Column: Risa and Loren

Published on May 4, 2010.

When the history of the 2010 campaign is written, a chapter will be reserved for the pivotal role played by two of my fellow columnists: Conrad de Quiros for articulating the case for a Noynoy Aquino presidency back in August, and Solita Monsod for launching the first legitimate critique of (that is to say, the first non-partisan attack on) the Manny Villar life story. By and large, I think they have called it right.

Conrad’s analysis of Jojo Binay’s ratings surge Monday, however, I found to be a stretch. I agree completely that the Liberal Party has at times gone down the “pragmatic” rather than the “idealistic” path, to use Conrad’s terms of art in describing Mar Roxas’ unexpected lameness in the home stretch. But his reading of Binay’s campaign is something I cannot share. He writes: “[Binay’s] pitch, at first made implicitly but which he has now pushed more explicitly, is that he is the real opposition, having been there from the start, having opposed GMA from the start, indeed having been with Cory from the start.”

I look around me and see Binay campaigning on his own unique advantage: the Makati factor. (There’s also the relentless special ops, the scale of which I hinted at in a previous column.) From where I sit, I don’t see Edsa on the horizon.

* * *

In Hong Kong last week, at the second International Media Conference organized by the East West Center of Honolulu, I moderated two panel discussions. The one on “Electing Asia” had a good-sized and lively audience, with questions directed at journalists from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Burma and Thailand (arranged according to the schedule of elections). The common experience was striking enough for me to sum up the discussion, in the middle of it, in a few words: Nations across the region still looked at elections as a main source of political legitimacy (yes, even the ruthless Burmese junta); and yet, across the region, the electoral process itself was undermined by questions about its own legitimacy.

The discussion (unfortunate, in my view, but journalists should go where the evidence leads) confirmed Benedict Anderson’s scornful remarks about “electoralism” in our region. In the context of the discussion, I defined it as the manipulation of the electoral process by the elite, in order [and here I borrowed the perspective of a Burmese panelist] to democratize corruption. In Burma and the Philippines, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, the name of the game is depressingly familiar.

* * *

The antidote to depression exists, however. The possibility, for instance, that a non-traditional politician like Risa Hontiveros can make it to the Senate is thrilling, and seems to me to signal a break, momentary to be sure, from the electoralism that has characterized much of our history of elections. Take a look at the names of the 18 candidates with a fighting chance of landing any of the 12 Senate seats at stake; only Risa’s is an untested political brand. (Reading her website Monday, I found out for the first time that her grandfather was a senator in Manuel Quezon’s time. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think this is a factor in her steady climb up the surveys. For all intents and purposes, Risa is a new face in Philippine politics.)

I have known Risa for over 25 years, and she has remained the same gracious person she always was. But her resolve is pure steel. At a forum Monday, I heard her excoriate “ang mapalinlang na administrasyong GMA” in her musical Tagalog (she is, in fact, an excellent singer), but there was no mistaking the authoritativeness in her stance. It is the fruit of years of political experience, in the peace movement, in the party-list sector, in the halls of Congress. (She was the driving force behind the agrarian reform extension law, and a moving spirit, impelled by her deep faith, behind the reproductive health bill.)

Akbayan, which Risa helped co-found in 1994, traces part of its roots to the “Jovy-Nene” campaign of 1992 (Senators Jovito Salonga and Aquilino Pimentel Jr. ran a valiant but ultimately losing campaign). It is a bracing thought to imagine: that someone like her can follow those two unlikely politicians into the Senate.

* * *

I made up my mind about whom to vote for as president only in the last couple of weeks, but I decided to vote for Loren Legarda a long time ago. It is a decision that manages to surprise some of the people I meet.

I will contextualize that surprise in this wise: Loren suffers from the perception, shared I think mainly among the AB classes, that she is politically ambitious. Even her environmental advocacy is seen as politically strategic. As a very prominent politician once told me, repeating a joke often heard: She is the only environmentalist who is “plastic.” That unthinking use of the loaded word for hypocrite, however, could very well be used to describe many other national politicians—and yet I find that it is applied only to women. We call ambitious male politicians many names, but ambition is “plastic” only in the case of assertive women.

Another thing. The “green” vote does not yet add up to a politically strategic constituency; and as I saw for myself in Copenhagen, when Loren held her own with the likes of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she is a true voice to be reckoned with, in environmental debate.

The chief reason I will cast my vote for her, however, is, quite literally, fundamental: She has invested in the democratic project more than most other candidates. She contested elections; she used the Senate’s power of oversight to great advantage; above all, she fought a long, costly battle against election fraud. She has paid her dues; she has earned higher office.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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