What the Liberal Party must understand

During the height of the latest pork barrel issue, my father and I were discussing another one of Noynoy Aquino's speeches on the matter. I have forgotten what that particular speech was about, and why we were talking about it, but my dad raised a very good point as we traversed the jittery zig-zag road along San Pedro.

"Hindi na puwedeng tumakbo si Noynoy," my dad said. "Isang term lang siya puwede, so hindi na siya dapat nag-aalala tungkol sa legacy na iiwan niya. Tanggalin na niya 'yung pork barrel. Magtrabaho na lang siya."

"Actually, legacy na niya 'yung ma-elect," I answered. "Kasi nga, Aquino siya, pinalitan niya si Gloria. Kaya lang, ang problema, his allegiances lie with the Liberal Party and not with the Philippines."

Sure, it's a pretty cynical statement, and one that you won't agree with, especially if you're a yellow person. But it does make sense. Noynoy, after all, was not supposed to run for president in 2010. Mar Roxas had that role sewn up. He was out and about during the lead up to the elections, but his numbers were flagging. I don't think he was even second to Jojo Binay.

But then Cory Aquino died, and a grieving, disillusioned nation thought it would be a good idea for her only son to run as president. After all, what do we have to lose? they argued. Gloria Arroyo is a corrupt president. The Aquino family, on the other hand, is the paragon of integrity. Look at what her mother did! The Liberals saw an opportunity and, after some closed-door wrangling, Mar gave up his presidential ambitions and allowed Noynoy to run in his place. If the presence of an Aquino would mean a resurgence for the Liberal Party, the argument goes, then so be it.

Noynoy did win. Mar, well, didn't; he lost to Jojo Binay, who also put his presidential ambitions on hold to support the (failed, at least them) attempts to make Erap Estrada a political phoenix. But that did not stop him from being a major presence in politics, thanks in part to Noynoy's trust. After the year-long ban preventing election candidates from assuming government positions, Mar was named "chief troubleshooter", before heading the DOTC, and later, after the tragic death of Jesse Robredo, the DILG.

That ubiquity also meant Mar was everywhere the president wanted him to be, even if it seems he won't be of any help. He led efforts to find Jesse Robredo (and was the guy who announced, teary-eyed, that the former mayor of Naga has died). He was in Zamboanga City when Nur Misuari's forces took two barangays under its control. He was in Tacloban, apparently without a working satellite phone, a day before Yolanda struck.

Well, yes, he is the head of the DILG. He has some responsibility over local governments; it may be a stretch, but he does have to be there, more or less. But - and I am being cynical, as I always am - he's really there, and Noynoy's putting him there, because 2016 is getting nearer and nearer.

Imagine another closed-door discussion inside Liberal Party headquarters. Mar wants to run for president, but he just cannot capture the imagination of the voters, no matter which Parokya ni Edgar song he uses as a jingle - which is a shame, because he is intelligent and perceptive. (I say this after watching him deliver a speech, in person, just weeks before Robredo's death. He basically rehashed Noynoy's SONA a few days before, but he explained it much better that his boss. Or maybe it's because he was talking to members of industry.) So, if the Liberal Party wants to become the dominant political party in the Philippines again, Noynoy should run instead.

Noynoy didn't want to run - at least that's what he's suggesting in the immediate aftermath of his mother's death - but, well, sure, he will run. If it's for the good of the country? Not exactly. It is, ultimately, for the good of the Liberal Party. They dominate again, all thanks to the mythology of the Aquino name, and they get their way. All Noynoy has to do is to make sure they keep their prime position when the next election rolls along, and that means, to put it harshly, shoving Mar Roxas down everybody's faces. Mabuting piliin si Mar sa 2016! Masipag, may malasakit, at ipagpapatuloy ang tuwid na daan na sinimulan ni Noynoy!

Again, you might scoff at me for being cynical about this. Of course Mar Roxas will be everywhere. He works in government! And yes, that is true. But government is essentially politics, and Mar Roxas is everywhere because he needs the boost for elections in just over two years' time. It's why he's on the scene when anything major - major, meaning "the media that Noynoy seems to despise will be covering it, and it alone" - happens. It's why he's always got something to say. It's why he was all over our television screens in the week after Yolanda struck, talking to both local and foreign reporters, insisting that things are getting better for the survivors.

