Politicians and their lovers

Natashya Gutierrez

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Isn't a person's true character most telling with the way they deal with those closest to them?

MANILA, Philippines – In the lobby of a small hotel in Naga City, a visibly stressed out Chiz Escudero sat at a small table, cigarette in hand.

He took a puff, one, then two, then three, his eyes blank, until his cigarette stick was finished. A small group of reporters waited around him, restless but patient. Escudero lit another.

Finally, the 44-year-old re-electionist senator stood from his seat, walked a few steps to another table — minus the ashtrays and cigarette pack — sat down, and faced the cameras.

The lights turned on, cameras started rolling, and Escudero started talking.

Along with the denials came professions of love. Shifting on his seat, Escudero called his actress girlfriend Heart Evangelista intelligent, fun to talk to, and easygoing. He said he loved her. He said the accusations against him were untrue. And he said he was forced to talk because the attempts to destroy him were just not right.

Then he stood up from his seat and walked back to his earlier table to pick up another cigarette. He refused to answer any questions from reporters.

Two days earlier, the parents of Escudero’s 28-year-old girlfriend held a press conference to accuse the candidate of being arrogant and an alcoholic, among others. Media immediately turned to Escudero for his reaction. 

Is what they’re saying true? Were you really drunk when you first met Heart’s parents? Did you really seduce Heart with lies and tell her you’d be president one day? (READ: Chiz: Heart’s parents want us to split up)

People wanted to know.

At first, Escudero kept mum. He said he wanted to keep his private life separate, and did not want to react to a tiff between parents and their daughter.

But he was smack in the middle of the controversy. Escudero finally decided to speak.

RELAXED MOMENT. Sen Chiz Escudero and Heart Evangelista spend time together at Escudero's Christmas party for Senate reporters. Rappler photo

How about the people?

Escudero may have preferred to sweep the incident under the rug, but was his decision to speak up the right thing to do? Did the public have the right to demand an explanation? Or did Escudero have no obligation to explain if he didn’t want to?

While critics slammed Escudero for falling into the “showbiz” route when he held his own mini-press conference, I found myself —  as I watched him recite what I know was a string of thoughts he played over and over in his head earlier — supportive of his decision to speak. I, too, was curious.

His words, carefully selected, carried emotion, but his face and monotony betrayed little. 

Sen Koko Pimentel, whose own relationship was put under the spotlight as well, also chose to speak, albeit sparsely, about accusations hurled against him by his political rival, former senator Miguel Zubiri. Zubiri said Pimentel’s wife Jewel, a relative, had disclosed to him that she was a battered wife. (READ: Migz: Bets shouldn’t have skeletons in closets)

When Zubiri made the accusations, the usually talkative Pimentel did not face the media until the next day. By then, his estranged wife Jewel had denied the claim. When he finally opened up to reporters, he was evidently fed up, annoyed. He reiterated the fact she herself said it was untrue, and said he was mulling charges against Zubiri.

Both Escudero and Pimentel cited the effect of the rumors on their families and children as their reason for speaking up.

But how about the people? Shouldn’t the public’s clamor for an explanation be considered as well?

There doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut answer.

When I talked to political analyst Prospero de Vera, who has served as consultant and adviser to the likes of senators Aquilino Pimentel Jr, Protempore Sotero Laurel, Juan Flavier, Gregorio Honasan, and Ramon Magsaysay Jr, he agreed that in politics, the line between public and private is a “gray area” — especially now, given the timing.

“We’re close to an election. The suspicion increases and the gray area becomes grayer. If this issue was raised under normal circumstances then it is already gray. [But] it is very gray and dark because [the question of] motives come in,” he said.

But De Vera did offer his opinion on when a candidate should speak up or just, quite frankly, shut up.

To him, when the information relates to a politician’s exercise of their functions as public officials, or will affect their performance as public servants, then they are obliged to speak.

He cited examples: finances should be disclosed if accused of graft and corruption (think former Chief Justice Renato Corona), academic credentials should be disclosed because it reflects competence, as do personal positions on issues because they play a part in official functions of lawmaking.

Politicians must speak when the accusations “constitute something punishable under existing laws, whether criminal or civil.” He said the public may demand an explanation from candidates then, if there has been a case filed against them.

Other than that?

“If what they say is not [punishable by law], then it’s difficult. How will you raise the issue? It’s like saying you’re not allowed to be ugly,” he said.

“As far as I’m concerned, that is his option whether he wants to disclose it or not. But if forced — they can cry it out, they can raise it — it’s up to the candidate. If they want to respond, that’s okay. If they don’t want to respond, that’s okay too.”

