Written by Kevin H.R. Villanueva.
Politics is performance and the Philippine presidential election is a stage. Binay, Duterte, Roxas, Poe and Defensor-Santiago will each play many parts: they will tap into our deepest desires, draw out our dissatisfactions and lay bare our discords as a people. They will have their exits and their entrances. And in three overlapping character scripts – throughout the last stretch of this campaign – they will keep us mesmerized.
The first is for the wretched, the poor and the underdog. Jejomar Binay, who recounts that he was born in a “seedy area” and sold “pig feed” to pay for his education, was “orphaned”, while Poe, an adopted child, was rescued a “foundling” under a church portico. The former was plucked from obscurity and careered into limelight as the Mayor of Makati, while the latter came back from an extended sojourn in the US – a balikbayan turned senator of the republic – only to keep her father’s dream in 2004 to now be President of the Philippines. If rumour be heard, she will take her oath on the balcony above the church doors where she was forsaken. It is the presidency as destiny. Beyond the stigma of separation and abandonment is the narrative of wilful emancipation and individual sacrifice to some greater good.
The second is for the traditional elite and the establishment. Mar Roxas, a gentleman of patrician birth, renounces his life as an investment banker in New York and takes up the illustrious political legacy of his father and his father before him, works the hand of government from 1993 first as congressman and then cabinet member to continue President Aquino’s “Straight Path”. Similarly, Rodrigo Duterte’s entry into political life is to be preceded by his father, who was the last governor of the undivided province of Davao in the 1950s. Duterte is now the longest-serving mayor of Davao City (7 terms), interrupted only by his experiment as vice-mayor while installing his own daughter as mayor. Mar and Digong are seasoned public servants. Their old hand is knowledge, lending predictability in their brand of government and the company they will choose to keep. It is the presidency as “dynasty” – a perpetuation of the structures of control – law and order – by keeping up the good name of the family and vice-versa.
The third is a crossover between the first two – it is one for the idealists and the brave – and in this regard, Miriam Defensor-Santiago is the plausible contender. Since her foiled attempt at the presidency in 1992, she has recouped her fight in all three branches of government. Santiago embodies that certain naiveté and raw courage and intellect that one needs to hold on to in order to believe in political reform and statesmanship, but her time has come and gone. The surveys are down and her battle with cancer is the greater testimony of her will to survive. If there is one telling anecdote, it is this: I ask my 13-year old students viva voce whom it is they would vote for and the show of hands wave resolutely in her favour. Miriam is the presidency as the unfinished project – borne by youth and lost to the eternal rebel.
Not unlike the teleseryes that we devour as a nation, these will be the cultural scripts of our popular politics. What worries me is that we cannot change them – so what do we make of them?
Contrary to musings in the vein of – what makes a leader or who leads or who will lead– we must ask a different set of questions: who are we as a nation and where do we want to go as a democracy? We re-enact the cultural script of the country: What did the national independence movement in the 1800s mean? What did the Katipunan stand for? For whom was Martial Law? Why did EDSA happen?
Election day ought to be all souls day – an exhumation of the past, a remembrance of all things Filipino. It is a time to recall the struggle, hardship, freedom and victory not of any one individual but of one country.
It is an exercise of transferring the power to change a nation. Ideally, the task calls for sobriety – some degree of cold calculation. But democracy is protean and participatory. It is a theatre-in-the-round. In order for the candidates to play their parts we too as the audience must perform. There is no backdrop. The 360-degree pit is a mirror of our whole selves. We look down, heave and sigh. And if you doubt what I say, hit the road. The candidates are our flesh and bone. See how we cry, cheer and swoon for them; see our fists clenched high.
The day after the ballot is cast, unless we wish to find the living among the dead, we must remember the script is ours and it is the future of the country that is at play.
Dr. Kevin H.R. Villanueva is Associate Professor in International Politics and Governance at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas and Senior Consultant at the Helena Z. Benitez School of International Relations and Diplomacy. Image credit: World Bank.
The original version of this article was first published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.