MANILA, February 2, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Heís a man of few words, and weíre starting to see why. Compared with his bosom buddy Fernando Poe Jr., deposed President Joseph Estrada is starting to look more palatable.

Itís not just the level of education: Erap dropped out of college while FPJ dropped out of high school. Or the proficiency in English: Erap, caught in unguarded moments, drops the "Eraptions" and speaks straight English, while FPJ, whether in an unguarded moment or coached by advisers, is often "lost for words" as he himself told pesky reporters last week.

You all know the joke by now: FPJ must be the only American who canít speak English. That, however, should be no problem for someone aspiring for the presidency of this country; he can always speak in his native tongue. Foreigners who canít understand him will just have to get a translator.

But reading FPJís replies in his first "ambush" interview, printed verbatim by annoyed reporters, you realize with dread that the man simply isnít making sense. Either he couldnít hear too well, which was unlikely given the proximity of the reporters to him when they hurled the questions, or else thereís truth to rumors that he had had one drink too many that night and was showing what people who have been with him for years have known all along Ė that Erap can handle his drink better than FPJ.

I know, I know Ė Poe is nice, and humble, and decent, and he has good taste in women. In 2001 I wrote that friends swore he was a good man, that he was a rare popular actor who would not abuse power if ever he won the presidency.

But from what weíve seen and heard so far, from FPJís meetings with different groups, you canít help fearing that if this is the man leading in the surveys for the presidency, weíre lost.

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Try telling that though to FPJís die-hard fans. The presidential election in May is a continuation of the battle that culminated in EDSA II in January 2001. That time the forces of Erap lost, and were unable to restore him to power during the riots in May. Subsequent attempts to kick out his successor also fizzled out.

Now those forces are out to exact sweet revenge, in a democratic way, by using the power of the vote to install Erapís bosom buddy as president.

Those who had misgivings about the events that transpired in January 2001, which led to the ouster of a duly elected president, can only shake their heads as they watch the FPJ juggernaut to MalacaŮang.

No use crying over what could have been, but still, think about it: if Erap had been allowed to serve out his term, his six years would have been nearly over, and we would all have been so sick of stories about corruption and cronyism and bungling that thereís a very good chance that come May, even the masses will go for a competent leader who has no ties at all to entertainment.

In that environment of deep discontent, someone like Raul Roco stands a good chance of winning, or even Ė why not? Ė an economist like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, with her controversial husband still largely unknown to the public. Then she could have a full six years to build a truly strong republic.

Instead we interrupted Erapís tenure with three years of non-stop attempts to destabilize the administration and undermine every effort of GMA the child of EDSA Dos to lift the nation out of its hellhole. Why, even key players at EDSA Dos are themselves being linked, this close to the elections, to fresh destabilization efforts.

And now we face the prospect of six more years of the same faces that surrounded Erap. In fact we face the prospect of six years with Erap himself wielding power behind the throne of Da King.

Erap will call that poetic justice. I call it a nation being lost Ė and not just for words.

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For some people itís comforting to think that if Poe keeps opening his mouth in public, which a presidential candidate has no choice but to do as the campaign heats up, it could be easier for President Arroyo to narrow that nine-point gap in their ratings in the Social Weather Stations survey.

But I donít see Poeís supporters among the masses caring a whit about what he has to say. All he has to do is stand on stage, wave at his fans and he will have their votes. The campaign hasnít even officially started yet, and those numbers could go both ways. FPJ can even widen his lead over the President for a landslide win in May.

He has even learned to criticize, mouthing what everyone is saying about this administration. Weíre waiting to hear his alternative plans to deal with the nationís problems Ė plans that go beyond motherhood statements about bringing peace and prosperity.

One naughty rival of FPJ whispered to us that during FPJís public appearances, certain sympathizers in the crowd are given questions to ask so he can give the right answers. The problem arises, we were told, when someone butts in and shouts out a question that FPJ canít ignore, and he is forced to answer. I laughed and thought the story was just envious black propaganda. But after that ambush interview, I am inclined to believe it.

FPJ can play all the strong silent types in his movies, but as a candidate he canít be at a loss for words forever.

And if he ever becomes president, he can display the worst temper every day and refuse to ever talk to the press, but he will have to tell the people his plans. We need to know which direction weíre headed, beyond the rhetoric of peace, progress and trust in government. How can we trust the government when weíre not even sure whoís running it?

Poe canít remain at a loss for words, and other things besides. If he wins, the nation canít afford to be cast adrift, lost in a sea of hopelessness and bad governance.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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