Column: Cardinal Sin’s biggest mistake?

Published on February 25, 2014.

The idea that most Filipinos are deeply disillusioned with the People Power revolution is merely conventional, and needs to be empirically tested; I think the reality is somewhere between benign ignorance (many see Edsa 1986 only as an event in history, the occasion for a school holiday) and active acceptance (some continue to see it as a source of genuine change). At least that is how I interpret the 2011 Social Weather Stations finding that 20 percent of voting-age Filipinos embraced Ninoy Aquino as a genuine hero, next only to Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. Aquino’s martyrdom makes full sense only in relation to what happened a thousand days after his assassination, on Edsa.

My view, it almost goes without saying, should be subject to validation, too.

* * *

Like many who trooped to Edsa in 1986, I looked to Jaime Cardinal Sin as a genuine hero, the man whose call for volunteers filled the stretch of highway between Camps Aguinaldo and Crame and between P. Tuason Street and Ortigas Avenue with eager millions. I was also among the hundred thousand or so who heeded his appeal in 1999 to converge on Ayala Avenue in Makati City, to protest Joseph Estrada’s efforts to change the Constitution and his attempts to intimidate the press. (I have a personal reason, too, for recalling him with fondness: The cardinal was kind enough, through the assistance of his secretary at the time, Fr. Soc Villegas, now Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, to officiate at my wedding.)

But while I have no doubt that Sin was a true historical figure, with a pronounced gift for reading historical crises correctly, his record in what we can call straight political analysis was marred by the advice he infamously dispensed in late 1997: He dissuaded Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from contesting the presidency the following year.

It is possible to argue that what happened after led to the tumultuous Estrada presidency and the toxic decade, marked by the impeachment wars, between 2000 and 2010. I realize I am exploring what amounts to counterfactual history, but bear with me; there may be lessons for 2016.

* * *

In the run-up to the 1998 elections, Arroyo was the only one who could have beaten Joseph Estrada, then the vice president, in the popularity game. Indeed, before Sin’s advice forced Arroyo to seek the vice presidency instead, she was either level with Estrada in the surveys, or running a very strong second.

In September 1996, or a full 20 months before the next presidential election, Arroyo (14 percent) ran third in the SWS survey behind Estrada (19) and Miriam Defensor-Santiago (18). By December 1996, she had pulled even with Estrada (both at 17 percent), while Santiago had begun her slide (13). In the April 1997 poll, Estrada led Arroyo 24 to 23 percent, well within the margin of error. By September 1997, depending on which SWS subpoll one looked at, Arroyo had either tied Estrada for first or even beaten him.

In an interesting experiment, SWS in its September 1997 survey presented respondents with three lists of prospective candidates for the presidency. In a list of 14 personalities, Arroyo and Estrada were the top choices, with 19 percent each. In a list of 10 possible candidates, they were tied for first again, with 18 percent each. And in a list of five candidates, Arroyo beat Estrada 28 to 23 percent. The SWS news release at the time duly noted: “This third list is Sen. Macapagal-Arroyo’s first instance of being the leader in a Social Weather Survey.”

* * *

Two important notes:

First, if Arroyo ignored Sin’s advice and ran against Estrada, there was no certainty that other candidates would have retreated from the field. Indeed, it seems unlikely that someone like Jose de Venecia, the powerful Speaker of the House, or independent Sen. Raul Roco, who placed second to Arroyo in the 1995 senatorial race, or police general Alfredo Lim (Sin’s own preferred candidate in 1998), or ex-Defense Secretary Renato de Villa would have stepped aside. (The votes these four candidates garnered in May 1998, if combined, would have been enough to beat Estrada’s 40-percent share of the vote.)

Second, the next SWS survey, in December 1997, found that Estrada had regained the lead over Arroyo in three different scenarios: in elections with 17, seven and five candidates. But the ground work for the survey began a few days after Sin’s advice to Arroyo, that she first seek the vice presidency because she was “too young” to be president, hit the headlines.

Arroyo, who was reelected to the Senate in 1995 with 15.7 million votes, won the vice presidency by a landslide. Her 12.6 million votes accounted for almost 50 percent of all votes cast, in a crowded field of nine candidates.

* * *

Given all these, I have wondered every now and then what would have happened if Sin had given Arroyo his blessing. Perhaps Estrada would not have become president. It is highly likely, of course, that Sin’s blessing wouldn’t have been enough; he would have had to persuade some candidates to do a Doy Laurel, and give way to Arroyo. But 1998 was not 1986, and Estrada was not Marcos. There was no historical crisis to avert.

I cannot imagine Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle playing Sin’s role; they are two entirely different prelates, dealing with different political circumstances. (Besides, the archdiocese of Manila has already been subdivided.) But it is possible that some eminent person will give Sen. Grace Poe the same advice Sin gave Arroyo: Even though you topped the last Senate elections with the highest vote total on record, do not seek the presidency just yet. Settle for the vice-presidency.

That may turn out to be another mistake.

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1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

One response to “Column: Cardinal Sin’s biggest mistake?

  1. Pingback: Column: Roxas’ path to victory | John Nery | Newsstand

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