selfie with her obviously shows.

His, though, is the same malady that afflicts the most uneducated Filipinos, the inability to distinguish the person of a political figure from his or her portrayal by media, or his or her role in movie land.

It also reflects Filipinos’ penchant to project their yearnings and virtues of an ideal political leader on somebody just because he or she conforms with our sick society’s stereotype of a “good” person – a mestizo or mestiza, from a buena familia, or the son (or adopted daughter in Grace’s case) of somebody admirable, either in the real world or in the world of movies.

This malady of our politics points to a deep structural flaw in our democratic system, the result of an electoral system being imposed on us by the US, before our body politic had matured and with the absence of checks on celebrity politics such as strong parties and the American system of presidential primaries. That, in the second part of this essay.