Breaking the cult of personality

My column today, April 21, 2015.

We know the countdown to next year’s national elections have started because politicians who think they deserve consideration for national posts have intensified their efforts to get noticed. 
I was in Davao City for a few days the other week where all the telltale signs of a movement to launch Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for a national post was pervasive. There were tarpaulin signs all over proclaiming Duterte as everyone’s champion (“Atin To”  or in Cebuano - “Ato ni, Bai”).      I was told by relative and friends that a tri-media campaign in Mindanao was already operational.  At the Davao International Airport on my way back, I was on the same plane with a horde of Duterte campaigners.  They were all wearing yellow shirts that displayed Duterte’s unsmiling mug on the front and a smashing fist at the back.  They were carrying all kinds of campaign materials including rolled up tarpaulin posters.  In the past, Duterte would immediately and openly squash rumors or suggestions about his interest in the Presidency; he has not clearly confirmed his candidacy, but he has not denied that he is seeking the highest post in the land either.   
Vice President Jejomar Binay continues to be a strong contender for the presidency despite the  massive vilification campaign directed at him.  We all know Binay still wants to run for President because he has continued to fortify his political base.  I met members of the powerful fraternity that Binay is part of and they swore there is a silent but serious campaign effort that is continuing.  There will be people in this country who will campaign and vote for Binay even if the man becomes unrecognizable underneath all the muck that has been thrown at him.  Thus, all those tarpaulin posters hanging all over Makati in the houses of loyal supporters nationwide that says “Binay Pa Rin” (we’re still for Binay).
We all know Senator Alan Peter Cayetano really wants Filipinos to consider him for the presidency because he has been doing everything to be noticed.  The poor guy has displayed all possible shades and variations of anger – from indignation to being livid to being openly confrontational – in a desperate bid to be recognized as a nationalist firebrand in the wake of the Mamasapano massacre.  He has tried to balance things off by resurrecting a television ad that packages him as a cuddly pro-people leader.  Nobody outside his rabid supporters seems to be seriously considering Senator Antonio Trillanes for the presidency but that has not stopped the man from floating himself as a possible candidate.    This is the only possible explanation for the senator’s recent idiotic attempts to engage the whole Judiciary and the law profession in a brawl.
The two other putative candidates, Senator Grace Poe and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, have not publicly declared their political plans for 2016 but there is no doubt that there are efforts to sustain public awareness about them. Thus, despite the general absence of positive confirmation from either, they continue to be considered strong contenders for the Presidency next year.
I know it is still too early to expect anyone among the six contenders to spell our their platforms and plans of action for the country, but one hopes that we begin to see efforts to put in place mechanisms to examine candidates beyond the cult of personality that they and their supporters have built. 
Duterte is being packaged as an invincible local executive who cleaned Davao of insurgents, instilled order and discipline, and in the process, transformed the city into a modern Utopia. Binay is still widely regarded as a benevolent champion of the masses, a modern day Robinhood who fought the rich to benefit the poor.  Cayetano is being packaged as a staunch defender of nationalist ideals in the mold of Claro M. Recto.  Trillanes continues to draw strength from his revolutionary background as a military officer who stood up against a supposed corrupt regime.  Poe continues to leverage on the epic popularity of his late father.  Roxas as the possible administration candidate, is banking on deflected glow of the supposed successes of the Aquino administration. 
These are obviously not enough.  We must start convincing the electorate that there is more to leadership than perceptions about character and personality.  We must start educating voters to see beyond the sheen and polish of imaging and public relations packaging.  We have to push the discussion beyond motherhood statements and generalities.  We need to put in place the structures that will enable the electorate to objectively examine the competencies of those aspiring for national positions.  And we need to do all these now while the campaign has not officially started. 
If we do not, we will repeat the mistakes we have made in the past.  Unless we break the cult of personality that permeates our electoral system, we shall continue waking up midway through a term of a sitting president wondering how we were all mistaken about the real worth of the person we voted into office.


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