Friday, May 07, 2010

The Presidentiables, ‘Puso sa Puso’

Note: Puso sa Puso was an evangelical night of prayer with presidential "forum" where the presidentiables were interviewed heart-to-heart one after another last April 26, 2010 at the Big Dome in Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines. VOTENET, a network of various Christian non-partisan organizations involved in voter's education (which included ISACC, Christ's Commission Fellowship and One Vote Movement, among many others) served as the secretariat of the event.

One Vote, which asked for Volunteer Poll Watchers among the Christians who attended, was eventually accredited by the Comelec as a citizen's arm (similar to PPCRV) on April 27, 2010.

The Presidentiables, ‘Puso sa Puso’

By Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D.
Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture ( ISACC )

It was a unique Presidential Forum, that evening on Monday at the Araneta Coliseum: the emphasis was ‘up close and personal,’ none of the tired issues and abstract talk of platform, but simply glimpses of the presidential candidates as people.

Billed as ‘Puso sa Puso,’ the event was mounted by a large coalition of  churches and faith-based organizations identifying themselves as ‘evangelical.’ The strictures from the organizers were generally obeyed: no banners, no wearing of candidates’ colors, no hakot crowd. The 16,000 people who thronged the rafters of the Coliseum, the biggest crowd ever in this campaign season, paid to get there to take a close look at the candidates and pray together for the future of the nation.

The candidates were given 20 minutes each to answer questions that on the surface seemed merely personal but proved to be revealing, — like what were their most formative influences, their most painful, trying or perplexing times, their sources of guidance when faced with uncertainty, what they consider to be the country’s most important problems that need solving and what they propose to do about them, and what they wish to be remembered for at the end of their days. The questions were disarmingly innocuous, and the answers were, on the whole, refreshingly unscripted, though some echo themes that keep getting reprised.

Seven out of the nine presidentiables showed up – the two major contenders, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino and Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar, as well as the five at the tail end of the polls – Richard ‘Dick’ Gordon, Eddie Villanueva, Ma. Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal, Nicanor Jesus ‘Nicky’ Perlas, and John Carlos ‘JC’ de los Reyes. The other two candidates, Gilberto ‘Gibo’ Teodoro Jr. and Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, were on out-of-town sorties.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the latter five had more texture, richer shadings in their self-portraits, while the two leading ones stuck to the themes that have defined their candidacy.

Dick Gordon was unusually subdued and reflective; he seems to have grown from the man known to have a ‘motor mouth’ to a much quieter man who has learned much from 25 years of executive experience. The audience seems to have recognized this and gave him the evening’s warmest applause. Jamby, in contrast to the impression that she is, at bottom, only a loose cannon with the patina of old wealth, was at her gender’s best: transparently forthright and emotionally powerful. Nicky Perlas, for once, seems able to warmly connect to an earthbound audience, and not to a free-floating global community high up in a stratosphere of climatic and ethereal concerns. JC was unaccountably appealing, an authentic ingenue whose missionary zeal was heartwarming. Brother Eddie was a little less preachy, his scripted lines less dreary, although still weighted with the ideological furniture of his activist days.

The two leading contenders registered some changes in their public persona, but pretty much remained within their campaign spiels. Noynoy looked unusually dapper in a black suit with a yellow tie, Manny was casually cool in a white shirt, both in keeping with the prescribed colors for the event. One was dressing up, looking more presidential, the other was dressing down, perhaps to better identify with the people he has sought to represent. Noynoy now seems to be less wooden, emerging from the crucible of the campaign with a bit more self-assurance, but still talked too fast and at times stumbled on his words. Manny displayed glimpses of the old likable fellow that he was, but his remarks were laced at times with an irascible tone of bitterness, and there seemed a certain disconnect, a kind of dissociation between the outer and inner man that made him look opaque.

Both men’s personal narratives they subsumed within the larger myth-making of their campaigns. Noynoy sourced his most formative influences round the experience of martial law: as a boy of 12 he witnessed the incarceration and eventual assassination of his father, the turbulence that led to the fall of the Marcos regime, his mother’s rise to the presidency and the upheavals that ensued. Manny was early formed, he said, by the world of the palengke, and later by his student days at UP. Beyond this, there was not much that was previously unknown in these men’s stories.

Likewise, both men reprised their usual campaign themes. How to solve corruption occupied much of Noynoy’s question time. Echoing Roosevelt, he promised to wield a stick against grafters and a carrot for those who truly serve in government. In his allotted time, Manny reiterated that putting an end to the complex forces of poverty is possible. “Naawa ako sa ating bayan. Hanggang ngayon nag-uusap pa tayo kung kayang tapusin ang kahirapan. On the contrary sabi ko. Tayo na lang ang naiiwan sa Asia. Ang Japan, China, Korea, lahat halos either tapos na or matatapos na or malayo na ang marating.  malapit ng matapos. Pero tayo nagtatalo pa kung kaya bang tapusin ang kahirapan. Hindi pwede na tayo na lang ang naiiwan.”

Defining his issues, he took digs at his opponent: ‘May nagawa ka na ba?’ ought to be asked, he said. It is not enough to be clean in oneself, “dapat kaya rin kontrolin ang nakapaligid sa kanya.” We need a leader, he said, with the ability to make things grow, “yung nakapag-ahon sa kahirapan.”  From day one, he said, we need someone who hits the ground running; the problems of the country are such that “we can not afford a probationary period.”

