Is unity possible?
If “change” was the buzzword in the 2016 presidential election that brought President Duterte into power, “unity” appears to be the word resonating in 2022. Both top contenders to the presidency cite it to be imperative for the nation, especially as it comes out of the pandemic that brought our economy to its knees.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made it his central message, branding their electoral slate as the “UniTeam.” But observers point to the lack of substance behind the unity rhetoric. Of his speech at the launch of his candidacy, a newspaper (not the Inquirer) reported: “For the 15 minutes he spoke, Marcos repeated the word ‘pagkakaisa’ (unity) or some variation of it more than 20 times. [But] concrete plans towards that unity were lacking in his speech.” Time magazine noted: “Despite [his unity] message, he has become the most divisive candidate in the race,” alluding to the “human rights violations during his father’s dictatorship, the billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth, and the family’s unpaid taxes.” It is, in fact, the memory of all these that is behind opposition to, and even fear of, Marcos Jr.’s return to the presidential palace.
Vice President Leni Robredo defines the unity we need as “reaching out to others despite their differences and rallying together towards a common advocacy.” As she launched her candidacy, she declared “mas radikal ang magmahal (it’s more radical to love).” To her, what binds Filipinos together, despite being separated by distance and beliefs, are the aspirations for a better life and dismay with the “old and rotten system that glorifies influence peddling.” Marcos, at his final miting de avance, similarly declared: “unity will be the fruit of every Filipino’s love for one another.”
Whether it’s Marcos Jr. or Robredo who will lead us through the next six years, his or her actions within the first 100 days will signal whether their call for unity—or oneness as a nation, which is my preferred definition for “nationalism”—is real or mere rhetoric. I would personally watch for the actions that I witnessed firsthand under the truly unifying leadership of President Fidel V. Ramos when he began in 1992. He preached “UST”—Unity, Solidarity and Teamwork—from Day One of his presidency. He cast a wide net in choosing his Cabinet, and it mattered not whether we even voted for him (I was never asked when invited, and I didn’t). He promptly reached out to all political parties, forming the “rainbow coalition” that facilitated his legislative policy agenda in both houses of Congress. He set up the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council and actively used it to achieve a unified reform agenda.
Unlike his successors, Ramos never withheld the pork barrel from any legislator, or the internal revenue allotment or IRA from a governor or mayor, just because they happened to be in the political opposition. For Ramos, it didn’t matter. What mattered to him was that his Cabinet and all other officials, elective or appointed, met his tough demands, delivering a unifying governance where everyone rows our national boat in the same direction in order to surge forward full speed. His governance was colorblind: there were no yellows, reds, greens, or blues; only Filipinos. Such is the magnanimity and statesmanship required of a true unifier.
Robredo may have an edge in credibility to exercise such unifying leadership that bridges socioeconomic, geographic, ethnic, and political divides, coming from a position of moral ascendancy and a solid record of public service. Marcos Jr. must somehow overcome the baggage of a widely questioned integrity owing to his family’s inglorious history. But who knows? If he makes it his mission to genuinely redeem his family’s honor more than to recover their wealth, the miracle many are praying for may yet take a different form: not an upset victory by his opponent, but a fundamental personal transformation in him that could ultimately make history cast a kinder light on him and his family that is not merely shaped by mind manipulation and falsehoods via social media, but by the outcomes his leadership could achieve.
God bless the Philippines.
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