Election season

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

'Tis the season… not to be jolly with the approach of Christmas, whose spirit is being dampened by COVID, but to assess the emerging aspirants for the 2022 general elections.

Even SARS-CoV-2 and its highly infectious Delta, Alpha and Beta variants can’t seem to dampen the election season, which is now upon us.

The upside is that we can begin scrutinizing the individuals who are applying to lead the country and serve us the people.

As of yesterday, there were two declared candidates for the presidency: Senators Panfilo Lacson and Manny Pacquiao. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno is set to formally announce his bid and has picked a doctor, cardiologist Willy Ong, as his runningmate.

One has been nominated by his party faction but has maintained that he’s not interested in running for president: Sen. Bong Go. Another has been endorsed by a new party but has not yet officially accepted it: former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

The opposition coalition 1Sambayan, which is trying to come up with a common candidate against the administration, is reportedly torn between Vice President Leni Robredo and Yorme Isko. We don’t know if 1Sambayan is willing to adopt Moreno as a candidate.

Robredo has said she is open to leading a common opposition slate. She has been in talks with the camps of Moreno and Pacquiao, even if the boxing icon has not yet officially sided with the opposition. But what happens if Pacquiao refuses to slide down to the vice presidential race and back a common candidate picked by 1Sambayan?

Pacquiao has his own party – or at least a faction of the ruling PDP-Laban – which has already nominated him as standard bearer.

Even if the other PDP-Laban faction headed by President Duterte wins the battle for official recognition by the Commission on Elections (the Comelec should not dilly-dally on this case), Pacquiao could run as an independent.

If he does, he would be splitting the Mindanao vote, the administration vote, and even the Davao vote, since one of his biggest supporters is ousted speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, whose candidates trounced the bets fielded by Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, in the 2019 midterm elections.

If Bongbong Marcos seeks the presidency for his family’s ultimate vindication, will he support President Duterte for vice president?

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Mayor Sara has said she is not seeking the presidency since her father is running for vice president, and she has already said a Duterte-Duterte candidacy will “never happen.”

Remembering the father’s propensity for eleventh-hour turnarounds, however, people are taking any pronouncement from the Duterte family with a grain of salt.

Instead, people are waiting for Nov. 15, the deadline for candidate substitutions and last-minute change of mind, to see the Dutertes’ real plans for 2022.

Another eleventh-hour change of mind might not be good for their credibility, however, considering the impact on public opinion of the President’s sudden flip-flopping on major pandemic response policies.

The credibility problem is manifesting itself in Duterte’s fight with Sen. Richard Gordon and the rest of the senators investigating the multibillion-peso deals awarded to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp.

Social media memes remain focused not on the tirades against Gordon, but on the deals awarded to Pharmally as part of utang na loob, as the President himself has declared.

Filipinos value utang na loob. Politicians, however, should realize that they owe their debt of gratitude not to individual campaign supporters, but mainly to the people they have sworn to serve.

The Commission on Audit has clarified that it did not impute corruption in the mask procurement from Pharmally. Does the COA clearance include the face shields, bought at P120 each from Philippine Blue Cross Biotech Corp., at a time when their use wasn’t even required yet in public places? Face shields became mandatory for commuters only in August last year, and for all public places only in mid-December.

Duterte’s weekly report to the nation on the pandemic response has turned into a weekly harangue, mainly of Gordon and the Philippine Red Cross. In the latest last Monday, Duterte felt the need to trot out some members of the administration-controlled House of Representatives, notably Sagip party-list Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, who is remembered for his passionate push for the scrapping of the ABS-CBN franchise last year.

With elections approaching, the weekly presidential harangue has become twice weekly, and sometimes three times a week, often opening with the kilometric accomplishment reports of Cabinet members (particularly those gunning for the Senate in 2022) that couldn’t fit into this year’s longest ever State of the Nation Address. If this keeps up, people will tune out and just wait for the news stories presenting any new salient points in Duterte’s speech.

The President is either suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, currently focused on Gordon and the Red Cross, or he can sense the same credibility problem that bedevils his so far futile five-year effort to get Filipinos to share his adoration for President Xi Jinping and all things Chinese.

Duterte probably feels that the pandemic response is going to be a pivotal factor in the 2022 elections. People are asking: do we want more incoherence? Are we gluttons for punishment? Such questions could deal a fatal blow to his push for continuity beyond noon of June 30, 2022.

This is why the Senate probe on supply procurements at the start of the pandemic could be so damaging to the continuity pitch, and is eliciting a virulent counter-attack.

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The administration, now riven by internal rifts as the elections approach, can take heart in the fact that the opposition is also finding it tough to come up with a common candidate.

Those presenting themselves as the third force or middle ground – among them the tandem of Lacson and Senate President Tito Sotto and now Isko Moreno and Willy Ong – are also resonating among those who think the country needs leaders who can unite the people rather than deepen the divisions as Duterte is doing.

There are people who think the unifying, can-do “Team Philippines” message of Fidel Ramos would be good in this period of unprecedented national crisis. Considering the toxic political environment, however, this seems like a pipe dream at this point. Too bad Duterte no longer listens to FVR’s counsel.

With the likely presidential contenders now emerging, the discussions these days are focusing on who can best get the country out of this wasteland of lost lives and livelihoods, competently, with leadership and vision, without spite and distraction.

With election season in the air, voters have time to make informed choices.

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