Grace Poe: The ‘centrist’ alternative?
“People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy,” observed Rainer Maria Rilke in “Letters to a Young Poet.” The poet then emphasized the need for us to “hold ourselves to the difficult”—an advice that is just as valid in the inherently indeterminate world of politics, especially Philippine politics.
Decade after decade, we have seen once obscure candidates or early underdogs catapulted to the august halls of Malacañang. Fidel Ramos, who eked out a sufficient plurality (23.5 percent) to win a crowded race, was not even the preferred candidate of the ruling establishment. And few thought that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a taciturn technocrat in her early days, would occupy the presidency for almost a decade.
The late Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III consciously avoided the glare of national politics, yet he ended up as the winner in the 2010 elections with one of the largest shares of votes (42 percent) in contemporary history. And of course, both Rodrigo Duterte (39 percent) and Leni Robredo (35 percent) were runaway underdogs way into the 2016 campaign period.
The only “expected” winner in our contemporary presidential elections was arguably Joseph Estrada, only for his administration to collapse quickly. Against this backdrop of inveterate indeterminacy, it’s analytically lazy and politically self-defeating to buy the “inevitability” argument around the succession question.
If anything, charismatic “centrists,” chief among them Sen. Grace Poe, are in a good position to pull off yet another electoral upset next year.
I was perhaps the first to lay out the contours of the 2022 presidential elections as potentially a two-way, mono-ideological battle between Mayor Sara Duterte and former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos (“Elections 2022: Marcos vs Duterte?” 4/27/21). This configuration should come as no surprise, given the popularity of the incumbent, the dark power of “authoritarian nostalgia,” and the respective “Solid South” and “Solid North” bases of the candidates.
But if you scratch the surface a bit, the “inevitability” argument gradually falls apart.
First of all, President Duterte’s actual popularity level is perhaps better captured by Malou Tiquia’s new and dynamic Publicus Asia polls. We are looking at 50-60 percent trust and approval ratings here, which are very similar to Aquino’s back in 2015.
Second, Sara’s lead in the surveys is far from formidable; it is largely pushed up by extraordinary numbers from her home island of Mindanao. A premature lead also exposes candidates to organized pushback by rivals, as former vice president Jejomar Binay discovered in 2015. Binay was consistently seen as the “runaway” winner ahead of the 2016 elections, his lead almost twice higher with easily 40 percent of prospective votes.
Third, both potential candidates will have to grapple with the controversial legacy of their fathers: One oversaw the transformation of Asia’s second richest economy into the “Sick man of Asia,” while the other oversaw one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia as well as among the worst economic contractions on earth.
The spontaneous outpouring of sympathy, and belated appreciation, for Aquino in the past week shows the groundswell of support for conscientious and competent leadership. It remains to be seen, however, if the liberal opposition can coalesce around a potent candidate and, accordingly, win back popular support.
There is good reason to expect that charismatic and pragmatic “centrists” have a great chance of winning next year’s elections, especially if they forward a new vision that transcends the binary, inter-dynastic narratives that have dominated our modern politics for far too long. If you look at the Pulse Asia survey earlier this year, Marcos is statistically tied with three “centrist” figures: Poe, “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, and, Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao (especially following his public fallout with the incumbent).
Among them, Poe, who has seamlessly topped Senate races and deftly combined populist appeal with a technocratic bent, would be a highly competitive candidate should she decide to throw her hat in the ring anew. She is now a seasoned stateswoman, and backed by both the Left and the Catholic Church, her years-long, underappreciated “calibrated activism” could prove decisive in next year’s elections.
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