Illustrations by Geloy Concepcion Design by ANALETTE ABESAMIS and DOMINIC TUAZON
Our series of presidential profiles, The Imagined President, began with The Idealized candidate, introducing the candidates as imagined by themselves and their supporters. (READ: The Once and Future King) The second installment, The Demonized, examined the candidates as imagined by their critics. (READ: Drama Queen). In this final installation, we give you The Candidate, a synthesis of both narratives as seen through the lens of journalism and sociology.
We invite conversation and discussion, and promise, if nothing else, to tell you a story.
n the summer of 1974, a 5-year-old girl named Mary Grace became the daughter of Ronald Allan Kelley Poe and Jesusa Sonora Poe.
Imagine Grace Poe as a child, looking up into the glorious face of the woman who had come to bring her home. Imagine the curly-haired tyke with the big eyes, tucked into the arm of Philippine cinema’s reigning king. Imagine her older, in cap and gown, or older still, posing with the smiling husband on the front lawn of their Washington home.
Imagine the life she was born into, and the life she went on to live – senator of the republic, aspirant for the presidency, leaning over a leather armchair on the front cover of Town & Country magazine.
Of course she came from somewhere else, somewhere past the old stone pillars of the church where she was found. Whether or not that somewhere is within the jurisdiction of the Republic of the Philippines has been decided, with much debate, by the High Court. We are told she must be Filipino, because of her smallness, because of the shape of her face and the curve of her almond eyes and the flatness of the bridge of her nose. We are told foreigners do not abandon their children on the steps of random churches. We are told, more importantly, that foundlings are presumed natural-born citizens, regardless of whether they swear citizenship before another flag, provided that one day, they choose to come home.
This is a story that begins with the birth of a foundling. In the narrative that has become the arc of Grace Poe’s campaign, by her saving, so too are we all saved.
When Grace Poe returned to the Philippines, she became, with little fanfare, a regular face in the political and celebrity scene. Her children were enrolled in local schools. Her husband sold their Virginia home. She was awarded a minor government post, one that required a return to the Filipino citizenship she once renounced.
When she ran for the Senate, she emerged the breakaway star with a record 20 million votes. She was a blank space, with none of the baggage of her political contemporaries and all of the advantage of her father’s history and loyal clique of friends.
She ran as an independent, but that independence was in name only. Instead of carving out her own political space, Poe straddled the yellow juggernaut of the coalition built by the Liberal Party and the old boys’ club of the United Nationalist Alliance. She was “flattered” by the summons to join the Aquino camp. When the UNA invitation came at its heels, she accepted as well. “They were like, ‘We can’t not support you because your father was our best friend.”
Asked why she joined Aquino’s coalition while allowing her own inclusion into the UNA slate – a slate that included candidates she claimed to condemn – she said it was the least evil.
“At this point, we each have our way to hopefully get elected. If you see that the best way to guarantee that with the less I guess, evil, necessary evil, or whatever to get there, I don’t see anything wrong with being part of the coalition of the President.”
“You know what, here in our country, it has hardly any value when it comes to having a political party because people change parties like they would depending on the political weather, right?”
And so, buoyed by the wild winds of political expediency, Grace Poe accepted the support of Danding Cojuangco Jr. To understand her, and what she has done for him, it is necessary to understand the men who built a dictatorship.
‘The king of cronies’
They were called the Rolex 12. Twelve men – controlling the police, the military, the economy, and the all-seeing eye of national intelligence – formed the cabal responsible for a government that tortured, murdered, and stole in the name of a new society. The story goes that in 1974, Ferdinand Marcos gave each of the 12 a gold Rolex as thanks for their role “in deciding and implementing martial law.” That story was wrong in only one aspect – the watches were not Rolexes, but personally-inscribed Omegas. Included among the 12 was Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr.
The LA Times called Cojuangco “the king of cronies.” Prosecutors claimed he “amassed $1.5 billion in corporate assets through illegal monopolies and massive fraud,” and said he was second only to Marcos in looting the national purse. Among them was the coconut levy, an almost decade-long tax on coconut farmers across the country. That fund fell under Cojuangco’s control during martial law. It was spent on boxing matches, beauty pageants, and for the purchase of shares in a variety of companies that include San Miguel Corporation.
When Marcos was ousted in 1986, Cojuangco and his family fled with them, only to return 4 years later. The first Aquino government began the long fight to prove that the coco levy shares constituted ill-gotten wealth. In 2012 and 2013, after years of litigation, the Supreme Court declared the shares the property of the coconut farmers.
This is the man whose party supports the presidency of Grace Poe. Asked, in a Lucena City sortie where she stood on the coco levy issue, Poe said she sympathized with the plight of farmers.
“Even I can’t wait for it,” she said. “I’ve been hearing about it since I was a kid. Many petitioners already died fighting for it. The problem is, those you mentioned, like Danding Cojuangco, do not control it because the shares are already with the government.”
The funds now sit in government coffers, waiting for the passage of a bill that will allow its distribution. The President has certified the bill is urgent. The House of Representatives has signed off on the bill. All that remains is for the Senate – where Poe belongs – to pass its own.
