Column: Debating Manny Villar

Won’t Manny come out to play? Published July 21, 2009

In the circumstances, I think premature campaigning is not only permissible, but necessary. When the very possibility of regularly scheduled elections hangs in the balance, our democratic project needs all the help it can get. I have shared this view a number of times; the earliest was 18 months ago, in a column titled “In praise of electioneering.”

On Jan. 29, 2008, I wrote: “the aggressive pre-positioning and premature campaigning of presidential hopefuls—-while usually a cause for concern and a subject of homilies against electioneering—-should be welcomed. Let a thousand candidacies bloom. They will help create a demand for elections to go on as scheduled.”

It is always a relief when the big guns come roaring in to reinforce small-arms fire. Colleague Conrad de Quiros, for instance, has written on electioneering at least twice. In his column last July 14, he offered seven reasons for his growing optimism about the 2010 elections. The first was the visible effect of premature campaigning. “The more the campaign goes into high gear, the more the anticipation among the electorate grows. And the more the effort that will be required to stop it. The longer it takes, the better it will be for the presidential election.”

* * *

Sen. Manny Villar thinks the same way. Or at least he has learned to rationalize his massive pre-election spending in public-interest terms. About two months ago, when he hosted dinner for Inquirer editors and reporters, he parried questions about the C-5 scandal long enough to explain why early campaigning would help make the 2010 elections a reality.

“Kung lahat nagkakampanya na, nagiging academic na”—-In the context of the discussion, and without commenting on Villar’s interesting use of the past tense in the conditional, I will translate the statement thus: If everyone is off campaigning, the question about whether the elections will push through becomes academic. “Nagiging irreversible”—-it becomes irreversible.

Then the money (Manny?) quote: “We are in effect ensuring that there will be an election.”

I have to say I agree, although I must qualify that the kind of insurance we are talking about here is more in the nature of a pre-need plan. We may have fully paid for a college education plan, but there is no absolute guarantee—-just the probability, and sometimes not even that—-that the money will be there when we need it.

* * *

For the record, I give Senator Villar the benefit of the doubt when he insists, as he did at that dinner, that there was “no double entry, no alignment, no overprice” in the C-5 case. It will not be the first time either Ping Lacson or Jamby Madrigal read the details of a transaction (or the initials on a memo) wrong.

But I cannot square Villar’s document-backed protestations of innocence (and his anecdote-driven allegations of intrigue) with his decision not to subject himself to the Senate’s accountability process. Perhaps he really is waiting for the right time, as I expect some of his supporters think, to appear dramatically before the Committee of the Whole. If, as the Inquirer has reported before, he believes he has the numbers to avoid suspension or expulsion, then all the more reason, tactically speaking, to stage a dramatic re-emergence. But the clock is ticking.

I must also question the wisdom of his no-debate strategy. He is, of course, acting as a frontrunner. No insurance policy for frontrunnership exists, however. Already, Sen. Mar Roxas has borrowed the central idea from Villar’s playbook, massive advertising on TV. (In the view of Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, possibly the winningest political strategist in a generation, TV advertising has completely changed presidential elections, doing away with the necessity of sample ballots and kilometric streamers; this is not your mother’s election.)

When Roxas, or a heavily advertised Nationalist People’s Coalition candidate (say, Loren Legarda or Chiz Escudero), begin to outpace him, or if Vice President Noli de Castro decides to stay in the race, will Villar finally change his mind about participating in televised leadership forums? He would then suffer the fate of George Bush the elder in 1992: Coming late to debates, he would be weighed down by a hangdog aura of desperation.

* * *

As another colleague, Patricia Evangelista, has written, the ABS-CBN News Channel is exasperated with Villar for refusing to appear on the cable channel’s leadership forums. Perhaps refusal is too categorical a description; the word does not quite capture the twists and turns in Villar’s response to ANC.

After the final twist, when it became clear that Villar would not attend the third ANC forum on July 28, ANC COO Glenda Gloria wrote Villar’s staff, scoring the senator’s media strategy as ultimately anti-democratic. I share that view: A political candidate’s refusal to engage professional journalists in an open forum undermines the public discourse that the governed need in order to give their informed consent.

What do the small forums Villar prefers and the 30-second format he uses have in common? A controlled environment. The thing is, Villar, unlike Fernando Poe Jr., can handle himself in any forum, even the most unscripted. He has a nimble mind, a compelling story, lessons to share. He can turn free (that is, unpaid) media to his advantage. All of which makes me wonder: Why does this pragmatic politician refuse to do the practical thing?

Villar, as I understand it, has another reason for avoiding ANC. He thinks the ABS-CBN network is biased for Roxas, who is engaged to be married to anchor Korina Sanchez, and for De Castro, its former lead presenter. He can rest assured; as in this paper, professionals are running the newsroom.

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