Column: Finding redemption in politics

Published on August 28, 2007

The version available on Inquirer.net differs slightly from the following, which is based on the print edition.

On the eve of his proclamation as the 12th winning senator in the May elections, Juan Miguel Zubiri declared: “I just want to buckle down to work and redeem myself.”

I did not realize it then, but it seems that for the three-term congressman from Bukidnon, that declaration could only have been an either-or proposition. For him, work in the Senate and redemption must be mutually exclusive. That is to say, to keep working in the Senate, he has to do—has in fact done—the irredeemable thing. He has filed an absurd counter-protest against rival candidate Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III before the Senate Electoral Tribunal, contesting the results of a jaw-dropping 73,000 precincts. (That’s one-third of the entire country.)

I do not know if the SET will give his counter-protest due course; considering that Pimentel didn’t even have enough campaign funds to show more than a handful of TV spots featuring top celebrity endorser Angel Locsin, the claim that he cheated massively is preposterous.

But Zubiri does not need to prove his allegation of election fraud. All he needs to do is tie up the SET in an interminable recount. Pimentel, who believes he was cheated in 2,680 precincts in a total of seven provinces, is confident that the review of election returns he is contesting would be completed in half a year or so. Zubiri’s protest, on the other hand, would take years to resolve.

Redemption? More like a ruthless gaming of the system. The “Senator from Maguindanao” has cynically exploited the limitations of our election rules, to hold on to his job.

* * *

It took some time before Hauwa Ibrahim, the Nigerian human rights advocate, replied to an e-mail I sent, and for good reason: She had been busy visiting “about 20 cities in seven countries the past five weeks.”

It’s truly a long way from the village of Gombe, in northern Nigeria, where girls are expected to marry at the age of 12 or 13. To keep the money she had earned selling vegetables and peanuts from being used as a dowry, Ibrahim said she had to “dig under a tree, and bury my money.”

She spoke of her life as a series of accidents, fate’s finger intervening in the intersections of choice and circumstance. “I became educated by accident, I became a lawyer by accident, I became a human rights lawyer by accident,” she said. And yet trace the trajectory of her four decades, and what impresses is the strength of character, the resolve to impose one’s will on fate.

To the inevitable question, she responded: “As it is right now, [I have] no desire for politics.” Redemption, for her, lies outside government service.

* * *

When the news that Jovito Salonga was this year’s Magsaysay Awardee for government service filtered out, my reaction must have been similar to those of many. I did a double-take, because I had always assumed that the 87-year-old statesman was already an awardee.

* * *

In a previous life, I served as editor of a business magazine. For our May 2001 issue (that is, three elections ago), I thought of an unusual way to mark the occasion: Perhaps the country’s winningest senator (Salonga topped the Senate elections in 1965, 1971 and 1987) could share some timely lessons in “marketing”?

He obliged, mainly by recalling his campaign experience and sharing chapters from his memoirs, then in galley form.

I wrote: “But as a candidate, Salonga was, inimitably, of the old school. That is to say, he believed that voters chose politicians based on their qualifications and performance. He was no charismatic firebrand like Ferdinand Marcos or Ninoy Aquino, blithely capable of igniting a crowd. But Salonga’s legislative career, which began in 1961, as a congressman who upset two political dynasties in Rizal, and ended in 1992, as the president of the Senate that said No, is like a 20th-century fable. It reminds us of the old verity: Slow and sure and steady wins the race.”

It may surprise some to know that Salonga, icon of the revived, revved-up Liberal Party, actually started as a Nacionalista. He joined the 1953 convention, intending to run for Congress. But the dynasties in Rizal joined the Nacionalistas, too, just another wave in the overwhelming Magsaysay tide. In the end, he told me: “I decided not to run, because the realities were against me.” Lesson No. 1: There is, especially in politics, such a thing as timing.

Having started in politics, Salonga has kept at it, even through the harrowing aftermath of the Plaza Miranda bombing and the lonely years of emasculating exile. This Friday he receives an earthly pledge of the reward that awaits him in the fullness of time. Of him it can truly be said, that in politics and public service he found redemption.

* * *

I have known Koko Pimentel almost my entire life, and naturally I feel anxious about his fate. I think I share the view of most voters when I say that all I want is for any candidate’s votes to be honestly counted.

As I have had the chance to explain in journalism workshops in different parts of the country, the often misunderstood principle of objectivity in journalism does not refer to the journalist, who naturally will have his own biases. (Call it intentionality, if you like.) It refers to the method of journalism.

I hail from Mindanao; does that mean I am disqualified from writing about Mindanao matters because I am, naturally enough, biased for it? (What a loss that would be, to forfeit the right to write about the hills of Bukidnon—“rumpled velvet,” in Horacio de la Costa’s peerless prose—or the streets of Cagayan de Oro, where—De la Costa again—you can lose your way once, but not twice.)

This is opinion, but based on the facts.

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