MANILA, MARCH 17, 2010
(STAR) FILIPINO WORLD VIEW By Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) Updated March 16, 2010 12:00 AM

With just 56 days to go before election day on May 10, it’s troubling that the presidential candidates have more to say about President Arroyo than about themselves and their policy ideas, and what’s wanting in their respective stands on national issues. The situation reminds me of the game of pinning the tail on the donkey, where the players are blindfolded and totally at the mercy of luck.

A presidential election is supposed to be about choice – the choice that voters must make from the array of candidates before them. When candidates define themselves not by what they believe in, but in terms of someone who is not even in the race, the whole exercise is trivialized. The voters are no closer to a real choice than they were at the beginning.

A presidential election campaign is supposed to have two key elements: establishing the candidate before the electorate and engaging opponents in competition and debate for the voters’ support. The two elements are fundamental. An election, after all, is a contest — a winner-take-all affair. And a candidate’s ability to “engage opponents” is a key element in assessing any presidential contender.

From the beginning, one fact was certain about the May election: this political exercise would not have an incumbent running for reelection. It is an open contest among contenders.

Who is supported by President Arroyo and her party in the campaign is significant, of course, in the same way that administration support mattered in previous elections. But it is not more significant than the credentials and platforms of the candidates. And it is certainly not so important that Senators Noynoy Aquino and Manny Villar should spend their campaign time trying to pin GMA’s support on each other – certainly not after the Lakas-Kampi merged party had officially declared former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro as its official candidate.

The only explanation for this situation is that the campaigns are running out of ideas and are not convinced that their platforms and policy ideas will find traction with the electorate. And pinning President Arroyo on each other appears to be a good, if superficial, tactic, given that her endorsement is supposed to be “the kiss of death.”

Historically, however, the jury is out on how an incumbent’s endorsement really affects the choices of voters. In the 1992 election, President Aquino’s anointed, Fidel V. Ramos, won the balloting, but barely getting through with 23 percent of the vote. In 1998, FVR’s anointed, Speaker Jose de Venecia, was soundly routed by then Vice President Joseph Estrada.

In the current campaign, administration support was the rationale from the beginning for Teodoro’s late candidacy. They counted on at least a 20-percent command vote from administration and party support, which when combined with Teodoro’s personal appeal as a young and able candidate would constitute the arithmetic for victory.

Whatever the merits of these calculations, however, they cannot supplant the need for individual candidates to present more of themselves and their policy ideas to the electorate. I cannot believe that the question whom GMA supports could be more important to the public than who Aquino, Villar, Estrada, Teodoro, Gordon, et al, really are and what they stand for.

I believe the contrary is true: Filipinos want a leader who will stand strong for his or her beliefs — and not back down in the face of attacks and pressure from his/her opponents. Now is the time for each candidate to define himself/herself in the campaign. And now is the time for each of them to start running for President of the Philippines, instead of vying for the title of who gets the most column inches and sound bites in the media from saying something outrageous.

I believe also that the public is frustrated that the candidates and the media are paying way too much attention to the poll surveys, whose reliability and impartiality have been seriously questioned. Whatever their merits or shortcomings, opinion polls should not preempt the right of the people to choose. And that right of choice is restricted when candidates just pander to the surveys and neglect the duty to explain themselves to the nation.

The series of debates that have been staged were supposed to be an opportunity for the candidates to define themselves, but unfortunately – for one reason or another - they did not serve as defining moments for the campaign.

The public did not take away from the forums a clear idea about what led each candidate to run for president in the first place, and what each could offer toward meeting the nation’s many problems and challenges.

Up to now, the public still yearns to see all or some of the candidates rise and show leadership in meeting the overarching issue of mass poverty and underdevelopment - beyond just talking about morality or being for the poor.

All the candidates vaguely talk about change - perhaps partly because of Barack Obama’s successful campaign theme of change in America. But there is a pregnant paradox in this mantra of change: while the majority of the people want change, not everybody wants to change in the same direction. So a candidate is challenged to mold a majority behind the change program that he/she proposes.

There is also another qualifier to consider about this mantra of change. The majority expect and want a change in national leadership in this decade, but it is also manifest that certain policies and programs of the administration of President Arroyo have been successful and enjoy majority support within the country.

The point is that in their heart of hearts, the presidential candidates differ in their ideas about leading the country into the future. Certain interests of theirs are in opposition to one another. There may be policies that are clearly good for the country on which they can all agree. But there are many more on which they substantially differ. And voters will want candidates who are not afraid to do or say something that will infuriate some people.

In sum, an election is about choices – the choices of candidates on what policies to propose, the alliances they make in the campaign, and finally the choice that individual voters must make on Election Day. Sifting through alternatives is what the campaign is all about. But we cannot sift if the candidates are all saying the same things or hiding behind false issues and red herrings.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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