MANILA, NOVEMBER 25, 2003  (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Perhaps President Macapagal-Arroyo, for all the bumbling of her government, needn’t worry too much about re-election. It’s early days yet, but already the so-called "opposition" is bitterly divided. Very soon, if they don’t decide on a common candidate, or at least limit the circuit to two, the opposition contenders – most certainly egged on by their ambitious cling-ons and subalterns – will cancel each other out.

And, besides, a great many people already suspect that GMA will have the help of some very powerful insiders in the Commission on Elections. The word is "suspect", mind you. I met Comelec Chairman Ben Abalos last Thursday and he assured me that registration was proceeding without let-up and procedures are above-board. I told him that delays in issuing voter I.D.s for those already registered were arousing widespread complaint and comment.

Abalos, for starters, will have to dispel the impression that "to win" the May 2004 elections, all a candidate has to do is insert the "right" diskette. You know how computer-ignorant we are in this country. The growing conception . . . er, misconception? . . . in this land is that it will now be far easier to "fix" an election by electronic wizardry, instead of the crude manual malpractice of dagdag-bawas.

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Did you notice how the disclosure by movie action star FPJ, Fernando Poe Jr. (alias Ronnie) that he plans to run for the Presidency has roiled the political waters? If anything, the other opposition candidates’ camps appear more panicked by FPJ’s just "admitted" intentions (revealed to The Philippine STAR) than GMA herself.

If you’ll recall, my previous column was entitled, "Who can lead the disunited Opposition?" Well, San Juan Congressman Ronaldo Zamora, who’s emerged as the "campaign manager" of presidential candidate Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson (the guy who put the finger on "Jose Pidal"), was quick to announce yesterday that Lacson race on the first day of filing; i.e., December 15th. In short, Zamora was virtually sending a message to FPJ which can only be translated as "Phooey on you, FPJ. Ping isn’t going to give way to you. He’s going to run – and leave you eating his dust!"

Isn’t Lacson going to say anything himself? Such as – for instance – "Welcome aboard, FPJ! Would you like to be my Vice President? Or what?" That would sound more friendly, and things could be sorted out later.

Lacson has every right to bid for the Presidency without giving way to Mr. Poe. He’s survived every thunderbolt President GMA – not to mention "Pidal Incorporated" – has hurled at him, from General Victor Corpus’ and Ador Mawanay’s earlier rantings and accusations to the latest resurrection of the Kuratong Baleleng by the Supreme Court. He’s been accused of sins blacker than black, but managed to punch back painfully with his controversial Jose Pidal "re-velations". It was tit for tat. He couldn’t prove his Pidal sallies, just as the Administration couldn’t prove its previous allegations. Public opinion was left to decide the issue. As a member of the public, what did you decide?

In any event, with the latest "march of grief" turning into a "march of rage" as the daily Malaya described the thousands of angry mourners who accompanied the body of the slain kidnap-victim, Betti Chua Sy, to her burial place in Valenzuela last Sunday, the GMA Administration has once again been assailed on its helplessness, even indifference, towards the escalating wave of kidnappings.

The trouble is that GMA’s police generals are in a state of denial. They deny that kidnappings are proliferating, and insist that KFR cases are getting fewer, while more and more kidnap gangs are being "neutralized". That’s not what is seen by all of us, frightened citizens, on the street level.

Many of the victims, as usual, are Chinese-Filipinos, with those vicious kidnapper-murderers trying to give the impression, perhaps, that they are anti-Chinese indio "nationalists" instead of the greedy rats, murderous vermin, and heartless ghouls that they are. What’s really happening is that everybody, without ethnic discrimination in the choice of victims, is being harassed and terrorized. All know they are at risk from kidnappers, akyat-bahay intruders, bag and cellphone snatchers, hold-up men and street bullies. In sum, the hoodlums (in robes, too) are enjoying a heyday. They don’t fear the government, the courts, or the law. They don’t fear the "death penalty" which has been literally cancelled by the "pious" GMA, thanks to the decree of the Bishops, and the Holy Father himself. We all revere the Pope, but when he fulminates against capital punishment, surely this is not ex cathedra. What’s more, although he did once get shot by a Turkish would-be assassin in St. Peter’s Square (he later forgave his would-be killer), the Supreme Pontiff has a battalion of Swiss Guards to protect him in The Vatican, and wherever he travels, including in his bullet-proof Pope-mobile. So, Your Holiness, please give us poor, non-bullet-proof mortals a break, and stop guaranteeing the lives of killers by abolishing the "death penalty".

