We’ve seen this before: a senator with no presidential plans suddenly surges in the voter surveys as people cast about for candidates with no record of sleaze. Thankfully, Grace Poe, now No. 2 in the latest Social Weather Stations voter survey, acknowledges her limited governance experience and knowledge.
Filipinos again seem to be looking for a new leader with a clean reputation, as the nation did before the 2010 elections. Back then, Benigno Aquino 3rd came out of nowhere to lead other presidentiables. He was unexceptional in Congress, his Cojuangco family’s businesses, and his mother Corazon Aquino’s presidency; nor did he express presidential ambitions. But Cory’s demise and his nationwide prominence at her funeral in August 2009 catapulted Aquino to the top of voter surveys.
The people pinned high hopes on his clean image, much helped by his parents’ revered reputations. Sadly, however, like another hugely popular president, Joseph Estrada, Aquino broke his campaign promise to stop sleaze. He trebled pork barrel to well over P20 billion a year from the previous administration, and continues it in the 2015 budget even after being declared unconstitutional a year ago.
Smuggling also leapt, up fivefold to $19 billion a year under Aquino, based on Direction of Trade Statistics compiled by the International Monetary Fund. Despite that, he never investigated the 2011 disappearance of more than 2,000 containers of untaxed cargo — the largest spate of smuggling in the country ever — or the P200 billion in contraband losses he himself reported in his State of the Nation Address last year.
Jueteng also flourished after the President let his shooting buddy and then-Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno supervise the Philippine National Police, despite being accused of receiving gambling payoffs by Dagupan Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz. Aquino took the PNP away from its legally mandated overseer, then-Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, who eradicated jueteng as Naga mayor in the 1990s.
(Pollsters and media recently highlighted the rise of Aquino’s survey ratings after record lows over the Supreme Court ruling against his illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). Next time SWS and Pulse Asia do their polls on top officials, it would be good to ask those expressing satisfaction, trust and approval for Aquino if they know that pork barrel, smuggling and jueteng all surged under him. Most Filipinos don’t.)
Jockeying for 2016
Now, there is a new search for another clean and capable leader, and Poe, unstained by corruption, is gaining support. Naturally, major political groups keen to keep or win power, aim to get her on the ticket, either as president or vice-president. The Liberal Party-led ruling coalition seems particularly keen, since its presumed standard bearer for 2016, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, sank in the latest presidentiables poll.
It’s too early, of course, for political parties or observers to settle on any candidate. But a few things seem very likely.
First, the LP will pick a standard bearer who is sure not to do to its members what they have done to top opposition Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla: investigate and prosecute them for pork barrel corruption, using disbursement papers held by the Budget Department. Administration stalwarts also want smuggling, DAP, and contract anomalies like the Metro Rail Transit maintenance and railcar deals kept under wraps.
Second, Vice-President Jejomar Binay’s United Nationalist Alliance would field him for president, unless he is legally barred from running due to impeachment or imprisonment. Given his years of high public ratings, he will likely maintain a core support base of 20-25 percent among voters (Gloria Arroyo had a similar block of loyal supporters even in her lowest surveys), and that would be enough for Binay to rank among leading candidates. So there would be no reason for UNA not to field him.
Third, if Poe ran for VP, she could win, but it could be close if only Chiz Escudero or Alan Peter Cayetano runs, and the non-candidate backs the other. Politically, Poe would gain in contesting the second highest position in the land: it would instill her name in voters’ recall. And if she wins, she would have six years to learn top-level government and politics. That would prepare her well for the presidency, if she has that in her sights.
Lastly, whoever finally winds up on top two Mays from now, the political establishment will speedily line up behind the future president-elect, as they have always done. And now, rather than Malacañang largesse, the main motive for many administration politicians is protection from corruption charges. Indeed, to stay out of jail, many of them will resort to vote-buying, violence, and computerized fraud.
The top election issue now: PCOS
Which brings us to the most pressing issue affecting the next elections. It’s not who will run for what position, which is too early and too muddled with too many imponderables to make intelligent guesses. No, candidates are not the paramount issue that should concern voters keen to be counted and to help forge a better future for the Philippines.
Rather, PCOS is the most crucial concern now for Philippine elections and democracy. The Precinct Count Optical System must be drastically revamped with all legally mandated safeguards properly implemented — or junked for another process, even a return to manual count, which can be thoroughly checked and monitored.
Make no mistake: if the 2016 automated election system is again unprotected from fraud, it won’t matter who tops voter surveys. Smartmatic would decide who wins.