Column: An agenda waiting for a president

Published October 13, 2009.

Some thoughts on the vice presidency. Vice presidents do not elect their running mates; if the opposite were true, Joseph Estrada would have been helping Danding Cojuangco measure the drapes in Malacañang in 1992. Presidents do not elect their running mates either; Estrada’s coattails in 1998 did not extend to Ed Angara.

The reason is separate voting, which puts a premium on the popularity of each candidate, rather than on political tandems.

As I have argued before, the best use of the vice presidency (in election politics) may be to remove a rival for the presidency from the race. In this argument, a Chiz-Loren or a Loren-Chiz teamup would make eminent sense.

But if even the most organizationally developed political party we have, the Liberal Party, left the decision of tandems and running mates to Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas, we should not be surprised that Cojuangco’s personal party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, has left it to Chiz Escudero and Loren Legarda to decide who will run for what position.

In this balancing act, however, the weight is clearly on Escudero’s side, because Cojuangco is visibly, viscerally, for him.

This frees Legarda to run for the vice presidency, a position that many Filipinos (as reflected in survey after survey) think she is ready for.

I believe she will have a much better chance at winning the vice presidency (even if Vice President Noli de Castro runs for reelection) than Escudero has at making it to Malacañang. I do not mean to say that Escudero doesn’t have a chance; I’ve had a glimpse of his camp’s reading of the demographics, and he is in a good position indeed. I only mean to say she will have less formidable foes. (Which is one reason why I think Mar Roxas should run for the Senate again.)

About Escudero’s increasingly negative below-the-line campaigning, I will write more in the future. I will only point out that the source of the propagandistic text message Butch Dalisay denounced in his column yesterday was, in my reading, all of a piece with the text messages I’ve been receiving from Escudero’s camp. Waiter, hold the cheese!

* * *

Surveying the damage caused by the floods, I find myself turning a phrase of Rizal’s over and over in my head. In a letter he wrote Marcelo del Pilar, he spoke of the role the Filipino students in Europe must play in forming the nation. We must prove to those who presume to rule over us, he wrote, that we are “superior to our misfortune.”

* * *

The work after Ondoy. If all we do is to try to get back to where we were, before “Ondoy” (and “Pepeng”) struck us, then it would have all been in vain: the terrible loss of life and property and opportunity, the near-biblical scale of devastation.

The challenge is to rebuild, but to rebuild in the certainty that the same man-made catastrophe will not happen again. That certainty can be ours only if we dream big.

It seems almost perverse to think of ambitious initiatives, when the need of the hour is for relief operations in northern Luzon. (The Inquirer’s own relief drive has distributed almost 11,000 bags, each one with at least two days’ worth of relief goods for a good-sized family.) Many areas remain isolated, islanded by 10 days of unremitting rain.

But in the same way that Cory Aquino’s slow death and extraordinary funeral changed the political dynamic, the great floods of 2009 have changed the game too. Now, the public is ready to accept a bold exercise of political will.

Are our candidates ready for it?

A political agenda that will make sense of the tragedy, that will allow a wet, weary country to dream of high, dry ground, is waiting for its champion.

Leading architect Jun Palafox has tendered many sensible suggestions. A text message from him compresses billions of pesos’ worth of projects into a few hundred characters: “Dredge Laguna Lake, Pasig River, Marikina, San Juan & all the rivers and waterways draining onto the Manila Bay. Build Parañaque Spillway. Ban logging. Reforest upland Sierra Madre mountains, hillsides. Garbage, sewerage, drainage, flood control, 10-meter easement. Mud can be transformed to ‘green’ islands. Update 1905 Burnham Plan [and] 1977 MMETROPLAN.”

None of this will be easy. That’s precisely the point. The floods have given the next president the mandate to do whatever is necessary.

There is also colleague Neal Cruz’s trial balloon of an idea, floated yesterday, about turning bloated Laguna Lake [and the Marikina and Pasig Rivers] into the centerpiece of a massive reconstruction project.

“To resurrect these bodies of water, they have to be dredged, the mud and silt deposited around the shores of the lake. This reclaimed land can later be turned into a coastal highway around the lake, giving travelers a shorter route to and from the lakeshore towns instead of going the roundabout way through the inland towns of Laguna and Rizal.” The reclaimed land can then be used to spur the development of the coastal area.

All this will cost a lot of money, and is therefore an invitation to corruption. Is a country battered by big-scale corruption scandals prepared to undertake such a massive, long-term project?

I believe the answer is, “Yes, it depends.” Yes, because the devastation caused by the floods has made it necessary. It depends, because it truly does depend on the winning candidate. Test question: Assuming that the election creates a mandate for such an enormous, billion-dollar initiative, will the country entrust it to, say, Estrada, convicted of plundering the country’s resources?

The 2010 elections are now not only a test of democracy, but also of development.

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