MANILA, January 3, 2003 (STAR) by Teodoro C. Benigno  - The rage is beneath the surface, the grief beginning to show as the Philippines staggers into the year 2003. A victim and prophet of that emerging upheaval is President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Better than any other politician in power, she correctly read the signs and did what nobody expected her to do: Renounce her presidential ambitions in 2004. That required guts and self-sacrifice. Now the job for those who would succeed her to Malacañang is to exorcise the spirit of despair spreading like gangrene in our body politic. If only, says one presidential aspirant, "we could buy time at least for a year to get the nation’s hidden energy and talent going."

I hardly think we can buy that year.

Not in all of post-World War II history has the Philippines really achieved any measure of national unity. Ferdinand Marcos tried or pretended to but he divided the nation even more. The dictator’s greatest sin was that he stole grandly and sordidly, lied even more shamelessly. He robbed the nation blind when he should have healed its wounds and clipped the claws of communist insurgency. Even as an angry society fell on him during EDSA, and he and his family fled to Honolulu, nothing much really changed even as Cory Aquino restored the feeble armor of democracy.

In due time, the oligarchy was back in power. In due time, political piracy reached untold heights. In due time, all you could see across the urban landscape was the proliferation of two things. On one side, the malls, high-rise condos, ritzy mansions for the rich and the haves. On the other side, the thick, smelly and spongy mushroom spread, like a vermin swarm, of squatter shanties over the metropolis. Divided. Hati. Laging hati. That is what GMA said. And divided and hati it will be until a dynamic, visionary leader comes along, until a martyr or martyrs sprawl lifeless under a hail of military-police bullets. Or the much dreaded revolution or civil war explodes.

In the meantime, it will be absolutely useless and preposterous for some civil society groups to carp at GMA, dismiss her as a liar and a fraud, warn everybody she will renege. Watch her, they say, watch her. She is a snitch and sneak. She was perhaps in the past. We did experience that. But in a reverse rendition of Lincoln Steffens who visited Russia in the 30s and said: "I have seen the future and it works," GMA is now saying: "I have seen the future and it terrifies me." And so her turning back on 2004 as if she had seen Sodom and Gomorrah and she being blamed for everything that had befallen the Republic.

It would be best if we beamed all our flashlights on contemporary events as they swift by.

Let’s have another roll of Fortune’s wheel. What we’ve learned in the past is that of all the institutions that underpin the commanding heights of our society, three stand out. They are the Church, the military and the business community. There is now a fourth, the so-called masa which Erap Estrada with the wicked charm of a snake-oil rogue, basted into a formidable force. Whether that masa is still there or not, looking for a new political Pied Piper or not, is anybody’s guess.

If indeed Fernando Poe Jr., in the words of his wife Susan Roces, has finally walled himself out of the 2004 presidential elections, then that masa will split. A loyalist portion, but only a portion, will support Sen. Panfilo Lacson as the other heir apparent of Erap Estrada. As of now, Lacson’s chances are remote, landing only a measly three to six percent in presidential surveys. With the withdrawal of GMA from 2004, her base of electoral support – Lakas-NUCD as mother organization – will also split. A substantial portion will probably roll over to Raul Roco. The rest would be split in fractions among Loren Legarda (if ever she aspires for the presidency), Frank Drilon, Johnny Flavier, Robert Barbers. Where Noli de Castro stands, we don’t know.

But let me emphasize a very important point, overlooked by many.

The citizenry is just sick and tired of professional politicians, traditional, non-traditional or what not. Or those perceived as such. Scan the immediate past. Who won the presidency in 1986? Cory Aquino, housewife, mother and widow. Doy Laurel and the others did not stand a chance. Who won the elections in 1992? Fidel Valdez Ramos. A professional soldier, West Point graduate, a face you could never magnify or invent at the time as a politician. Who won the elections in 1998? Joseph Estrada. He may have been a cad and a bounder. But Erap was a magician who convinced the masa he didn’t belong to the political system. He would serve them and not the rich, the oligarchy.

And that is probably why only two names, two persons rate the highest in presidential surveys today. Raul Roco and Fernando Poe Jr.

Both are perceived in tune with the fierce, demanding, swifting events of contemporary Philippine history which have a low, spiteful regard for politicians. These events no longer light candles for the politicians who inhabit and command our political system. In fact our politicians are close to becoming the politicians of Argentina, a country consumed in hatred for politicians. The latter are cursed, vilified, even spat at in public. In elevators they are hounded, almost physically pummeled. They dare not go out in public, eat in public restaurants, go to public parks and amusement places.

FPJ is perceived as a kindly, decent family man without the lewd vices of Erap Estrada. Roco’s political cut is perceived as different. He remains a stranger to patronage politics. His integrity is intact.

There is a subliminal message here. I hear people say that if anybody can save our faltering democracy, it would be Roco. He bears the legacy of Ninoy Aquino, being the latter’s lawyer in residence, when Ninoy set up political shop and defied Ferdinand Marcos. They say Roco has a sharp and penetrating intellect, would hold the reins of power like the Flying Dutchman, suffer no idiot. In the case of FPJ, they say, if anybody can bring peace and unity temporarily to the nation, it would be he. Ronnie Poe may not have the education and the required leadership skills. But he reportedly has nobility of purpose. He is the revered and symbolic panday.

History appears to be scrawling the following on the wall.

The age of the Joe de Venecia is gone, the Juan Ponce Enriles, the Ernesto Macedas, the Miriam Defensor Santiagos, the Francisco Tatads, the Ronnie Punos, the Ronnie Zamoras, the Sonny Osmeñas, certainly the Marcoses, the Joe Almontes, the Dante Angs, the Danding Cojuangcos, the Jimmy Policarpios, the Gringo Honasans, the Ramon Revillas, the Blas Opleses, the Crispin Remullas, of course the Mark Jimenezes, Nani Perezes and, I would venture, the Panfilo Lacsons. The message of events is that they belong to a decaying and decomposing age, where Beelzebub was king, where power was a weapon to perpetuate power, where virtue was the implacable foe.

There are three waves rolling ominously towards the shore.

The first wave comprise the events leading to the 2004 elections, the jockeying, the positioning, the circus shouts of candidates and aspirants promising the moon. The second wave are the events sending off lightning and thunder, the face of terror, the face of the impending war in Iraq, the face of increasing social turbulence. The third wave, which can be hardly perceived, is a mediating wave that could open a path to a third force, a middle force, a reborn civil society perhaps which can throw back the two sinister forces of a full-blown civil war or a military takeover. As we wrote in a previous column, the GMA renunciation of 2004 takes the sting out of ambitious military generals and colonels.

That neutralizes the force flowing out of the barrel of a gun. The communist left too has been stymied.

Another change or societal shift is that the Church is no longer the power it was influencing the course of elections. Jaime Cardinal Sin stirs no more, not the way he did for decades, and nobody can take his place. He is a very sick man who can now often be manipulated. The leadership is divided and factionalized, even politicized. The Church too may suffer what the Church in America went through, a series of scandals involving priests who inflicted sex on very young boys and girls. I recently asked a decorated prince of our Church if homosexuals and priests with families were not only common but an open scandal and his answer was You bet.

The business community is biding its time. But it is a business community now wracked with greed, dizzy with power, heavy with corruption. I would even say our businessmen have nothing on our politicians when it comes to depraved treatment of the poor and oppressed. Debauched they are, a perverse elite without any conscience, tax evaders almost all, their culture culled all the way from the Spanish conquistadores and America’s robber barons.

We do hope a new force will emerge from our middle forces in 2003.

All rights reserved