It is interesting, however, that it was not Villar who was voted upon as the one who has the most ‘kakayahang mamuno.’ An electronic response system was set up among a random sampling of the audience. The 300 selected were asked, after each interview with a presidentiable, which from a list of traits were most characteristic of the candidate. It was Gordon who was singled out by the overwhelming majority as the one fittest to lead (82%). Strangely enough, majority of the participants (51%) relegated Villar to the category of ‘iba pa,’ which means people had ideas about him that were other than those listed, like ‘tapat, may integridad,’ or ‘may paninindigan’ . Noynoy predictably registered as ‘may integridad’ (45%).

The candidates’ responses to their most formative influences centered round the kind of socialization they got from their parents. Nicky’s parents taught him integrity, he said. JC learned fatherhood.  Jamby tells the story of how she was taken to task by her father in refusing to eat an uncooked egg which ruffled the feelings of the waiter who served it. This taught her to be considerate, a rare trait among the vastly careless upper classes to which she belongs.

In at least four candidates, the shaping forces in their lives were conflated with their most painful experiences. This was true with Noynoy, with Nicky whose  father served the government faithfully for 40 years and yet was charged with corruption, with Brother Eddie who remembers his family being turned out of their home by usurers and a land-grabbing syndicate, and Dick who left his job at Procter and Gamble and went to law school when his father was assassinated. The sense of continuing a ‘legacy’ was a strong motivational force among the candidates. Jamby, for instance, accounted her refusal to compromise to the memory of her grandfather, Jose Abad Santos.

Quite expectedly, all the candidates wore their religion in their sleeves,  conscious perhaps that this is one event where it is acceptable, even de riguer, to do so. All pray, and at least three account their running to ‘guidance from the Lord.’ Nicky, for instance, was particularly put out by the ‘Garci tapes’ scandal and prayed for clarity as to whether he should run and challenge the present political system.  “I don’t know how I got here,” JC said, with some perplexity.

It seems that “it is the Lord egging me.”  His campaign has meant the sacrifice of his business and precious time away from his family. Brother Eddie felt compelled by a call to political life, even if he already had influence as a church leader: “There in my home in Bulacan, officials already come to me. Why fight the Goliaths of this nation?”

JC described his running for president as a kind of ‘cross.’  He spoke of his candidacy as a ‘mission,’ an obedience to the need to introduce ‘prophetic politics.’ With great feeling, he spoke at length of Kapatiran’s advocacy against political dynasties that have privatized local governance, the patronage system that feeds on pork barrel funds, and the lawlessness that thrives on guns and moral decline. He envisions a politics where parties are disciplined by principles and the society behaves by “the standards set by the Lord.”

Similarly spiritual reasons undergird Nicky’s passion to change the system. He found particularly painful the abuses of martial law, and like many of his generation, he had to run for his life and for a while starved in the US as an emigre. These experiences formed in him a ‘spiritual core,’ he said. Alone of all the candidates, he decried the decline of Filipino spirituality, which used to rank high in surveys of world values, and named the increasing materialism and ‘decadence of Filipino culture’ as one of the top three problems, along with poverty and the environment.

Running as a sub-text to the proceedings was the theme of corruption and disgust with the present government, which surfaced now and then in the crowd’s reaction to remarks made on this by the candidates. Jamby found her six years in the Senate to be most trying, seeing how bills that were anti-poor got passed and billions of pesos put in the wrong hands. “Very painful for me was to vote for a 6 million relief package for Ondoy when I know that it will not got to the victims. But I said better to vote for it to see maybe a percentage go to the victims. I went all over the country and unfortunately the 6 billion that was voted by Congress didn’t reach the people.” Asked what she will do about corruption, she replied with her usual forthright audacity: “Let’s put the big fish in jail.” The crowd roared. “And the big fish na pinakawalan lang, put him back in jail.” Another round of applause.

A similarly enthusiastic outburst greeted Dick’s remark that “I will not pardon anybody.” Likewise, Nicky said, “The President has power to appoint 10,000 people;” he proposes to replace all the appointees of the Arroyo government within his first 100 days in office. Again, the audience erupted into a burst of gleeful applause.

In sum, two things struck me about this quasi-political, quasi-religious event:

One, we are witnessing once again the historic fusion of the religious and the political in our responses to the crisis of our time. As with Hermano Pule and the religious communities centered round Mount Banahaw, or as with our People Power revolution which was similarly suffused by the icons of our faith, our people, — both leader and led — derive their inspiration and source of resistance, not primarily from borrowed ideologies, but from a transcendent spiritual center inside them.

In a context where our institutions have been increasingly eroded and defrauded of integrity, it is perhaps the churches, those quiescent communities that are normally despised or relegated to the margins, that have the kind of grassroots constituencies that could stand up to abuses of power when sufficiently roused;

Two, it is a great encouragement that the personal narratives of the major players in this election share the sufferings of our recent history. This ‘fellowship of suffering’ makes for solidarity, an element that has always been lacking in most of our elite, the absence of which has barred us from becoming a genuinely national community. While some of these candidates may be said to be continuous with a long line of political and economic dynasties, the experience of victimization is a break from that tradition, and may lead to real sympathy for the plight of people.

Three, it is evident that among these candidates are some who, in another context and another time, may have been the right people to lead this country. But this election has been defined by two issues that dominate our current social landscape: corruption in our governance and massive poverty. It is an index of the depth of our people’s feeling for these issues that the two leading candidates are defined by their promise to provide a strong solution to these problems.
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