Much ado about presidential credentials

Editorial note: This piece was first published under my “Pathless Travels” column in the Nov. 30, 2003 issue of the Northern Dispatch (Nordis) Weekly. It is obviously out of date as it referred to Fernando Poe Jr.’s candidacy in the 2004 presidential elections. I’m reposting it here, with slight revisions, because I believe the main points I raised remain relevant today, as the country starts to be gripped again by election fever.


IN THIS WEEK’S column piece, I will make an exception to a self-imposed rule to write mainly on Northern Luzon concerns, especially “light topics” with a broad environmental, socio-cultural, or historical bent.

IRAIA thoughts
IRAIA thoughts

Today I will make a pointblank commentary on the swirling, relentless political talk that has seized the country since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo bared her plan to run for the presidency in 2004, followed by Fernando Poe Jr. formally declaring his own presidential bid a few days ago.


Much has been said about FPJ’s lack of formal education, being a high-school dropout. In the rigorous ranking of the academe, this is worse than Joseph “Erap” Estrada’s being a college dropout, and light-years away from GMA and Raul Roco with their post-graduate degrees acquired from US universities.

Much has also been said about FPJ’s lack of political experience. At least Erap was in government service as a mayor, senator and vice-president, before he became president. The only experience FPJ has ever had in this regard are the occasional tough-but-gentle cop, soldier, or public-school teacher whose characters he played in his countless movies. That, and maybe the usual dealings with bureaucracy that he attends to as his movie business interests require. FPJ’s near-zero political experience is also in stark contrast to the outstanding government credentials of GMA and Roco.

The pro-FPJ camp would retort, “But look at how highly experienced rulers like Marcos wrought havoc on the Philippines…” and remind us about Cory Aquino being a “plain housewife” when she became president.

Actually, Mrs. Aquino was not (and is not) a plain housewife, since she belongs to a big-landlord and very political family—the Cojuangcos of Tarlac—and having married Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., she breathed the air of national politics thereafter. After Ninoy was killed in 1983, his widow practically took on his role as central political figure and a most active player in the movement to oust Marcos.


But the argument stands: If Cory Aquino could be president, if Erap could, why not FPJ?

The argument is not simply in favor of “simple folk” becoming presidents. In Philippine history, not one plain peasant or worker or taho vendor or lavandera has ever become president—unless we consider Andres Bonifacio, the warehouseman who went on to lead the 1896 revolution as Katipunan supremo.

The argument is in favor of political personalities, even showbiz personalities, who have somehow captivated the “simple folk” in their overwhelming numbers. If there’s one thing that Cory, Erap, and FPJ have in common, it is that they enjoyed (and continue to enjoy, maybe?) overwhelming popularity among the simple folk, to the point of icon worship. They used this mass popularity and populist slogans to jumpstart their presidential campaign and, hopefully, to help sustain their presidency.

(To jumpstart, by the way, is not the same as supplying enough fuel to win presidential campaigns and keep themselves in power. The fuel has always been provided by Big Business blocs and their powerful allies in government and church.)

At this point, exasperated anti-FPJ groups would say, “If popularity is the main consideration, then we might as well elect Dolphy in 2010 (if he’s still around), Bayani Agbayani (the Ocho-ocho star) in 2016, and Mahal (the midget TV host) in 2022.”

The debate about criteria and credentials for the presidency deteriorates from that point onward.


The more thoughtful and progressive-thinking political groups try to transcend these petty arguments by focusing on principles and platforms, as against personalities and popularity. They don’t dismiss FPJ outright, but offer him a challenge. “Explain your platform, and we’ll judge you accordingly.”

This is all right as an initial approach, but shouldn’t stop there. Every politician on the campaign trail can promise the masses anything and everything except the sun and the stars. GMA signed an agreement with BAYAN and civil society groups about instituting concrete reforms when she joined the campaign to oust Erap. That agreement is useless now, except to enlighten everyone on what GMA’s word is worth. Which is, not a whit.

If GMA can do that somersault, then FPJ can too. After all, FPJ had been insisting, as late as two months ago, that he wasn’t interested in the presidency, and that wife Susan was deadset against it. Now he and wife are suddenly in campaign mode. It’s obvious now that actor-director-producers can change scripts in the same way that politician-presidents can twist their own statements upside down, the moment they feel like it.

Our people’s cynicism about the entire political process runs so deep that most of us no longer bother to compare the handouts of the various mainstream electoral parties explaining their principles and platforms. After all, we know full well that these parties will simply dance the rigodon and play games of musical chairs as they split sideways, coalesce, and split again frontways, seeking the quickest path to the biggest prize.


So where does that leave us ordinary folk? Why, to think about drastic changes in our socio-political system, where else? Let us study and institute systemic changes so that the right kind of people are harnessed into government service in the right way. Of course this is so easy to say and so hard to do. But we must not give up.

I humbly offer a few ideas that we can gradually build on:

First: Let’s take a long hard look, not at the traditional parties and politicians that dance in and out of power, discrediting themselves and then doing a comeback, but at a wider spectrum of organizations and their leaders, as potential people in government. Among the many non-government (civic, community, sectoral, people’s, mass – choose your modifier) organizations, we will find leaders who are truly serving and representing their constituencies’ interests, without enjoying the perks and privileges of governmental or corporate power.

Since they are in lines of work that do not offer much opportunity for abuse and corruption, they are also the least prone to systematically practice it. That isn’t much guarantee, as observers of the big-time NGO world will tell you, but it’s better than to just allow the veteran trapos to freely rule the field.

Let us give special attention to those organizations among communities and sectors that have long been underprivileged and unorganized. You will typically find among them gems of leaders working quietly and observing simple lifestyles–actual workers and peasants, fisherfolk and manual laborers, who work with their hands and at the same time provide grassroots leadership to their fellow folk and exert efforts to rise above the rest intellectually and morally.

