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Wanted: A unifying president

/ 04:03 AM October 12, 2021

A festival of campaign colors will soon again be upon us. Yellow, long associated with President Cory Aquino and the Liberal Party that supported her and her son Benigno Simeon III through their presidencies, is unlikely to figure prominently this time around. Orange was the color of choice for presidential aspirant Manuel Villar in 2010, while it was blue for former Vice President Jejomar Binay in his 2016 run. President Duterte’s dominant color then was red, ironically the color long associated with the communist rebellion that his government sees as top enemy—although it’s also the color of China, to which he has made no effort to conceal his strong allegiance. Green is the favored color of his daughter’s homegrown political party, and while she has filed for reelection as Davao City mayor, we may yet see green all over the presidential race. Now comes pink, the chosen theme color for the presidential run of Vice President Leni Robredo.

When a high school batchmate talked about political colors in our online chat group recently, I volunteered the following: “White is the combination of all colors. That’s the color we need because what this country badly needs is a unifying leadership. We haven’t had one since my common boss with (another batchmate) Hermo (Esperon)—FVR (President Fidel V. Ramos).”

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A batchmate jokingly chimed in: “White = Isko?” Well, not necessarily, as color wasn’t my point. My point was that the key quality our next president must have is the capacity to unify our nation. All presidents after Ramos were divisive in their own ways, none more so than the current one. Three months into the Duterte presidency, he and his followers had already managed to deepen these divisions. Even so, I wrote then of how Mr. Duterte had the “potential for a unifying, bridging leader, owing to his unique background as a long-time mayor who kept close touch with those he governed, with ears close to the ground in a hands-on style of leadership. He also won an unprecedented broad base of support spanning all socioeconomic classes and the wide range of geographic regions (and lest we forget, exit polls showed the upper ABC classes to be his biggest base of voter support then—not the ‘masa’ from whom came the primary casualties of his bloody war on drugs). He thus seemed uniquely positioned to be the leader we can all rally behind, the team captain to exhort us to row our national boat in one direction.”

The allusion was from a favorite metaphor of President Fidel V. Ramos whenever he preached that “UST”—unity, solidarity, and teamwork—is critical to move the Filipino nation forward. He would ask his audiences to imagine our country as a boat with passengers rowing in various directions, thus aimlessly going around in circles. But think how fast we could surge forward, he would challenge, if only all of us would row in the same direction.

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Even as I wrote that then, it was getting clear that Mr. Duterte was unwilling to be that leader, which demands statesmanship and a leadership that builds bridges among Filipinos, and with the wide foreign community. He was soon to declare that he neither intended nor aspired to be a statesman—dashing any remaining hopes that he could be the opposite of the bitterly divisive leader he has turned out to be.

Now that candidacies for 2022 have been launched, we must look for the unifying kind of leadership that Ramos demonstrated. It didn’t matter, when he chose his Cabinet, that many of us that he appointed were unknown to him prior to his election. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not we had even voted for him at all; I was never asked. And unlike his successors, he did not withhold the pork barrel from a legislator, or the internal revenue allotment from a governor or mayor because they happened to be in the political opposition. He didn’t really care. What he did care about was that his Cabinet and other officials would deliver on his tough demands, and it was hard not to, as he led by example, keeping at least 16-hour working days, seven days a week.

I would look for these qualities in the person I will vote to be our next president.

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