There's one problem with government being essentially politics: the latter ends up being more important than the former, and it becomes more evident when elections are around the corner.

That simply explains why the response to Yolanda was bungled. The government, dominated by the Liberal Party, needed to put a face to the imminently overwhelming relief effort, and they chose Mar Roxas, a guy with a handle on local governments, and ultimately, a guy with presidential ambitions. They flew him to Tacloban a day before the storm struck. They had him stranded there when the city was essentially isolated. They had him in charge of a relief effort that took too long to actually give relief. But all they needed was a high-ranking official of government, one that is trusted by a still popular (but less so) president, to say that everything is going well.

Yes, even if it took two days to coordinate with the local governments, even if it took three days to note the most pressing needs of those badly hit by the typhoon, even if it took six days for food to be distributed to the survivors - even if the response mechanism for precisely this situation was already set in stone by a law passed after Ondoy in 2009, even if that response mechanism all but went out of the window because headless chickens running around just looks so much better - everything is going well.

A cynic would posit that the government's intention was to take advantage of the Yolanda relief effort to prop itself back up, to regain the favor it lost from Filipinos after the revelations involving government fund misuse. Noynoy was going down in the surveys; MalacaƱang insists it's not perturbed, but they nonetheless had the president do many primetime television speeches just to look like he's on top of the situation. A cynic would also posit that Mar lead the relief effort - even if the law says he should do just that - so he can gain favor from Filipinos before the 2016 elections. Nakabangon agad ang Tacloban matapos ang Yolanda dahil kay Mar Roxas! Iboto! And it backfired spectacularly.

It's been over a month since Yolanda struck, and while the worst is clearly over, the stench of the slow government response still lingers. Bodies are still being recovered - Noynoy's "the death toll can't be 10,000" tantrum on international television looks more ridiculous as the official tally gets close to 6,000 - and concerns over whether aid is really reaching the survivors, rather than opportunistic businessmen, are coming up. Things could have gone much better, everybody believes. If only they decided to focus on the relief effort rather than showing themselves off.

Instead, the biggest Yolanda story at the moment is about Mar supposedly warning Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez that he should be careful about what he's saying, because he is the relative of former first lady Imelda Marcos, and the president is an Aquino. Instead, the guy supposedly on top of the relief effort is wasting time by calling for a press conference, claiming that he doesn't want to involve politics in the whole thing, and then whining about how the video of the said exchange was doctored by his enemies.

Christiane Amanpour told Noynoy Aquino that Yolanda will define his presidency. It already has. And it has, once again, doomed Mar Roxas' chances at being president.

Luckily for the Liberal Party, the majority isn't calling for the heads of both Noynoy and Mar. The majority, while angry at how the relief effort has panned out, is patient enough to see this through, if only so those in the hardest-hit areas can fully recover. But the Liberal Party must realize that their actions have forced them to a corner. They tried to lift themselves up and have instead fallen much further. They had the spotlight, and wanted more of it; we all saw the blemishes instead.

The Liberal Party must now, to invoke Internet-speak, stop making Mar Roxas happen. It should stop trying to inject politics into the whole thing. It should stop using a humanitarian effort to make themselves look good, to project themselves as the best option when the polls happen again. It will never work for them anymore, not after the bullshit they've spouted, of blaming the media for misreporting, of blaming the critics for being uncooperative, of blaming political rivals for being difficult, of blaming the system for making things difficult.

"Sasabihin, 'hindi niyo kami tinulungan,'" Mar said earlier today. "Eh, matagal na naming hinihingi, 'Anong tulong? Ilista ninyo.'"

I find it impossible to believe that the government of a country often hit by typhoons doesn't know what a town that is severely affected by one needs.

I also find it impossible that people will take that attempt to save face, believe it, and go away believing that Mar Roxas is still the best choice for 2016.

Maybe the Liberal Party should just do the hard work and prove that they really can do it. After all, they no longer have a legacy to worry about. It's already been set in stone.

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