It may be too early to tell what’s at stake for this 46-year-old mother of three, who rode on her father’s name (the late action-movie hero Fernando Poe Jr.), earning the millions of votes that put her in the Upper House of Congress.
Election fever is about to rise this year in the Philippines where any political accidents can happen, and where last-minute turns of events may unfold dramatically until voting day.
It used to be that political parties determined the fate of the country’s future leaders, with presidential elections patterned after America’s; but in recent years, unpredictability has been the name of the game.
A nationwide survey released by Pulse Asia last month showed Senator Poe earning a respectable 18 percent, up from a previous 10 percent, putting her just a notch below the embattled vice president, Jejomar Binay, who has remained consistently on top but whose numbers have plunged due a major corruption scandal.
Poe had previously downplayed ambitions for the presidency, saying it was too soon to be considering it and that she needed more time to legislate for her causes in the Senate, one of which is her anti-hunger crusade to provide free lunch for children in public schools.
Now, stunned by her rapidly growing popularity, she is hinting at keeping doors open.
“It is not to say yes,” she told reporters after the survey results came out, “but to be ready for anything.” And now that she is in the limelight, she may pose a threat to Binay’s chances, which could get dimmer if corruption charges continue to pummel him.
It would also depend on President Benigno Aquino’s choice, which is likely to be his friend and former running mate (who so narrowly lost to Binay for the vice presidency in 2010), Mar Roxas, the secretary of Interior and Local Governments. But even this could change in the unfolding political drama.
How much further can Poe sustain her luster? Her hesitation stems from what she called the kind of “betrayal” her father experienced when he challenged the incumbency of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004 and lost. She finds herself in a somewhat similar situation that he had faced, being without the machinery of a party if she were to run and also wary of people who are eager to pounce on Binay pushing her to do so.
Following her father’s death later that year, she returned from about ten years in America where she studied in Massachusetts and then raised a family in Virginia. She came home to do what most children dipped in the waters of politics are expected of them -- run for office, to follow through the promises left behind. She may not have inherited her father’s desire to be under the klieg lights of show business, but politics was something closer to her passion, having graduated with a degree in political science in Boston College.
In the Senate, she was noticed for doing her homework. She avoided controversies and grandstanding. She spoke as forthright as the image she projects in her fashion: hair pushed back, minimal makeup, classic cut of dress.
“I think what our country needs are leaders with foresight. I mean not just for the moment… They need to think, ‘How will this affect us 25 years from now?’” she said in an interview with Esquire Philippines magazine. “I don’t think we lack a talent pool of people who can do it. So what can I bring to the table that others might not have that will make it absolutely necessary for me to run?”
Her presence on the list of contenders appears as a counterpoint to Binay’s checkered reputation, which stands for the new crop of dynastic families that flourished in the post-dictatorship years.
About 86 dynastic families have gained control of provincial bailiwicks across the country, according to research studies. They are described as “little fiefdoms” that have been fertilized by weakened or failed institutions.
The Binay dynasty seems illustrative. He let his wife take over after three successive terms as Makati mayor, which was time enough to turn the family into a brand name in politics. His son currently occupies the seat. One daughter is in the Senate and another in the Lower House.
It is going backward in the electoral system, says Edna Co, former dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance. It leaves no room for a level playing field. “What we have done is to democratize many dictatorships,” she says.
And there’s the money too, politics being the easy path to quick wealth. Legislators belonging to dynasties were on the average ten million pesos richer than their “non-dynastic” colleagues who are outnumbered by 70 percent in Congress, according to research done by Professor Ronald Mendoza of the Asian Institute of Management.
Poverty incidence in the so-called dynastic bailiwicks appears to be higher as well, about 24 percent, where the yearly average per capita income is about 23,000 pesos or about 500 US dollars.
“If you don’t come from a dynasty, if you’re not a movie star, you don’t have a chance of winning in a political race,” says Mendoza.
That plain-speaking golden-girl Senator Poe has struck the public’s political imagination is not entirely surprising; how will she now prove she’s truly more than just a pretty name?
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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