Her excuses now come thick and fast. In none of her convoluted answers does Grace Poe explain why she chooses to fly in planes paid for by the man responsible for enforcing the coco levy, the same man whose decades of litigation is the reason why Grace Poe, who “has been hearing about it since I was a kid,” is still hearing about it now. Those years of court battles is also the reason why petitioners “died fighting for it.”
“I am not defending Danding Cojuangco,” she says.
Certainly she is. Cojuangco’s investment in Grace Poe is already paying dividends long before the presidency is declared. At the height of a campaign season, on an issue so predictably charged, Grace Poe risks herself to deflect responsibility from a man who oppressed the people she claims to defend. By aiming at the government, she pulls the trigger on herself as well, as vice chairperson of the committee on agriculture of the one legislative chamber holding back the distribution of funds.
So let her weep over the farmers, let her storm against injustice. Grace Poe, the woman running on a platform of heart and service, is complicit in the enforcement of a history of opression. Hers is compassion without justice, one that feeds schoolchildren but forgets why they starve. Only the very naïve will believe that billionaire donors have no interest in government beyond a level playing field.
We tell you this: that if she is crowned, the king of cronies will still reign supreme, and so will every man and woman to whom Grace Poe owes allegiance.
“People ask me what I have that other candidates don’t,” she said after the High Court announced she could run. “This is what I can say: as a woman, as a mother, I have common sense and compassion for our fellow men.”
Much as she did in 2013, Poe places human suffering at the center of her bid for the presidency. She filled a yawning vacuum left empty by the Aquino administration. The compassionate image she crafted found relevance within a government out of touch with the mood of its own constituency. We are told that just like those who are ill, who are poor, who suffer in the inhumanity of broken trains and lost homes, she too has faced trials herself. We are asked to view her choice to leave the country through the same lens as the agonizing decision made by millions of overseas workers.
Poe has been critiqued for running a campaign that puts drama over substance. But drama, when used to give voice and visibility to the misery of vulnerable others, can be a productive democratic force. Emotive stories can create conversations between citizens. Poe was the one candidate at the presidential debate who chose to share the spotlight with a struggling student.
Except that Poe’s experience is one defined by choices she made, not the circumstances that restricted the choices of so many suffering Filipinos. It is necessary to remember that Grace Poe did not just renounce one country. She renounced two.
She says she chose to become American for love, a choice unavailable to undocumented migrants or internet brides who forswore nationalities out of necessity. She chose to become Filipino again because she was rewarded the chairmanship of the MTRCB, another choice unavailable to OFWs who continue to sing lullabies to foreign babies while their own children grew motherless.
There may be romance to the story of the foundling child saved by kindly strangers, but the virtue does not belong to the child, but to the man and woman who raised her as their own. If we are the sum of choices we make, it is only fair that the public scrutinize Poe’s – the friends, the loyalties, the American husband who may or may not have abjured.
She chose, after all, to run for president.
State of grace
We know this woman – epic hero, child of legend, the daughter who fights with the sword her father hammered out of a shooting star. At one point in the campaign season, the prospect of a President Grace Poe was strong.
The irony of her success is that her comparative lack of political experience is precisely what gives her an advantage. She benefits from the flaws of every candidate, because she has never been in a position where flaws can be discovered.
She never failed in a crisis because she never led in the aftermath of a crisis. She never stole public funds because she was never granted funds big enough to steal. She has never been questioned over human rights violations or gross incompetence because she has never been in command of even the smallest of municipalities. Certainly she is too young to be accused of ill health so severe that that there is danger of cutting her term short.
In a shallow pool, she remains the last of the least liked, the second choice for some, the lesser evil for many. It is not a surprise for a country that has elected two Aquinos on the basis of narratives that have captured the national imagination – one with no experience in government, the other with a lackluster legislative track record. Poe, if she is elected, will be another in a series of symbolic presidents voted into the Palace as the conclusion of a grand mythology.
Those who choose Grace Poe have made that calculation. Her claim to authenticity may have already been diminished, but she remains a possible contender to the looming behemoth that is Rodrigo Duterte.
Here is the national sweetheart poised for the presidency. She is as pleasant as she is predictable, the tailored white dress for the big events, the buttoned white shirt and faded jeans for the sorties. Always the sleek ponytail, the ever-present pearls, the thin watch, the ready handshake, the welcoming smile. She is gracious with her time. She seeks advice from experts. She may occasionally walk out in a pique when questioned by reporters, but when the lights flash on, she will be ready.
In a field populated by political veterans, Grace Poe remains a hypothetical. This is how she will act if China invades. This is how she will respond to a massacre in Mindanao. This is how she promises to hold cabinet officials accountable. See her denounce corruption, promise education, offer irrigation, deny allegations, ask questions, demand answers, assume this, concede that. A vote for Grace Poe is an article of faith. By her saving, so too are we all saved.
Once upon a time, there was a foundling. Pure of heart, vast of purpose, wielding a sword once carried by a martyr-king. It is a story of epic proportions, but it is, in the end, only a story. – Rappler.com