Has the "death penalty" failed in the Philippines as many churchmen, some lawyers, and bleeding hearts so pontifically argue? Why, the death penalty – with a few exceptions – has never been tried. After arrested murderers, killers, kidnappers, rapists and other perpetrators of heinous crime have by a long and tortuous court process been convicted, they still manage to exhaust several years of legal "appeal" in higher courts. If they ever get slapped with a final judgement by the high tribunal sending them to the lethal gas chamber, they somehow manage to get their executions (sob, sob, kawawa siya naman!) postponed, or commuted – or they even get pardoned! Most of those on the misnamed "Death Row" will probably die someday – of old age. As for their hapless victims, they are long dead, crumbled into cemetery dust, unable to complain from the grave that they were denied justice. Sort of reminds me of what India’s great Mahatma Gandhi, the leading apostle of non-violence, said: "I love Christ, but I despise Christians because they do not live as Christ lived."

Poor Gandhi, a devout Hindu, was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic. Did his murderer get the death penalty?

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Anyway, back to Lacson. With all the uproar over the deterioration of law and order – yes, Ma’am, it’s deteriorating – and the mushrooming of kidnap cases (some don’t even want to report their ordeal to the police) – the people are clamoring for a tough, give-’em-hell President who’ll crack down not just on the criminals, put also on the police. Lacson, after all, had "returned" to their rightful owners more than 300 carjacked or stolen cars, vans, and other vehicles which were insolently being used by police officers and their families. (Is it true that you can’t tell the lawmen from the lawless any more?)

When Lacson was PNP Director-General, kidnapping was drastically reduced, and kidnappers, people recall, were on the run.

Is he riding high then, as a Presidential contender? Gee whiz. He could have been. But then he went and surrounded himself (or got himself surrounded) by the Old Faces of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law kleptocracy, corruption and despotism, reminding folks that he used to be one of the Hellzapoppin’ Riders of the Colonel Abadilla chuck-wagon.

What’s he doing with Rep. Ronnie Zamora as his campaign manager? Zamora was one of the Marcos big shots (along with his banker-businessman brother Manny) during martial law, then recovered even more clout during the FVR administration, and finally shot up to Executive Secretary under Joseph Estrada, while brother Manny went, not from rags, but from riches to more riches. Did the Brothers Zamora (unlike the Brothers Karamazov) have the Midas touch, or the Goldfinger? Now, Ronnie Z. is obviously counting on Ping Lacson to boost him on his "I-Shall-Return" to glory. No wonder Ronnie was so quick to shout: "No way, FPJ!"

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And now that former Governor, now San Miguel Chief Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, has wisely ignored all calls on him to run for President ("What? Am I nuts, with my low survey ratings?"), we can expect the political low-lifes, has-beens, and wanna-be-agains who stampeded to be seen clustered around him, to see a new "champion". Even before Danding turned thumbs down on any bid for Malacańang, they had already been trying to show they were Ping Lacson’s top "leaders" in the Club Filipino.

When I twitted Lacson about this some two months ago, Ping replied: "Brother, I didn’t ask for them. I was invited by them, then they were all around me, pledging their support." Sus, Ping. How then can you pose as a "reforming" Presidential contender, capable of stopping crime and cleaning out the Augean stables? Not if you’re seen cavorting with a bunch who the public knows once took them to the cleaners.

Oh, well. Let’s see if things get sorted out.

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The disclosure of FPJ that he’s throwing his chapeau, well, hat into the ring, is already drawing international attention. Yesterday, the International Herald Tribune ran a four-column Reuters dispatch from Manila, headlined: "Movie idol on verge of challenging Arroyo".

The Financial Times of London, published worldwide simultaneously, had an even more graphic description of the FPJ candidacy.

In its popular Observer column on the FT Editorial Page, the daily ran the head: "Estrada’s Fellow Star Eyes Stage".

Said the FT: "The habit of electing actors to high office is most prevalent in the US, but one of its former colonies has caught the bug.

"In the Philippines, another aging action film star looks set to declare he will run for the presidency.

"Joseph Estrada, the former matinee idol who was deposed as his country’s leader in 2000, may still be in jail awaiting trial on charges of economic plunder. But that has not stopped one of his best friends, action star Fernando Poe Jr., telling Manila’s biggest selling newspapers that he is ready to serve the country."

(Ed’s note: "Biggest selling newspaper," ahem, that’s us.)

Goes on the Financial Times: "Poe, 63, is a slimmer, taller, better-looking version of Estrada. As such, this being the Philippines, he is very likely to win if he stands next May against the diminutive incumbent, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

"So far, Poe has not gone to the bother of aligning himself with a political party, although it is understood that Mr. Estrada’s former cronies have offered to guide him. Where to? – is the question."

Yep. Where to?

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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