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Aquino’s ‘six-hour dinner:’ That’s how damaged PH democracy has become

The Philippine Daily Inquirer expectedly glamorized it with its puerile headlines “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” and “Stand-off at Palace dinner.” They were referring to President Aquino’s six-hour dinner last Wednesday with Mar Roxas, senators Grace Poe Llamanzares and Francis Escudero, who purportedly would run in the 2016 elections. For what positions exactly, is anybody’s guess at this point. They had Chinese for dinner, Escudero was quoted as saying. What?

Stand back, think a bit, and you will really be shocked: “How have we come to this? Has the President become some kind of monarch to decide who the Party bet is over dinner? And one of the biggest newspapers is gaga over it? Has our electoral democracy become so bad it is decided over six-hour dinners?

But at least the paper has turned its klieg lights toward one of our biggest problems as a nation: Our very damaged system of electing our leaders, especially its highest officer, the President.

The Americans imposed on us this kind of democracy in which everyone – all registered voters at least, 50 million on May 8 – will choose who they think should be President, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

But the US had also created two crucial institutions in our country to fine-tune such one-man-one-vote system. These institutions are working very well in their case, and we are reading about it now – that’s what all the fuss about billionaire candidate Donald Trump’s slur on Mexicans is – as they have also started their own electoral season.

In our case, though, for various reasons, these institutions have been wrecked or are severely damaged.

The first institution is the two-party system – in their case the Republican and Democratic parties, in ours, the Nacionalista and Liberal parties – which, despite its weaknesses, worked well before. Marcos tore down the system, of course, with his one-man rule. Cory Aquino refused to rebuild it with her naive goal of a “multi-party” system.

The second institution is an independent, professional, and – I grope for an appropriate word – aggressive press.

Imagine: If we had a US-style two-party system, whom would the parties pick as their presidential candidates? Who would win in a debate?
Imagine: If we had a US-style two-party system, whom would the parties pick as their presidential candidates? Who would win in a debate?

These two institutions function for a similar purpose, which is to filter the chaff from the grain, as it were, to be a gauntlet to determine whether one should even consider running for the Presidency.

These two institutions hold in check the glaring weakness of a democracy in the era of mass media: that the masses are easily ensnared by an incompetent celebrity-candidate, as what happened in 2004 when they thought an aging actor was the hero he portrayed in the movies. Now his daughter is flying in the political firmament on the wings of that deception.

The US system of primaries, caucuses, and the campaign toward the final party convention to choose its candidate, subject the aspirants to the most rigorous scrutiny. Such dissection of a candidate by the party, or his rivals within the Party in many cases, demolishes a candidate’s celebrity or name-recall advantage.

The 2008 US contest
One case was during the 2008 presidential contest, when John Edwards seemed to have a good shot at the Democratic Party nomination, with his American-boy good looks, a contrast to the African-American Barack Obama. However, after his extra-martial affair with a member of his staff and the contradiction between his anti-poverty slogan with his personal wealth and lifestyle (such as his $400 haircuts) were exposed by media, Edwards withdrew from the race and endorsed Obama’s nomination.

Imagine if we had a two-party system with primaries. Let’s imagine there was a Liberal Party in 2004 under which Fernando Poe, Jr. proposed to run.

Do you think the dark side of his past – especially after downing cases of beer –wouldn’t have been uncovered, his total incompetence in politics and government completely exposed by his party mates themselves? And if he did not get nominated by the Party, all his Panday movies would have amounted to nothing.

Even that underachiever in Congress for two decades, Benigno Aquino 3rd, wouldn’t have been nominated by the Liberal Party, so those morbid condolence votes that won him the 2010 elections couldn’t have been put into play. Mar Roxas would have been the Party’s hands-down candidate.

Now consider Grace Llamanzares. It would be the Liberal Party itself who would investigate her citizenship and residency requirements, and tell her she couldn’t be the Party’s candidate, that the Party couldn’t risk its prestige for betting on a candidate who knowingly would violate the constitution.

Let’s be honest. What qualities or qualifications does Llamanzares possess that she should be considered having a good shot at the Presidency?

Opinion polls. That’s really all. Opinion polls that are, in the first place, flawed. Note the big, big “undecided” responses in the more accurate 3- or 4 way polls – which means “I don’t know enough of what you’re asking, you stupid pollster.” Secondly, these reflect at this point shallow impressions by respondents, gleaned from TV and tabloids, really.

In contrast, I would think Mar Roxas and Jojo Binay – because of their track records in the Party and in politics – would have easily gotten their respective party’s nomination. Escudero would have been told: “Please wait your turn.”

The media’s crucial role in democracy was demonstrated in the US 2008 elections, when Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, was proven to be so incompetent by the Press that she may have helped in the defeat of her Party’s presidential candidate John McCain’s.

Palin and Poe
The Republican Party initially seemed to be successful in its strategy of getting as vice presidential candidate an all-American but feisty woman representing the silent (read: conservative) majority. She actually reminds me of Senator Poe-Llamanzares.

The American Press, though, did its job and was intrepid in getting her to reveal what she actually knows, which turned out to be very little. For instance, she demonstrated her utter ignorance of the world when she said she would know how to deal with Russia since Russia is her home province Alaska’s “next-door neighbor.” Pressed in a televised interview on what newspapers she reads to be knowledgeable on current events, she couldn’t name one.

Imagine if our Press were as persistent and professional.

I am sure that, well because Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th had latched on the issue like Aquino’s Doberman, Binay would be prepared to answer allegations about the Makati City Hall Building and the Batangas Estate. From his decades of being in politics, Roxas would come out well in an interview. Escudero, of course, has proven to be very glib, especially after a shot or two of Scotch or Vodka.

But would Llamanzares answer in a televised interview – asked not by a reporter fawning over her, and there are many – when and how she renounced her citizenship and whether her husband remains an American citizen? Why she had a press conference to announce her Senate committee’s Mamasapano report, but didn’t actually report it out to the Senate? Can she explain her stand on the Bangsamoro? Does she think IRA allocations are just? How will she fix the country?

It was really the Press which cut down Llamanzares’ adoptive father in the 2004 elections, and not by any cheating by President Arroyo’s officials. (There isn’t even a case filed to allege this, and a pending one is over the 2008 senatorial elections.) After editors continued to scold them for not getting a single quote from him, they filed negative stories, and pounced on Poe when he bullied broadcast reporter Sandra Aguinaldo like a street toughie.

It was the height of arrogance for convicted President Joseph Estrada to think that his bosom friend Poe, because of his celebrity status, could win the 2004 elections and be President, even if the former actor wouldn’t participate in a debate. Even the masses felt suspicious why their idol didn’t have the balls to debate his rivals, or even be interviewed at length by the Press.

I say this with a heavy heart: The Press has been totally reneging on its role as a bastion of democracy. I do hope we regain our brains and balls in this coming election by first, forcing the candidates to really talk, to answer the hard questions, and second, forcing all of them to participate in debates with their rivals.

If the National Press Club, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, the Philippine Press Institute, the Manila Overseas Press Club, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas can’t get the candidates to a debate, they should be disbanded for reneging on their role in a democracy.