MANILA, NOVEMBER 28, 2003  (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - FPJ’s entry into race has dramatically changed the political landscape

Scoff at his being unfit and unprepared to govern if you will, but we’ll all have to admit it: FPJ’s decision to jump into the race – after much he-sitation, remember? – has drastically revised the political landscape. What had earlier been viewed as a set-piece battle – with strategies arguing "pro" and "con," and suspicions the Comelec might be manipulated to give President GMA a perhaps dubious but categorical "victory" – has become a situation in ferment.

Will any officials contemplating widespread computerized electoral fraud in May 2004 risk the violent anger of the mob if the masa’s screen idol, "Ang Panday, (The Blacksmith), is seen to have been brazenly "cheated"? Those, it’s said, who wouldn’t do or die for GMA, Raul Roco and even the redoubtable Ping Lacson, might do so for da King. In fact, even just being called da King gives FPJ a psychological advantage.

Then there‘s the Erap factor. He may be in the pokey, but the Erap "magic" among his old constituency of the masa, despite dramatic "revelations" of economic plunder, high-living, multiple familial relations, cronyism, and a Cabinet of Midnight Madness, is far from dented.

The acknowledgement of this comes from GMA herself, who for more than two years has been desperately instigating "populist" policies trashing the "rich" and giving everything to the "poor", or the squatters inordinately currying favor with them (by Palace edict, you can’t eject them from your own land without the approval of Malacańang!). The Chief Executive‘s avid desire to paint herself as Gloria Lavandera, Ate Glo, and, at the Chavit movie premiere, possibly Manang Biday, hasn’t quite succeeded.

I think that FPJ's most impressive off-the-cuff policy statement, when he gave the exclusive tip-off to our Associate Editor Joanne Ramirez, is that he wanted to be the champion of "all Filipinos", the rich as well as the poor.

The question now, and you already know the answer, is whether FPJ’s constituency and that of his kumpadre Erap Estrada’s are one and the same. If not, with Estrada having nagged FPJ to run and now proclaiming his all-out support, can the Erap idolaters’ devotion be transferred like "blood transfusion" to Fernando Poe, Jr.? You already know the answer, too.

Sus, when you consider that Erap was better prepared politically than FPJ – he had, after all, been San Juan mayor, senator and vice president – the FPJ phenomenon is all the more puzzling. But it’s there.

Even among those who decry him, sneer at him and condemn him, he has electrified the nation. What was expected to be boring and almost predictable, even if violent in some places, has suddenly become exciting.

Am I saying that FPJ (who’s not even an Ateneo drop-out) is qualified to run this nation? That’s not for me, but for the nation to decide. It’s both the beauty and despair of democracy that any natural-born citizen can run for the presidency, and, if the voters cast their ballots for her or him, anyone can ascend to the Presidency. (There are no entrance, I.Q., or qualifying examination.) I’m not even sure somebody can be ruled out if he comes from the National Mental Hospital. I remember years ago, one of the zaniest candidates who averred, among other things, he proposed to air-condition the capital city by enclosing it in an air-conditioned dome was able to produce, when challenged, a certificate of mental stability.

One thing is sure: The more critics attack FPJ on his lack of a proper college degree, his educational "preparedness", his capability to run a country, his popularity seems to rise.

Many businessmen are being quoted as saying they’ll leave the country, or lose confidence, or pull back on investments, or give up, if ever FPJ becomes President. Yet, the fact is that 200 businessmen were quick to donate funds or pledge financial support to FPJ immediately – and that was only on the first day. Now which is which?

Sanamagan, former Education Secretary Raul Roco may still be "ahead" in the very latest survey – but his lead has already been amazingly narrowed, in a single day, by the FPJ challenge – even if Raul is just on the eve of being officially proclaimed at the Folk Arts Theater next Sunday by a coalition called Aksyon Demokratiko, and the rally billed "A Convention of Hope".

Roco is supposedly backed by the youth and students, and a powerful business group led by (is it true?) some high muckamucks of a giant Makati corporation.

Pulse Asia asked whether in a three-way fight among President Macapagal-Arroyo, Roco and FPJ, if the elections were held today, how the people would vote. The respondents gave Roco 35 percent, Poe 34 percent, and the President garnered 29 percent. Isn’t that interesting?

It’s dangerous, of course, to take poll figures out of context.

What about Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson? In a four-candidate scenario, Roco still came out on top with 30 percent, Poe with 28 percent, GMA 28, while Lacson got 12 percent. (We hear that FPJ and Ping are scheduled to have a one-on-one meeting with each other to resolve matters. Now, that’s even more interesting.)

* * *

The international media may be giggling a bit, but they are taking the FPJ candidacy seriously. The news has been all over the world press, including the cable news networks.

Yesterday, the prestigious Financial Times of London, which is published simultaneously as the daily bible of business, banking, economics and finance on four continents, ran a huge color photo of FPJ and his attractive, former film star wife, Susan Roces, at the very top of the front page. Mr. Poe was shown waving his arm in the chandeliered Manila Hotel hall where he had proclaimed his candidacy – in white barong Tagalog and men-in-black dark glasses – with an admiring crowd right behind him. (I wonder if our Editor got a copy to reproduce on our own front page?)

The four-column lead photograph was captioned: Lights, camera, action: Philippine film actor Fernando Poe Jr. (center) in Manila, with his wife, Susan, where he announced he will run for president next year. His popularity makes him a likely flagbearer for the opposition to unseat President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. (Report, Page 2).

The six-column second-page article, by correspondent Roel Landingin, was headlined: "Fil Star to Stand for President" – and again has a color photo of FPJ, by Reuters, with an army of photographers clicking away behind him, captioned: Fernando Poe waving to his fans yesterday.

Among other things, the report stated: "The actor and director, whose real name is Ronald Allan Kelley Poe, said he was seeking the highest political office, despite being a political novice, because of popular demand."

" ‘I saw the clamour and I can’t turn my back,’ he said."

The FT admits that FPJ’s "lack of political experience is worrying business people and investors" but adds that Poe is "backed by a cast of political figures, including ousted President Joseph Estrada, his best friend, and Edgardo Angara, head of the main opposition party, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (Struggle of Democratic Filipinos)."

Also: "Eduardo Cojuangco, chairman of food ad beverage giant San Miguel, an associate of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and head of another political party, is also a close friend."

In addition: "Appearing in more than 200 movies since the 1950s, Mr. Poe is the Philippines’ best-known film star. He usually plays an action hero who fights villains in defense of the poor and oppressed."

Anyway, those are the early assessments of the Financial Times.

You can be sure that many things will now be dredged up against FPJ in the days to come. It’s axiomatic in a campaign that the minute one posts his or her candidacy, all the skeletons are dragged out of the closet by rivals and critics, and every wart exposed. Plus, naturally, a few dozen warts added by the usual black propaganda spinmeisters.

The early barbs have already brought anguish to wife, Susan. She broke out in tears last Wednesday on television, expressing her hurt over the attacks on her husband. She said that people should just work for the good of the nation, and stop talking so viciously.

It’s well known Susan, always regarded as a lady, gentle in speech and manner, hadn’t wanted her husband to get into the harum-scarum of politics – but she’ll now, it’s expected, be a dutiful political helpmeet to FPJ.

She wept, in my estimate, unheeding of the power of woman’s tears – but that was the opening salvo of the campaign.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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