Great political leaders emerge from the choices that they make in times of great political opportunity. And in democracies like ours, those opportunities emerge from the challenges that frame an election.
For this, we turn to examples in American history. Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, for example, had the backdrop of the American Civil War, with the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery on the line. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the elections, but the stakes were so high – America was booming in wealth and people, so much so that social causes became central issues of the campaign – that two ex-Presidents (William Howard Taft as incumbent, and Theodore Roosevelt) threw their names into the game. In 1932, the Great Depression left such a big impact on the American consciousness, that the people rejected incumbent President Herbert Hoover, and voted Franklin Roosevelt in; the seeds of a great generation of Americans were planted.
It’s kind of difficult to look for Filipino examples. Partly because we have a much younger democracy that still needs time to grow. But that doesn’t mean that we never had the defining backdrops that make great leaders, or the great landscapes that define political epochs. We’ve always had them. It’s just that these seeds of political greatness found themselves planted on land left fallow by the kind of politics that we have.
I think that nothing sets this tone more than where we are now: the road to 2016.
We are, of course, a nation on perpetual election mode. No sooner would “presidentiables” emerge right after a President is elected in this country. But at the twilight of every administration, we are faced with the very question we often scoff at people who call for an ouster or something: who do we replace the President with?
With less than a year before the next Presidential elections, this is a very important question to ask. Rightly or wrongly, and whether to its full credit or not, the Aquino administration will leave behind a political and socio-economic landscape that could make the next – if not the first (depending on one’s leanings) – great Filipino president.
Any Presidential hopeful running in 2016 has his or her work cut out. Recent economic gains have put the Philippines in the position not only to eradicate poverty, but also to be the next beacon of progress in the world stage. The Bangsamoro Basic Law – rightly or wrongly – redefines and shifts and challenges the basic frameworks that we have in terms of how we define the state, how we act on sovereignty, and the reach and limits of self-determination. Our tiffs with China over the Spratlys set the stage not only for domestic policies on defense, but also on our role and stance in international relations. With climate change, environmental issues, and news on impending disasters, our survival hangs on the balance. And all these are on top of things that we have to deal with on a regular basis: peace and order, wages, taxes, the state of education, graft and corruption, and so on.
Anyone – from today until May 2016 – who creates a plan to mobilize all the country’s political resources to address those challenges, and shares this vision to the people, could very well be the President we’re looking for. In recent memory, we never really had that opportunity. Tumult is our default and instability is our god; and it kind of sucks because those people in the running for the Presidency this early aren’t talking about those things at all.
The flavors of the month – whether it’s Grace Poe’s citizenship or search for her long-lost parents, or Jojo Binay interjecting himself in so many issues and muddling himself in the process, or Rody Duterte’s Harry Callahan-esque pronouncements, or Mar Roxas being quite scarce (or dense, whatever works) on really important things these days – don’t lend themselves well to the great opportunities that lie ahead.
Just how great? Let’s put it this way: from today until May 2016, we have the clear opportunity to create clear economic platforms. The clear stands of any Presidentiable towards the BBL defines the political theory of their administration, if elected. And those theories have clear ramifications not only on domestic policies, but international stand of the Philippines as well. And those things involve not only what happens to us when the worst happens, but what could be done to restore our collective faith in our government.
And I’m sure that those things matter more than the squabbles that enjoy extensive coverage today, if not fed by the very same people who see media mileage as the way to electoral victory. That same soap opera vortex that not only kept us from having great Presidents in recent memory, but is also keeping us from making our own great generation.
In short, the great opportunities at hand are being squandered.
And all of this is kind of a shame, really, knowing what politics is: the great science of opportunity. The central issues and possible platforms of 2016 are quite obvious even to those with the least astute political minds or the greatest apathy for politics. The opportunities that lie ahead are not just for a six-year term, but also create a great opportunity to finally – after so long – create the parties and platforms and civic mindsets that have kept us from growing our democracy. We can actually make this system – as young and flawed and cheapened over time as it is – work to our advantage for once.
I’m not one to begrudge Poe of her right to find her parents and have the whole thing play out on TV, or for Binay to pat himself on the back and refer to himself in the third-person in interviews. I don’t deny Duterte his tough-guy image and his action-movie inspired soundbites, or prevent Roxas from pointing at random things on a DILG tweet to prove that he’s a man of action. I don’t begrudge Alan Cayetano and Ping Lacson of their desire to plant themselves in the public consciousness with their eyebrow-raising political ads, either. But these things, whether on their own or lumped together, neither grab the opportunities ahead, or cultivate the minds of voters to make better political choices this time around.
Not that any one of them should be the Pinoy Lincoln, or Wilson, or Roosevelt, or whatever, but at this crossroads in our history, we really deserve a better narrative than what’s playing out today. From now until 2016 is a time that’s way too important for us to waste on things that do not contribute to our civic awakening, that makes us better prepared to make those choices in less than a year.
Again, great political leaders emerge from the choices that they make in times of great political opportunity. But it also begs to be said that those who squander those choices are best left to steep in the morass of crisis, and their names forever etched in ignominy.