At Large

The mystery of Miriam’s run

I’ve always wondered why Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago decided to cap her many years in government service with yet another presidential run. Given the state of her health and the absence of any palpable or even visible organization, which strangely isn’t the case with her running mate, Sen. Bongbong Marcos, it would seem that this is in many ways Miriam’s valedictory—but a doomed valedictory it looks like.

She has made public her cancer diagnosis, and her public appearances, in the few TV clips of her campaign stops and during the two out of three debates in which she took part, indicate that the illness has taken its toll on her. She may be, as she proudly proclaims, taking a “magic pill” that promises a cure, if not a prolonged recovery. But in the last few months, she has appeared to be but a pale shadow of her old feisty self. She falters midway through her spiels, forgets her train of thought, and appears to be searching for words, if not her point.


This is not the Miriam we knew, certainly not the senator whose appearance before the mike on the Senate floor, ready to pose questions to a colleague, sent shivers down the spine of whoever was at the receiving end.

Fellow senators were said to be so intimidated by her, or her reputation, that they would send emissaries to her or her staff to work out the sequence and content of their exchanges on the floor. And watching her in action, posing questions, suggesting amendments, was a political education in itself. Watching and listening to her, one appreciates the work that goes into legislation, and how the “debate club” that is the Senate serves democracy by producing the best possible laws where every possible loophole is closed and every constitutional infirmity is addressed. And lately, much of this has been due to the work and tenacity of MDS.


* * *

I WASN’T an early fan. In her early years as immigration commissioner and then as a senator, I thought her a tad arrogant, her rhetoric, perfect morsels of sound bites, designed only to garner attention, her feistiness a “role” she rehearsed well.

But through the years, as she herself matured into her role and showed off her legislative prowess—even if she took positions I personally disagreed with, as in the impeachment trials of Erap and then Chief Justice Renato Corona—I learned to appreciate the role she played as a firebrand and self-appointed constitutional authority.

I most appreciated the senator during the floor debates over the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law. Though the brunt of shepherding the bill through the Senate was borne by Sen. Pia Cayetano, Miriam’s interventions came at key moments, and I suspect that her vocal support played a big role in getting the male senators to keep their misogynist comments to a minimum.

She could be mean and bitchy, calling a colleague “fungus face,” for instance, but she was never at a loss for words or lacking in attitude. Which makes her weakened state these days an occasion for wry regret.

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OFTEN, but especially in social media, I hear and read comments like “my choice for president is Miriam, but her health is a concern.” Young people especially rue her presidential run at a time like this when doubts proliferate about not just her competency or character or academic preparation (the three qualities needed for a good president, she declared), but her very survival at least for the next six years.


Doubtless she still holds voters, but especially young voters, in thrall. And if she had the energy and the wherewithal to mount a credible and strong campaign, as she did when she nearly dislodged Fidel V. Ramos from the presidency (in a campaign as fractured and divisive as this one), she would have the youth vote fueling her drive to Malacañang.

But times have changed and circumstances have altered the course of Miriam’s political trajectory. I find it sad that at a time when she should be devoting much of her time and energy and will to battling cancer and extending her years on earth, she chose to take on yet another challenging mission, one which will leave her but a postscript in the political history of 2016.

* * *

THAT she poses no threat to the survey leaders was pretty obvious in the last presidential debate, when they avoided confronting her (you don’t kick a sick person, especially a woman, when she’s down) and even solicitously asked after her health.

She has taken the expressions of sympathy in good spirit, even if she insisted that she was still in pretty fine shape and could carry out her role as president if fate so decreed.

But Miriam could have done better than agree to get a Marcos as her running mate. It’s pretty obvious that for Bongbong the vice presidency is but a tantalizing step away from Malacañang. Maybe he banked on the continuing appeal of Miriam. Maybe he just needed to deflect a looming confrontation and the people’s memories of martial law by not running for president, taking the off-chance that if their team wins, he had a better-than-even chance of assuming the presidency.

We’ll see if Bongbong made the right bet, or if the Leni juggernaut, unexpected and indeed miraculous, helps her coast to victory at the polls.

But the mystery of Miriam’s run remains, along with her motivations. Still, it’s not too early to say thank you to her for her years of service, for perking up the political conversation, and for standing as a model of womanhood whose strength and outspokenness helped empower those following in her footsteps.


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TAGS: Cancer, Elections, MDs, Miriam Defensor Santiago, opinion, Presidential Candidate
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