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FPJ: The Philippines' man of the masa
By Marco Garrido

MANILA - For many Filipinos, movie star Fernando Poe Jr's announcement of presidential candidacy has made the 2004 elections an event to dread. "It's final," fumed Noel Sibala, a municipal councilor from Mati, Davao; "I'll quit and leave this miserable country ... [It] will go to the dogs with FPJ [as Poe is locally known] as president".

People like Sibala fear that Poe's immense popularity among the nation's poor will translate into electoral invincibility and sweep a man utterly unfit for office into the presidency. Poe lacks political experience and would seem to be the puppet of his political handlers. Moreover, Poe being the handpicked selection of his friend and former action-movie co-star, deposed president Joseph Estrada, an FPJ presidency would seem poised to reinstall the Estrada faction into power and perhaps even reproduce its depredations.

In short order, the debate for and against an FPJ presidency has spun off a corollary debate over what qualifies a person to be president of the Philippines. The arguments of the anti-FPJ camp have been labeled elitist by Poe's supporters and by others perturbed by what they perceive to be the haughtiness of mainstream anti-FPJ sentiment. So FPJ dropped out of high school, they say: nine US presidents never finished college, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. So FPJ lacks political experience: call it political innocence. So FPJ is Estrada's buddy: this doesn't mean he won't be his own president. Unlike Estrada, Poe has been impervious to allegations of corruption, and most unlike Estrada, he seems to be monogamous.

But the truth is, Poe hardly needs apologists. It would even seem that, for the bulk of Poe's supporters, his lack of education and credentials - his general incompetence for the presidency by usual standards - is a kind of qualification in itself. And his apparent reluctance to declare his candidacy, to dirty himself with politics, is an affirmation of his fitness as a leader.

The bulk of Poe's support comes from the masa - the poor. Yes, the masa are the vast base of the nation's socioeconomic pyramid - the C, D, and E brackets of tax classifications A through E - but poverty fails to capture the full connotation, the full derogation, of the term and other terms like it, from probinsyano (from the province) to bakya (cheap wooden clogs). The word masa lacks the dignity of "the people" and the neutrality of "the masses"; it is more akin in connotation with the phrase "the great unwashed". The word connotes a divide that is all but palpable; that is evident in complexion and language (the higher classes tend to be lighter-skinned and speak with a lot of English words interspersing their Filipino), in position (the masa serve as the drivers and manicurists, nannies and houseboys of the upper classes) - and is reproduced in politics.

Masa political behavior can diverge sharply from that of the rest - or rather, the remainder - of the nation. The masa are faulted with buying into a politics of popularity; electing basketball players to Congress, television newscasters to the Senate, and, of course, a movie star for president. They are belittled for pawning their political rights, for renting themselves out as demonstrators, for yielding their votes in exchange for a hot meal. The A and B brackets regard them as vulgar and vicious, entrapped in a culture of despair and dependence and greatly in need of political education - that is, so the masa will vote the same way they do. The masa make an easy scapegoat for the failure of Philippine political leaders. They are regarded as a constituency of the uncivilized: democracy is wasted on them.

But this perspective fails to see that democracy works for them, at least insofar as it allows them to upset the usual politics of privilege in favor of populist politics. Masa political preferences are hardly arbitrary. They compose rational choices based on experiences of disfranchisement in everything but the vote. They may judge their candidates by different standards than those held by the so-called educated electorate, but this invalidates neither their choices nor the rationality behind them.

Political scientist Randy David wisely observes that the masa tend to choose movie stars and media personalities "not simply because they know them by name, but because, rightly or wrongly, they see in them the qualities that dissolve the remoteness of the powerful". Thus, while they may conflate FPJ with his on-screen persona as the object of abuse turned instrument of righteous vengeance, they see someone familiar, someone who speaks their language, endures their adversity and triumphs in the way they hope to triumph - someone who connects their experiences with their dreams. FPJ would seem to represent them in a way that certainly no traditional politician, however educated or experienced, has.

These competing preferences cause cleavages throughout the nation. They index conflicting images of leadership (the reformist technocrat vs the populist hero), differing conceptions of the national dilemma (inefficient governance vs intrinsically unjust social arrangements), and, ultimately, dissimilar experiences as Filipinos. "Anyone who can still stand back from the daily vexations that erode our morale will know at once that this social order cannot be sustained in its present form," writes David. Without some measure to ease the gulf of inequality dividing the nation, some form of power-sharing arrangement, David predicts "an escalating war punctuated by increasingly unruly EDSA-style upheavals". (EDSA, of course, stands for Manila's Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue and denotes the people-power movements that deposed presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Estrada. Lately, it has resurfaced in morally degraded forms, as popular means to bypass legal channels of dissent.)

With FPJ's announcement of presidential candidacy, the drums of EDSA have been sounded in all camps. An imminent victory for Poe would rouse a civil society of mainly middle-class composition. It still remembers unseating Estrada and will not lightly abide another president seemingly in his mold. If incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wins, the FPJ camp will surely take to the streets. The masa will not believe she beat him in fair elections. And even if the hordes are put down, it will only be for the time being. A re-elected Arroyo would preside over the profoundly cleft polity of a nation, as David noted, at war with itself. FPJ's announcement of candidacy, by sounding the trumpet blast of the masa, has ensured that even should Arroyo win, she has already lost.

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Dec 11, 2003

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