Sunday Lifestyle

Advice to an aspiring politician

MANO-A-MANO - Adel Tamano -

Last Tuesday, as I was riding the elevator going down to my parking slot at our condo, I ran into an old friend and fellow Ateneo Law alumni. He thought our meeting was providential because he had wanted to pick my brains about his plans to run for public office, specifically for an executive position in one of the major cities near Metro Manila. Since the elevator ride was brief, we were unable to discuss his plans. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but recall my own experience as a candidate, campaigner, political spokesman, and the son of a national politician. After some reflection, if I am able to sit down with my friend — or other neophytes who may have political ambitions — this is what I’d tell them:

1. I applaud your desire to enter public service. It takes courage to throw your hat in the political ring. Certainly, those whose intention in seeking public office is pure and focused on improving their communities deserve more commendation than those whose motivation is for personal gain or to protect family or business interests. However, I think that many, if not most, candidates for public office run because of a sincere belief that they can do something good for their constituencies. Sure, many criticize our politicians but I can honestly say that in my experience with working with local and national politicians that, although some politicos are terribly corrupt and inept, there are still many public officials who are truly competent and principled.

2. Running for public office shouldn’t be a personal decision but a familial one. My father was in public office and in politics for most of his adult life and so I grew up knowing the high price that families pay when one of the parents is a politician. One of the high costs of being in politics — and this includes just engaging in the political process as a candidate or potential candidate — is the loss of physical privacy. When you make your intentions known that you will be running for office, then all sorts of people will be coming to your family home asking for help, usually for money. And they will come at all hours of the day. I remember as a child that we’d have people going to our house as early as six in the morning asking for assistance: money for medicine or school, letters of recommendation, or asking for work. As a child, I disliked it because I felt that our home was invaded by all sorts of strangers. So the aspiring politician should not only ask himself but also his spouse and children if they are willing to forego their privacy. And the loss of privacy isn’t merely physical because the politician and his family will also lose their privacy in a broader sense — people will gossip about them, spread lies and half-truths, insults, and even harass them, particularly if the position being sought is a highly-contested one. And this broader loss of privacy is exacerbated by the number of multimedia outlets such as blogs, tweets, Facebook, etc. In the past, politicians might just have to contend with radio programs or newspapers criticizing or attacking them but now you have a slew of other media outlets to contend with. Simply, you must ask your family if they are willing to go through the gauntlet of running for public office. And you must ask yourself the question: are you willing to expose your spouse and children to the dangers, stresses, and challenges of a life in politics?

3. Understand that campaigning is often ugly and dirty. Are you really ready to subject yourself and your family to all the negative and often untruthful things that your future political enemies will throw at you? When I ran for public office, I had — foolishly it seems, in hindsight — spent a substantial amount of time preparing for policy debates on education, the national budget, and Muslim representation because I thought that if I could expound on these things, then voters would support my candidacy. But these debates very rarely came and most of the debates — if you could even call them that — were merely to address lies, slander and innuendo. Unfortunately, our democracy still hasn’t evolved to the point where the voting public uses things like your political stands, policy beliefs, and qualifications as the benchmarks for choosing our elected leaders. So expect mudslinging and black propaganda. Are you and your family ready for that? And ask yourself: are you willing to also use these same tactics against your political enemies?  

4. The painful truth is that winning in Philippine elections is primarily a function of popularity and money. Simply, you will need both. In regards to the money aspect, I needn’t go into the details of it but for me the more important point is that you should ask your spouse — and maybe even get input from other family members — about whether you can and should bear the high costs of a campaign. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your political party will spend for all your expenses. It won’t and political parties do reasonably expect their candidates to invest in their own campaigns. If this sounds more like a business than it does public service, well, unfortunately that is the harsh reality of Philippine politics. Remember that no one is putting a gun to your head forcing you to run for public office, so if you do decide to make a go of it, understand that you will need to spend some of your own money. And this is money that you could save for your children’s education or put into savings or to set up a business. So make sure that you don’t make your decision to seek public office haphazardly. In fact, it is precisely due to the high cost of running for public office that many competent, qualified, and idealistic Filipinos decide not to run.  

5. Remember that there are other ways to serve your country and your community. If your desire to seek public office is genuinely based on an aspiration to improve the lives of your countrymen, then remember that there are many ways, outside of politics, that you can achieve this goal. NGO work, volunteering in organizations like the Red Cross, and establishing businesses to help the marginalized are but a few examples of this. On a personal level, one of the goals with my show Tamano Perspective is to provide analysis on national issues in order to help our citizens become better informed and educated. In my own small way I believe that I am serving my country and the point really is that we can assert and live our patriotism in ways other than being an elected official. 

Finally, it may seem from what I’ve written so far that I’m dissuading aspiring politicians from running for public office. But that would be a wrong impression because, again, I deeply admire those brave Filipinos who toss their hat in the political ring. Yes, it takes real courage to step from the sidelines, stop merely complaining about government, and risk one’s reputation, time, and resources and run for government office. So if someone really has that fire in their belly to serve the public and he believes the best way to serve his constituency and community is through public service, and, most importantly, has the full support of his family, then he should go for it. But he should do so with eyes wide open and fully understanding the harsh — even grim — realities of Philippine-style politics.

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