The Filipino way with presidents

Tue, 02/03/2015 - 21:44


by Alan Robles

originally published in Asian Dragon Nov-Dec 2014 and  updated


Photo: ArkibongBayan



Filipinos want their President to be Batman, Superman and Jesus Christ.
They want him, or her, to be able to see through walls, around corners, into the hearts and minds of all citizens. To be someone who'll walk across the water and then hand out loaves and fishes.
They want their President to fight crime, solve poverty, crush corruption, grow the economy and provide jobs, food, education, land reform, justice and social change. They want him to untangle traffic, build infrastructure and furnish cheap electricity; to be a paragon of virtue and warmth, a tough leader, a brilliant statesman, a super soldier and  a Nobel class economist.
And they want all of it NOW. No wait, they want it YESTERDAY.
If they don't get it, out come the metaphorical torches and pitchforks (or perhaps itak): howls of outrage; condemnations; demonstrations; rallies; non-stop vitriolic attacks on Facebook and Twitter (a new development); impeachment attempts. If the political signs are fortuituous there might be serious destabilization attempts, a "withdrawal of support" by the military.
Let's face it: perhaps the only thing more difficult than running for Philippine President is actually BEING one.
Torn between the well-founded suspicion that anyone they elect will just raid the treasury and preside over corruption, and the slight hope that perhaps THIS will be the one, Filipino voters are impatiently ready to savage whoever happens to be President.
Benigno Aquino III might have shown he's a different kind of President, might have clearly demonstrated he's not corrupt and doesn't plunder, might have led a government that has supervised a dramatic growth in the economy and a reform of internal revenues as well as increased transparency in governance. Doesn't matter. He's still derided, vilified and belittled 24x7. And a crisis like the Mamasapano clash is grist to the mill, a leverage point for critics (casual, sincere and hypocritical), haters, political outs and wannabes to try to dislodge the president. Even sinister Catholic clerics, who probably want to brng back the 19th century, have joined in.
Although in three years, the Aquino administration has managed the unheard of feat of impeaching a dubious Supreme Court Chief Justice and arresting three prominent senators – strangely, somehow Aquino has been painted as the guilty party. He's under a steady unremitting attack that's eroding his popularity (which by the way according to the last published survey is still the highest figure compared to the past four presidents). Aquino is supposed to be simultaneously an inept bumbler and an evil genius, a hapless incompetent and a sinister dictator. It's probably only a matter of time before he's accused of stealing watches or candy from a mall store.
Maybe it's all about history. Our experience has been, presidents never live up to our expectations, or their own billings. That they always, eventually, disappoint us. Perhaps this is true of all countries that have presidents, but over here there's an inevitable pattern. If lucky, the President starts his or her term with high approval ratings, even ludicrous expectations. That's the "honeymoon phase." Soon enough, when the public finds out their leader can't turn water into wine after all - down go the ratings. By the end of the six years, the media will be describing the national leader in terms reserved for crippled criminals trying to sneak out the back door while being pelted with rotten tomatoes.
It's happened to every President the country has ever had, with a few exceptions. One was Ramon Magsaysay, who died in a plane crash in 1957, shortly before his term ended. His tragic death silenced his critics and froze his image as a beloved leader into the level of a myth that's still constantly invoked. Another exception was Joseph Estrada, who so provoked the public with his mansions, mistresses and millions that he was run out of office in 2001, halfway through his term.
The third exception was, of course, Ferdinand Marcos. By declaring Martial Law and turning himself into a dictator he did away with the need to pay attention to election promises, popularity ratings and term limits. He didn't need to worry about critics - his critics needed to worry about HIM, specifically how he would shorten their lifespans if they spoke up. His regime was free of the pesky restrictions of democracy, allowing him, his family and cronies the time and leisure to plunder, torture and kill pretty much as they pleased.
After Marcos was chased out of the country and his regime toppled, the five presidents that came after all had to deal with democracy and its restrictions: the need to negotiate and play traditional politics with Congress, follow the Supreme Court, pay attention to public approval, keep big business, the military and the Church happy (or quiet)..
They also had to deal with public expectations that remained high, if not higher. After all, some argued, things were supposed to get better when the odious Marcos was overthrown, right? Well actually, things immediately and automatically became better with Marcos gone and democracy restored. The thing is, democracy doesn't run itself, it needs a vigilant and informed citizenry. But try telling that to the voters.
Still, you can't really blame them. They can plausibly argue that no matter who's gotten elected to Malacañang, nothing's improved except the levels of corruption and poverty. And the big fish have always succeeded in swimming away. A taxi driver once explained to me why he'd voted for Erap Estrada as President back in 1998: "Well, I'd already tried a good President (Cory Aquino) and a smart one (Fidel Ramos) and nothing happened, so I thought, this time, may as well go with an idiot." Needless to say that didn't work out too well either.
Perhaps Filipinos should wean themselves from the belief that the presidency is a powerful position that can do anything instantly. Without dictatorial powers every president has to use political skills working in a toxic political system that's based on patronage, oligarchic power and corruption. Political analysts Aprodicio Laquian and Eleanor Laquian wrote in a book about the Estrada presidency: "although a president may have all the best attributes -- intelligence, good moral character, a developmental vision, professional and technical skills, flexibility, courage, communication abilities, charisma, and affinity with the people, he or she may not succeed because of the institutional constraints or obstacles offered by the various sectors.
“Despite this realization, however, there is a very strong tendency in the Philippines to look up to a president and the presidency as primary factors in the success or failure of governance."
The country's biggest root problems -- corruption, colossal inequalities, peace and order -- can't be untangled in a six year term. Perhaps the best any President can do is make an example by sending big fish to jail, and laying the foundations for a reform effort which could take generations.
What Filipinos could try to do is understand presidents – no matter what they claim – are not superheroes but managers working within many constraints. And none of them is free of personal faults. In the case of Aquino this seems to be a strong loyalty to friends who are political liabilities
Of course, this isn't as fun as damning them all to hell, right?
Now, where are those rotten tomatoes?


Submitted by Juan Masipag (not verified) on
I believe you have said it and described it at its best, many Filipinos has this Messianic complex that each and everyone of us knows better, can do better, can solve better and can think even better than anyone else (well except those newscasters on TV who knows what's "BEST"). Its like Moses back in the desert, God was leading the Jews out of bondage, when things did not work out as they imagined it in their minds they started to whine and complain, cursing Moses for leading them out of Egypt and bondage, even to the point of having Moses replaced by a leader that would lead them back to Egypt. Inspite of all the good intentions and all those astounding miracles they have witnessed they still wishes to go back to where as they say "there is normalcy".

Submitted by Jose Richard P.... (not verified) on
All critics left and right, particularly the left leaning groups has only one purpose in their organizations, that is to criticize every sitting president of this country, because that's where their funds came. I do not believed their purpose anymore. Tell me a president who haven't experienced this.

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