9/16/2015
Grace Poe and the ever-changing criteria for being president

Finally, we can stop pretending. The worst-kept secret in Philippine politics is no longer a secret: Grace Poe, a neophyte senator, has announced that she is to seek the presidency in 2016.

It's just the middle of September, and yet everybody has their sights on the second Monday of May. At least three elected leaders have virtually stopped working, choosing instead to go on a not-so-impromptu, thinly-veiled campaign run. Jejomar Binay continues his bid to salvage what's left of his image by putting himself apart from what he believes are the failures of the current administration, to mixed (well, mostly negative) results. Noynoy Aquino has taken every opportunity to express his support for his anointed successor, interior secretary Mar Roxas.

And, at least until recently, Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte has teased the electorate like a stripper who refuses to take it all off, finally saying that he won't be running for the country's highest office despite billboards promoting road safety popping up outside his turf. That's not to mention the many other politicians who are testing the waters by any means possible - random television ads, spam text messages, marriages to washed-up celebrities - and looking to, one, see if they can get their names out there, and two, tell everyone that, hey, I'm here, and I'm possibly going to promise the world to you.

So, yes, the same old. But what makes Grace Poe finally throwing her hat into the ring interesting is the parallels this has with the events of five years ago, when the current president, ostensibly spurred by the goodwill of the Filipino people towards his recently deceased mother, threw his hat into the ring.

"Walang iisang tao o grupo ang may monopoliya sa Tuwid na Daan," Grace said during her long-hyped announcement speech at the University of the Philippines early this evening. This easily positions her at a particular sweet spot, appealing to people who agree with Noynoy's methods in theory, but believe he can do more, and should have done more. For every person extolling the virtues of the so-called Tuwid na Daan, and every person hoping to make the Binay magic work outside Makati, there's one, maybe two, who just wants a country that works, regardless of who's leading it or not.

But why Grace Poe? Most people - her critics, of course, but, well, most people - have pointed out that she needs more experience. She was only elected senator in 2013. The only government office that she held before that is as head of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board; Noynoy appointed her in 2010. Sure, she has been visible when it comes to certain topics: she is a strong supporter of the stalled Freedom of Information Act, and she has also called for an overhaul of Metro Manila's transport system.

But her political success is mostly down to sympathy. Her adoptive father, film icon Fernando Poe Jr., lost in his bid to become president, due to, some say, cheating on the part of then incumbent Gloria Arroyo. If the narrative is to be believed, he died a heartbroken man. Grace was framed as the daughter who would continue whatever political legacy her father left behind, down to the use of his image and his campaign song, "Bagong Umaga" - although, let's be honest, it sounds like she's really avenging his loss, much like in the movies.

Grace Poe's narrative is strikingly similar to Noynoy Aquino's, then, although it took her over a decade to get there. While Noynoy has been a member of the legislature for years, he was not a prominent figure, at least in the usual ways we perceive our leading politicians to be. But upon the death of his mother, former president Cory Aquino, a nation tired of the corruption that disillusioned them away from Arroyo turned to the younger Aquino. Would Noynoy, son of a democracy icon, son of a symbol of integrity - and, by association, a man who will uphold democracy and integrity - take this country to greater heights?

He said yes, and he was swiftly elected as president, despite his seeming inexperience. But true enough, confidence in the country rose when he assumed the captain's chair. Thanks to a series of institutional reforms and the impression that he is fighting corruption, the Philippine economy zoomed. Yet there is a feeling that he has not done enough. His term was also rocked by political scandals, although he has mostly weathered the fallout from revelations of pork barrel misuse and suspicions over the Disbursement Acceleration Program by point at more veteran politicians and shrieking "they're more corrupt!" He has done a lot of things, but he has not done a lot of things - perhaps this is us expecting a president to turn everything around in six years.

Over the past few months he has made the case for continuing the reforms his administration has started, mostly along the lines of "vote somebody else and all of this will be gone," a tactic that sounds desperate, if anything. This culminated in the first of the Liberal Party's so-called "Gathering of Friends" events, where he officially endorsed Mar Roxas - long-time right hand man, and one time presidential aspirant - for president. What this country needs, Noynoy says, is continuity and experience, and there is no better option than Mar, a man who has embodied the ethoes of the so-called Tuwid na Daan.

Sure, Mar is capable and definitely experienced, but there is one thing going against him: he's been part of the political machine for so long. He began his political career in 1993, as a congressman representing Capiz's first district, and was catapulted to the national arena when he was appointed trade secretary in 2000. He served as senator for six years; yielded his presidential ambitions to Noynoy; lost in the vice presidential race to Binay; and later became Noynoy's right hand man, appearing where the president needs him. All throughout he has exerted a lot of effort to integrate himself to the masses, fashioning himself as president material, although thanks to a series of gaffes, the results leave a lot to be desired.

Mar may be the best guy to take over for Noynoy, but his extensive political experience is proving to be a negative for him. The consensus, it seems, is this: the Philippines does not need a politician, but rather, a leader. It's why Noynoy became president; it's why Noynoy later became a disappointment. We're at that time of the cycle again when those who vote are antsy about their options. That guy with experience might be too deep into politics to serve the country rather than himself. (This is the argument against Binay, sent to the extremes by the Liberal Party machine.) That guy is perfectly capable, but look at the people he hangs with. Yuck.

This explains the appeal of mavericks in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign. This explains why many wanted Rodrigo Duterte, whose from-the-streets approach to governance (down to rumors of a private army) turned Davao around, to run for president. This explains why many want Miriam Defensor-Santiago, long known for her outspoken barbs (and, recently, her pick-up lines), to run for president. This explains why many are behind Grace Poe as she runs for president despite her inexperience. Does integrity, or at least perceived integrity, trump inexperience? In this case, it seems, the answer is yes.

Well, for the most part. Grace's seeming support for the prolonged tantrum of the Iglesia ni Cristo at the end of August has turned off some of her supporters, and put her firmly in the trapo column. Oh, there's Grace, schmoozing to this overly-powerful religious group with a tendency to vote together, just like everybody else. (Mar Roxas, who believed there is a better venue for the INC to air their concerns than blocking EDSA, proved his political adeptness.) And no less than Noynoy himself has become passive aggressive over the idea of Grace running; she's inexperienced, he says, so why take a risk on that?

But tonight, as Grace delivered her first speech outlining her policy if she is elected president, that seems to have been mostly airbrushed, waiting to be brought up some other inconvenient time. It is, after all, still early days. But one thing is definite. We Filipinos just want a country that works. We Filipinos just want someone who can make this country work. What that entails, well, we can't agree on that yet.

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