But is choosing to keep their lips sealed really acceptable when a curious public is wide-eyed, waiting, tapping their feet for an explanation?

I found it bothersome that in academic standards, the public holds no sway or has no say, in compelling a politician to talk unless cornered by a legal case.

Hontiveros’ denials

One candidate who has decided not to respond — or rather, has chosen to sweep her own relationship under the rug — is former Akbayan Rep Risa Hontiveros.

Consistently asked about her relationship with Presidential Political Adviser Ronald Llamas, a straight-faced, unusually frozen Hontiveros adamantly denied it. As she has to me.

This, despite the two being regularly seen together, and their relationship being an open secret among friends and Akbayan party mates.

The decision to hide a relationship — or in the case of Pimentel and Escudero, to address it — surely considers the effect on the public. And on ratings.

But do personal relationships of candidates affect voter perception, or a bet’s chances on winning elections? What issues affect candidates?

Pulse Asia pollster and analyst Ana Tabunda is pensive. Our conversation is peppered with pauses because, quite simply, there is not one answer to that question. Aside from issues such as corruption, which has the most impact on the public, there have been no clear trends in past surveys.

Rather, the answer depends on several different factors. Among them: the amount of attention the news media gives the issues, how concerted the efforts are, how much the issues are reinforced, the timing, the image of the politician, their popularity, and who is hurling the accusations.

She emphasized there is no straightforward formula that dictates what matters to voters and affects candidates, otherwise it would have already been used by political opponents to take down their rivals.

“[There are issues] that stick to some, and don’t stick to others,” Tabunda said. “[Because] there’s no well-known formula to it, you try a lot of things. They throw everything including the kitchen sink.”

Impact on Escudero

As an example, Tabunda cited former President Joseph Estrada, whose womanizing was never an issue among voters. It may have had something to do with his image in the movies, or the fact that womanizing in this macho society is something voters can probably accept — and forgive.

Escudero, on the other hand, has consistently presented a youthful, clean image, and accusations of alcoholism, arrogance, and disrespect for elders may affect him, according to Tabunda.

Latest surveys have yet to reflect the controversy surrounding Escudero, so it is too early to tell whether the controversy impacted voters and will affect his standings.

As for Pimentel, latest surveys reveal the accusations of wife-beating barely affected his standings, scoring 47% in the Social Weather Stations survey conducted in March at the height of the controversy. He scored 48% in February.

Perhaps it’s because he handled it well, or because his own estranged wife came to his rescue. Perhaps it’s because it was Zubiri who accused him, or because media dropped the issue relatively quickly. 

It’s a cocktail of various ingredients too hard to pinpoint. But it tasted good enough to the public.

Attacks and character

While personality politics is far from the ideal campaign, expect it to continue.

Since there is no clear opposition in this year’s elections, largely because of the popularity of President Benigno Aquino III, Tabunda points out the attacks are more personal rather than political. (READ: Can Aquino sell his senators?)

“Issues were mostly political in 2007 rather than personal because there really was a big difference in coalitions, in terms of support for the sitting president and the associated issues. I’m assuming we’re seeing these personal issues more because they’re not really opposition. There are no stark differences in platform, plans, so all these personal issues are coming out,” she said.

And when they do, do voters deserve an explanation?

While candidates may not be obliged to speak about personal issues, their veracity, and how candidates handle allegations thrown against them, reflect an important quality in candidates that deserves to be scrutinized by voters: character.

In the case of Hontiveros for instance, analysts can argue it doesn’t matter. Tabunda predicts her relationship with Llamas is a non-issue because surveys show she is not within striking distance, and points out most may not even know Llamas.

But is that really the point?

Voters may argue that Hontiveros’ denial of something as basic and simple as her love interest, strikes at the very core of what she says she stands for as part of the President’s slate: transparency.

When politicking turns personal, as unfortunate as it is, should we not put as much importance in how Hontiveros, Pimentel, and Escudero — and all the others who will fall victim to the same attacks — handle allegations?

People have every right to keep personal issues private, but we set the bar higher for those aspiring for public office. The goal of those who hurl attacks at politicians is to plant a seed of doubt in voters, to make them reconsider their support. The goal of politicians when this happens should be to exemplify the type of person they are in the face of adversity.

Besides, isn’t a person’s true character most telling with the way they deal with those closest to them?

It’s none of our business, they say, but it may be very much ours. The core issue, after all, is character. – Rappler.com

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