Bread and circuses
The circus is in town — if only as part of a promotional tour for next year’s season.
A recent survey showing potential winners in the 2019 elections for the Senate has started a lot of talk about who is running, who is likely to win, who is looking at a loss.
But it’s a circus with many (very many) familiar faces, featuring the same familiar (very familiar) acts.
The Top 20 in the survey includes seven reelectionists: Grace Poe, Cynthia Villar, Nancy Binay, Juan Edgardo Angara, Benigno Aquino IV, JV Ejercito, and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III. (Pimentel is a special case because he is already on his second term but served only roughly the second half of his first term.)
The list also includes eight former senators who may seek a comeback: Pia Cayetano, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Lito Lapid, Mar Roxas, Sergio Osmeña III, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Teofisto Guingona III. (If Marcos runs, his election protest against Vice President Leni Robredo will be deemed withdrawn.)
All together, that’s three-fourths of the Top 20 list.
Aside from TV and radio anchor Erwin Tulfo, current or former public officials with a national profile fill the rest of the list: Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa, Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista and former Manila vice mayor Isko Moreno.
Only two names may be considered a surprise: Duterte-Carpio and Tulfo. But a surprise only in the sense that their political ambition for high national office is still an unknown factor.
Their celebrity is now nationwide, in large part because of their close association with a popular President Duterte.
The Top 20 list shows that durable national renown, for whatever reason, and achieved in whatever field or discipline, is still the best indicator of success in a Senate race.
To be sure, appearing in the list a year and a half before elections is only a qualified form of success; our election history shows that front-runners often fall out of favor and that even candidates with virtually no chance of winning (for instance, the first Senate runs of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and second-term senator Antonio Trillanes IV) still manage to end up in the winners’ circle).
But appearing in the Top 20 is what we may call an enabling achievement: It allows those who do have senatorial ambitions to begin raising funds for a candidacy, which in turn allows those on the list to multiply their chances of winning. It is (depending on one’s point of view) either a virtuous circle or a vicious one.
An irrepressible Mayor Duterte-Carpio was quick to tease the possibilities of a Senate run. “President Duterte’s enemies should not annoy me, then my slot should become available to all the yellows,” she said, promising in the next breath to run for the Senate if her father’s critics continue to be an annoyance.
The mayor hardly gets any criticism, especially compared to her father, so she must be referring to continuing criticism of the President as her red line.
And Estrada, now enjoying bail while awaiting his plunder trial, also took the occasion to say he was going on a nationwide gratitude tour, to thank his supporters for keeping faith in him.
But this is one of those all-too-familiar acts in the triennial circus we know all too well: The tour is an opportunity to begin the groundwork for a return to the Senate, without being technically labeled as electioneering.
(It is interesting to note that his brother, Senator Ejercito, who is an incumbent and active on social media, earned a 26-percent rating (that is, 26 percent of those surveyed said they will vote for him), while Estrada, who was in detention for the last couple of years, received 28 percent. This will fuel stepsibling rivalry speculation all over again—again, part of the same old circus, but an effective part.)
The real question, though, is: Will there be elections for the Senate in 2019?
The Charter change express in the House of Representatives looks ready to ram the Senate right to the ground. If that happens, then all this talk and activity, which engages the attention of our highly political culture, is just the Roman version of organized distraction: bread and circuses.
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