Let us explore all the ways to give them real political power. Let us support their candidacies and efforts to strengthen their political constituencies at levels they are realistically capable of attaining.

The more cynical among us would say, “What, so that they can be corrupted by power too?” Or one might validly ask, “Realistically, just how easily could a jeepney driver or sidewalk vendor, who might be an officer of their local association, succeed in a government position that requires familiarity with and enforcement of laws, not to mention management skills?” But that is precisely the challenge: to redesign the system such that the masses can exercise their political power more substantially, systematically and responsibly than the current formal right to vote every few years would provide. This brings us to the next point.


Second: We must push for an overhaul of our electoral and representative system such that it becomes much easier for the people to produce trained officials from among their local leaders, to supervise and review the actions of these officials, and to replace incompetent or abusive or mediocre officials with better ones as the demand arises.

Let us explore the advantages of a system whereby higher government bodies are elected by lower government bodies. In this scheme, a municipal board and its executives are elected by barangay councils among themselves plus sector-based party lists. The advantage here is that the municipal officials would be chosen from among an already working corps of barangay officials with known records (good or bad) in public service.

Provincial boards and their executives would be elected by municipal boards, also among themselves plus sector-based party lists. And so on up to the National Assembly or Congress, which would then elect the national-level executive (whether called a president or a premier) and his/her cabinet.

There should be shorter terms—for example, one year or even less at the barangay level, two or three years at the municipal and provincial levels, four to six years at the regional and national levels—and less stringent requirements for recall.

We expect this comment: “In your proposed system, it would be much easier for a corrupt politician to bribe and jostle his way into position, since he only has to get maybe a hundred collegial votes instead of tens of thousands of popular votes. And it would be harder for a good public servant to settle down to work, since he will always be distracted by politics and the threat of removal.”

That might be so for a while; but in the long run it will prove more beneficial. The organized people can hold new barangay elections more quickly, put in a new set of barangay councils who are more attuned to the popular will, and who are then able to initiate recall action against unwanted officials at higher levels.

This system will generate a near-continuous frenzy of elections and recalls at first, that’s true. But it will provide the masses of our people with excellent education on how to wield real political power from the grassroots, and won’t be as expensive and abuse-prone as the traditional form of popular elections that we have been used to. At the pain of swift removal, it will also teach government officials to behave themselves and act like the honest, responsible and competent public servants that they were chosen to be. Even the constant change in leadership will give more people a chance to try their hand at leadership, which should be seen as a good thing.


What I’m suggesting might sound suspiciously like the proposal to shift to the parliamentary system. There are similarities in form, but there are big differences in substance. The main difference in what I suggest–which could be labeled as the system of people’s congresses–is that real democratic power is located at all levels, with national power dependent on local power, and local power guaranteed by national power. This symbiosis of sovereignty is absent or under-developed in the classic parliamentary system.

This brings us to our third point: As in the parliamentary system, political parties will also play a big role in such a system of people’s congresses, especially in expressing the different and often-conflicting interests of the various classes and sectors that comprise our society. The party list system that now plays a minor and often marginal role should really grow into a major pillar of the people’s congresses.

As our people learn along the way the real practice of politics of principles and long-term interests as different from the politics of personalities and petty factions, they will soon learn that truly grassroots-based parties can ensure the widest possible choice of the finest leaders that could best represent their interests in all government bodies.


In such a system of people’s congresses, why not indeed: FPJ–or his house gardener for that matter–can certainly win a seat in barangay council elections, prove himself in that capacity with daily performance of work, rather than with academic titles or action-hero poses or former positions held. On that clearcut basis, his constituency and his peers can decide in due time to elect him to higher positions.

Such a system worked in former socialist countries, for quite some time at least, before deeply-ingrained capitalist habits reasserted themselves in and out of the bureaucracy. In formerly socialist China, for example, even ordinary, unschooled peasants and workers who could assert their principled vision and leadership and who enjoyed the trust and support of their peers could become members of the National People’s Congress.

Such a national congress selected its executive officials, and from its constitutional powers emanated the executive powers of the entire government officialdom. Real peasant, worker, and women activist-heroes such as Chen Yonggui (the peasant leader from Tachai), Kao Shulan (a gas welder), and Pasang (an emancipated Tibetan serf) could truly be elected to the highest national positions.

It is true that in even in such a system, a corrupt, alcoholic, gambling, womanizing, and abusive but charismatic Erap-like figure could still emerge within the national congress and somehow have himself elected as president or premier. But one public whiff of his stink should be enough for the same congress to vote him out of power in a few weeks, if not days, of people’s power and other forms of public pressure.

As ever, the basic guarantee for this is that the entire selection process for the people’s congresses should truly emanate from the grassroots and reflect their free choice at all times (not just every three or four or six years), and certainly must not be dominated by a small but powerful economic and political elite.


The country’s politicians and political analysts will surely continue to debate among themselves–into Christmastime and way beyond New Year–who among the presidential aspirants are likely to win, what is the impact of this or that realignment among the contending parties, and whether the likes of FPJ could show as much credentials as the rest of them in seeking the presidency.

Meanwhile, let’s conjure in our minds a very different picture: that of a more democratic political system where the entire people participate in daily governance through a structure of people’s congresses of grassroots representatives strengthened by an expanded party list system.

In that context, the question of who is to sign the final approval papers for this or that law or executive order or program of action, the question of who leads in making crucial executive decisions at the national level on the basis of a legislative mandate, the question of who is to cut inaugural ribbons and make speeches on grand state occasions–whether those functions will be performed by an FPJ or a GMA (or a Jose Ma. Sison for that matter)–seems a secondary if not trivial question. #

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