MANILA, January 7, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Now we are utterly confused. All the major contending parties in the presidential race are morphing into each other. In a town where we thought there were few surprises left, it was still a jolt to see Sen. Loren Legarda smiling alongside former San Juan Mayor Jinggoy Estrada and former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile.

On the other side of the fence, Sen. John Osmeña and former Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago are jumping to the administration Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party. This, however, is not too surprising, since the warring factions of the Osmeñas change political color every election. As for Miriam, her brother Benjamin, in case you’ve forgotten, owes President Arroyo one for appointing him Armed Forces chief even for just two months. Miriam, it must be emphasized, continues to vacillate, and will make her final decision on her party affiliation this weekend.

With this game of musical chairs, many Filipinos are having a problem trying to find the dividing line between the administration and opposition.

Both camps are making noises about unity and national reconciliation, in an undisguised effort to garner the biggest number of votes.

Both are courting the fans of deposed President Joseph Estrada. So Erap gets a brand-new golf cart from President Arroyo and is preparing to sightsee in California. Meanwhile, his son and co-accused in his plunder case, Jinggoy, gets to run for senator after all under the banner of ninong Fernando Poe Jr. What will both camps do the next time Erap wails "woe is me" anew?

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Over at the Senate, Loren Legarda has finally resigned from her post as Senate majority leader. Out of delicadeza, that position should have been relinquished as soon as Loren quit Lakas last year. How can you be majority leader if you’re not a member of the majority party? But shamelessness is the order of the day in this country. Loren wants to have it all. So she waited until the last possible moment, after she had officially registered as the running mate of the strongest rival of the administration’s standard-bearer, before she quit the Senate majority leader’s post.

Yesterday business leaders, aghast at politicians’ game of musical chairs, decried the "bankruptcy of leadership" in this country, with no party presenting any real platform of government.

Many Filipinos can only agree. For some voters, the blatant, shameless political opportunism makes an election boycott more attractive every day.

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Former education secretary Raul Roco called both the administration and opposition slates "the new KBL" – referring to the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan of Ferdinand Marcos. The mummified dictator might rise from his air-conditioned crypt in protest; surely he had a better grip on his political allies.

At least Roco can still seem to tell which party is opposition or administration. As a serious candidate, he may want to keep in mind that the KBL commands a strong, solid following in Marcos country – proof of which is the fact that none of the Marcos children has lost an election in the Ilocos Region since the family returned from exile.

No one should be surprised if both Lakas and FPJ’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino forge an alliance with the KBL. Call it opportunism, call it realpolitik. For any politician in this country, the first order of the day is to win. Everything else – the platform of government, the blueprint for national progress – can come after victory.

And since all the candidates are mouthing the same motherhood statements and promising the moon, can you blame voters if their main criterion for picking candidates is popularity?

Roco himself may find himself reaching out to certain elements in the KBL. His choice of running mate has been disastrous for him; suddenly people are wondering if he’s serious in his presidential bid. At best, he has given the impression that a Roco presidency will be as colorless, as uninspiring as his running mate – some guy surnamed Aquino, but with so many Aquinos in different parties, it’s hard to keep track of who’s allied with whom.

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At least Roco found a running mate and has what passes for a Senate slate.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, is now all by his lonesome, with neither a running mate nor a Senate slate. How can people take his candidacy seriously?

Senator Ping launched his offensive too early and peaked too early. Worse, he seems to have offended every other presidential contender. So whoever wins in May among his rivals, there’s a good chance the Kuratong Baleleng case will be reopened under a new administration and he will be arrested and detained for multiple murder.

Lacson’s only hope – which gets more remote with each passing day – is that FPJ will withdraw at the eleventh hour, making him the lone opposition standard-bearer. Even before the official start of the campaign period, however, it looks like Da King is already preparing to wear his crown come May.

Yesterday Senator Ping was dumped by his spokesman, former immigration commissioner Rufus Rodriguez, who did not even bother to hide the fact that it was on orders of Lacson’s former boss Erap. You can sense all the rats abandoning the Lacson ship. Nothing personal, Senator Ping; it’s just realpolitik.

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Senator Loren is mastering the art of realpolitik. As soon as it became clear that candidate GMA would not have another woman as running mate, Legarda bolted Lakas, jumping into the arms of Sen. Edgardo Angara’s faction in the LDP.

Nothing personal there, either. And surely Legarda’s move had nothing to do with the Jose Pidal controversy, since the purveyor of that scandal belonged to the rival LDP faction of Butz Aquino and Lacson.

Some Filipinos console themselves with the thought that all the shameless political realignment at least has its entertainment value. They shrug and say we could use some comic relief in our despondency.

But we are already up to our neck in entertainment. In fact we could do with fewer entertainers entering politics, but no one’s listening.

It’s all realpolitik, which is the prime consideration of our politicians. This political reality is turning into a nightmare from which it could take a long time for the nation to wake up.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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