May 4, 2004  (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno  -  At this point, it should be safe to say that the dangerous political virus that swept Estrada to power in 1998 has been contained.

That virus is the politicization of poverty.

A politicized poor expects charismatic leaders to work miracles to end their miseries. They demand populist policies. They want government leveraged on their behalf. They want their petty little complaints to be given priority over the general welfare.

The politicization of poverty rests on the delusion that the solution to poverty is political, not economic. This delusion has been exploited, initially, by the Left: propagating the idea that by using power, the poor could commandeer society’s goods to equalize comfort.

But the Utopia offered by the Left has faded. The political project of socialism has dissipated. And the highly politicized poor constituencies lay vulnerable to exploitation by elite politicians presenting charismatic but incompetent personalities on which the hopes of the desperate may be pinned.

Our politics is particularly vulnerable to populism. Our party system is weak. Patronage politics is deeply rooted. The old political class is discredited. Many of our voters are looking for men on horseback, heroes who represent quick fixes to the many problems we confront.

The traditional political class could not provide those heroes so desperately demanded by an increasingly alienated mass of poor people. They will have to be imported from the magical world of movies, the inflated arena of popular entertainment.

The traditional political class has not disappeared. It has simply lost its ability to enchant our most desperate voters. Recognizing this, our most discredited politicians have found it more feasible to hide behind faces with greater public appeal – faces, especially, of those who are pliable.

Joseph Estrada, in 1998, managed to enchant the poor. He was swept to power by the votes of poor people expecting instant solutions to poverty.

But enchanting the poor and managing the development of our institutions are two very different things. While Estrada was extremely popular, he did not prove to be a statesman. His presidency failed and was deposed.

The dramatic abortion of the failed Estrada presidency was an educational experience for us all. It was a particularly valuable educational experience for the poor: there are no quick fixes to poverty. The economy needs to be managed so that more opportunities are opened to those willing to do honest work.

The entire premise of the Poe candidacy was that the 1998 Estrada phenomenon was replicable. The politicians, most on the brink of political extinction, who banded together to push the Poe candidacy, assumed that history could be repeated.

They were not entirely wrong. There remains a significant constituency for the politicization of poverty. Add to that the large number of voters attracted to celebrity politics.

But those constituencies needed to be worked.

The 1998 Estrada campaign brilliantly worked these same constituencies by anchoring that presidential bid on the slogan "Erap sa Mahirap." The candidate hewed closely to the campaign theme, behaved as he was packaged and projected a compelling albeit illusory image as the final solution to Philippine poverty.

By contrast, the Poe campaign was poorly imagined and poorly executed. The candidate was consistently unable to deliver a clear and message to the voters.

It was as if the strategists of the Poe campaign forgot the essential strategy that should make this effort viable: poverty should be continuously politicized, a utopia must be peddled for the voters to be enthralled and the candidate himself must deliver the message no matter how illusory this message might be.

Voters needed to believe the candidate – and not some motley bunch of "advisers" – would deliver the utopia on which poverty could be politicized.

Poe’s high ratings at the start of the campaign period indicates that the poor were expecting a champion in the mold of Estrada – but unlike Estrada in the sense that he was immune from corruptors. But as Poe disappeared in a haze of grunts and nonsensical one-liners, voter affiliation to his candidacy began to wane.

By the end of the campaign, his expected voting base had vanished. His campaign was reduced to sniping by his band of black propagandists.

By contrast, the PGMA campaign took careful note of the power of politicizing poverty. Early on, it was clear that Poe was going to be the main challenger and his appeal will need to be carefully demystified without antagonizing the poor.

The PGMA campaign consciously solicited endorsements from showbiz personalities in order to blunt Poe’s showbiz appeal. The most desperately poor communities were brought relief though emergency water distribution, a well targeted health insurance program for indigent families and a scholarship program aimed at the poorest 20 percent of Filipino families.

Furthermore, the President was cast as a caring leader, quick to respond to the urgent plight of the poor. "Gloria cares" is the antidote to the perception of callous "elitistas" peddled by those who wanted to agitate the poor and use the power of their anger to surreptitiously sweep old politicians back to power.

From all indications, the virus of politicized poverty has been effectively tamed.

Although never explicitly articulated, this is what this election is all about. Although there was little ideological rhetoric, there was a crucial ideological issue that needed to be settled. This is a contest between the delusions of populist politics and the modern idea of governance.

The battle has been settled. The beast has been tamed. A modernizing democracy for the country has been ensured.

The face of political contestation in our democracy will be reshaped in this election. The alliances and allegiances will be redefined. The old lines of polarization have been transcended.

After the business of counting the votes is done, the "opposition" to the present dispensation will have to be reconstituted from elsewhere and by other social forces. The political center of gravity has shifted quite decisively.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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