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The casino is open

The electoral casino is open for business. For the 2022 presidential elections, 97 aspirants have filed their candidacy. A bet on a single number on the roulette wheel has a one-in-37 chance of winning. Presidential wannabes face longer odds; not 1 in 97, but more like 1:300,000+, the likelihood of getting hit by lightning. Over 90 of the candidates can only win if lightning strikes all their competitors. Luck plays only an incidental role in the electoral game.

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Electoral campaigns require resources, perhaps not as blatantly as in earlier decades when “gold, guns, and goons” arguably determined electoral results. Estimates of the investment needed for a presidential contest have soared to as high as P50 billion, but allegedly recoverable within one year, leaving five more years for the president to gain windfall profits from the investment. With this level of pay-off, why not take a chance? Not absolutely impossible for lightning and other fatal misfortunes to eliminate the competition but, even in a time of pandemic and extrajudicial killings, not likely.

Personalities with more credible political credentials may enter the race, with the hope that the stronger candidates will offer to compensate them for withdrawing from the contest in their favor. Frontrunners may finance the campaign of Manchurian candidates, secret allies to siphon votes away in the core geographical or socioeconomic bases of their stronger rivals. The political strategy to field placeholders, to be replaced by the real contender at the right moment, can also clutter the roster of candidates.

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No one will admit seeking the presidency to obtain power and resources for personal and family interests. All will profess, instead, their passion to help solve the problems of the country. As mystifying as the number of presidential candidates is their conviction that they can address the formidable challenges confronting the country—because they supposedly have the pure intentions, the commitment, and the will to do what must be done for the people. If only they were president.

Filipinos appear to harbor this abiding faith in the power of the presidency to remedy all wrongs, if only entrusted to the right person. This conviction reflects the desperation of the large number of people who believe that the president can easily meet the urgent, elemental needs of their families—food, medicine, livelihood. Indeed, the president can address immediate, individual needs. Sustaining systemic solutions for all families is more difficult. But trickle-down assistance to selected groups, dismissed as cosmetic measures, assumes more importance during election seasons as demonstrating the candidates’ capacity to give quick help to needy families. Opinion polls reward politicians whom the respondents believe are like them, understand their life conditions, welcome their petitions, and respond with concrete assistance.

Globalization, a factor contributing to pandemic surges, rising expectations of government, and great power rivalries have made governance a much more complex task. The president cannot focus on only one problem, whether it is waging a drug war, controlling the pandemic, or distributing ayuda. To his credit, Sen. Tito Sotto decided to slide down to the vice presidential race, admitting his unpreparedness for presidential responsibilities. But the many daunting problems that will face the next administration has not intimidated applicants.

The record of the Duterte administration might have bolstered their confidence. Pro-Duterte candidates promise to continue the achievements of the administration, but do not detail what these achievements might be in the areas of critical public concern: public health, the economy, education, the protection of rights over our exclusive economic zone, the administration of justice. On his own top-priority, “legacy” pledge to eradicate corruption, President Duterte has admitted failure. Worse has been the litany of high-profile, big ticket cases implicating multiple government agencies since 2016—from the “pastillas” scam to the charges related to the management of the pandemic and the ayuda packages.

At a time of looming domestic and international problems, the administration, despite or because of its supermajority in Congress and in the Supreme Court, has left a low bar for successors. Can nuisance candidates do worse? But, surely, we can do better. To start, by demanding that candidates express their stand on the handling of PhilHealth, Pharmally, Malampaya—and show their SALN.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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