Presidential aspirants should first face the people in a public consultation before deciding whether to run in the 2016 race. The consultation should be attended, not by a bused-in (hakot) crowd, but by a nonpartisan audience of people from all walks of life. Far from a soliloquy or pledging session by the aspirant, it should be a dialogue where the people can pick his brain and see how he intends to deliver the nation from the morass of poverty, corruption and lost opportunities.
After this crash course the aspirant should be able to ask: Do I deserve to run? In social-advocacy terminology this is called “lumubog sa tao,” or leveling off with the grassroots with the humility and glasnost needed for a learning encounter with the masses.
Of course, none of the current aspirants will bite, especially not those with the illusion that they should be the next president or who spent their forgettable political careers coveting the highest position. Some past aspirants even said they were God-sent and predestined to rule.
Being way above the traditional norm of picking a candidate, this prenomination public interaction is intended to promote democratic governance. Traditionally, presidential candidates are predetermined by fame and name power, which is synonymous with “winnability.” Public surveys count a lot in choosing the standard-bearer; the one perceived as popular—hence bankable—tops the surveys. Competence, performance, leadership and stand on public-interest issues are secondary, or are completely ignored in the choice. Whether in the ruling coalition or in the opposition, the choice is made by the top honchos of a political party; the incumbent president anoints his/her successor. Party conventions are held for the nominal declaration of official standard-bearers along with the senatorial slates. The standard-bearer must ensure the political machinery’s sustainability and the ruling faction’s grip on power.
Yet such an exercise reeks of dirty politics and manipulation, such as demolition jobs, image engineering, legislative grandstanding, and preelection sorties in the guise of delivering relief goods so as to boost survey ratings and media mileage.
Because choosing the right candidate depends on the latter’s vote-getting capability, no one knows whether the one who wins is prepared to grapple with the country’s complex problems of underdevelopment, wide income disparity, unemployment, and the like. Being picked by a select few—oligarchs, financial backers, and even foreign groups—the lucky choice is beholden to their interests. The promises he/she makes to the electorate are aimed mainly at winning votes in what persists as an uncompetitive and fraudulent system of election. No president has ever refused transactional politics; no administration has prioritized bold yet meaningful, nationally-significant legislation and reforms that respond to the broad interests of the masses, such as genuine land redistribution, dismantling of political dynasties, national industrialization, etc.
Of course, there were rare times when alternative and maverick candidates dared run against influential politicians. In 1957 the patriot Claro M. Recto ran under the Nationalist Citizens’ Party together with Lorenzo M. Tañada, and lost due to anticommunist black propaganda. In 1992 Miriam Defensor Santiago ran against Fidel Ramos and other candidates, and lost to what she believes to this day as dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and -shaving).
Without a viable democratic way of choosing an aspirant in the current bourgeois electoral system, the civil society movement, poll watchdogs and other political groups can push for intensive voter education. This education can take the form of an interactive community platform with social media, where presidential candidates can be scrutinized against a set of criteria that will give voters an intelligent choice for the presidency.
Another option is to popularize an alternative process that radically departs from the current norm: The aspirant should show a public service record starting from the barangay up to the latest local government unit in which he/she has served. This will help in two ways: The candidate earns grounding in the dynamics of local politics and public administration, and voters are provided with a brighter lens of appraising him/her based on performance, grasp of issues, and leadership drawn from a long experience of public life including crisis situations. This process, however, would be better off without the dynastic system.
Still another option worth exploring is a shadow citizens’ transition council akin to the “shadow government” system of the United Kingdom. This idea was broached during recent political instabilities—at the height of the “Resign!” movement during the Arroyo regime and, again, under President Aquino, on the heels of the pork barrel scandal and the Mamasapano bloodbath. Not synonymous to the presidency, the concept does not legally contest an elected president. Rather, as a citizens’ initiative, it is collective leadership comprised of eminent citizens with broad representation, is beholden to no one except the national interest, and serves as a fiscalizer and a collective opposition to any incumbent administration.
As crisis situations will occur for years to come due to festering and unresolved institutional issues, this citizens’ council can serve as a stability mechanism during such times.
Bobby M. Tuazon is policy director of CenPEG (Center for People Empowerment in Governance) and a former head of the University of the Philippines Manila’s political science program.