The presidency in the age of misery

Nicole Curato

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The presidency in the age of misery
The future president needs a personal quality that can embody virtues of compassion and solidarity, inspire confidence, and speak to the world about our shared virtues as a people

The election fever is on. And in sorties, debates and voter education programs, this question is often asked – “What kind of leader does the Philippines need in 2016?” 

Some say it takes a leader with technical knowledge and vast experience in government to continue the Philippines’ path to inclusive growth. Others make a case for the return of a strongman, someone who can instill fear among citizens incapable of following simple traffic rules. Then there those who think we need a compassionate leader – the leader who will provide free lunches to undernourished school children or give birthday cakes to senior citizens, all while lowering the taxes of the middle class.

But this is a complex time.

2016, unfortunately, belongs to an age of misery. We live in a world where global movement of labor has brought over a million Overseas Filipinos Workers in countries under repressive regimes. We are in the age of the “anthropocene” – the epoch where human activity has caused severe and lasting impact on our ecosystems, which, in turn, has caused catastrophes resulting in unspeakable anguish. And, perhaps, most disturbingly, it is a period of inequality: a return to the gilded age where the world’s wealth is concentrated to a handful of families while one person dies of hunger every four seconds.  

It is within this context that we must decide what makes not just the leader we want, but the leader we need. While it is true that integrity, work ethic, platform and track record are important considerations when vetting presidential aspirants, it is also crucial to envisage how candidates can step up to distinct roles only a President can perform in a world vulnerable to tragedy.

Let me provide two examples of these roles.


In times of violent conflict and disasters, the President does not only need to step up as commander-in-chief, but, as American pundits put it, the President should also act as healer-in-chief.

A healer-in-chief is not part of a President’s formal job description. Instead, it is a product of a President’s moral intuition on how he can provide comfort in the worst of times. As the nation’s figurehead, the healer-in-chief embodies the country’s collective grief. He mourns with parents of OFWs who were not spared from death row. He leads the memorial service of fallen soldiers and police officers who died defending the nation. He commiserates with orphans who lost their parents in a storm surge and lights a candle with them in a mass grave.

A healer-in-chief is physically present at ground zero because he treats his constituents as comrades. He considers it his personal responsibility to tell those who are suffering that the nation is thinking about them.

In the United States, Barack Obama is known for adeptly performing this role in the aftermath of frequent mass shootings. In his eulogy for victims of racist attacks in Charleston, Obama led the crowd into singing Amazing Grace as he carefully read the names of each victim. Obama may not have put an end to gun-related violence but his searing speech on race relations set the tone for the nation’s reckoning on the persistence of racial injustice in America.

It is crucial that the next President of the Philippines has the capacity to serve as healer-in-chief. Ours is a society vulnerable to disasters and violent conflict. The country deserves a leader who can judiciously combine courage and humility to face the nation at its worst moments, be it the next Yolanda, Mamasapano or OFW beheading.

The healer-in-chief may not be able to provide immediate answers as to why tragedies happen, but he, at the very least, could provide assurance that the memory of those who suffered will not be in vain. The question, therefore, is who among the Presidential aspirants can face the nation when tragedy strikes? Who can inspire hope that strength can emerge from sorrow?


Our future, however, does not have to be bleak. The age of misery can also be the age of possibility. While citizens in large parts of the world have lost trust in electoral politics as the venue for change, there are a number bright spots from which we can take inspiration.

Ten years ago, Bolivia elected Evo Morales, its first indigenous president born to a family of subsistence farmers. Now serving his third term in office, Morales has taken the lead in the global campaign for climate justice. Instead of hosting glitzy economic forums, Morales hosted the inaugural People’s Conference on Climate Change, which provided space for thousands of grassroots activists to get their voices heard. While his regime is far from perfect, Bolivia has hugely narrowed the gap between rich and poor households and increased minimum wage while sustaining economic growth.

Six years ago, Uruguay elected former guerrilla fighter Jose Mujica, widely known as the world’s poorest president. Aside from donating 90% of his earnings to charity and driving a rickety car to go to work every day, Mujica stood out in the United Nations when he delivered a powerful speech about globalization.  “We promise a life of consuming and squandering,” he said. “It is a civilization against simplicity, against sobriety… and against the most important things: Adventure. Solidarity. Family. Friendship. Love.” Uruguay may still fall short in achieving economic justice, but Mujica’s oratory has set a new tenor on how to achieve progress. “We’re friends of businessmen,” he said. “But we don’t sell them our souls.”

And, just last year, Canada elected Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister who dazzled the world with his gender-balanced, ethnically and professionally diverse Cabinet appointments “because it is 2015.” He showed how compassion can drive foreign policy when he opened Canada’s borders to 25,000 Syrian refugees and called on Canadians to make them feel welcome.

Wouldn’t it be timely for the Philippines’ proudest moments in the next six years comes not only from a boxing champion, a beauty queen or an international singing sensation but from the nation’s top leader who put the Philippines on the map for bearing the torch of progressive politics?

While the next President will have to serve as healer to his suffering constituents, he can also take the global center stage to inspire better citizenship and whet our appetites for a different kind of politics. To be a President in the age of misery is to be a torchbearer for multiple possibilities—to make people feel that politics is emancipating, not degrading, that the project of democratic governance is a project where things happen.

Politics and personality

Politics should never be about personality, we are often told. And on this matter I am beginning to change my mind.

A chief executive can appoint competent and honest cabinet members, heed the advice of the best and the brightest and come up with concrete policies that improve the lives of ordinary Filipinos. These, of course, are important.

But in the age of misery, the President’s humanity is always put to a test. There are dire moments when it is only the President’s moral intuition that can restore our nation’s dignity.

To be a President in the age of misery needs a personal quality that can embody virtues of compassion and solidarity, inspire confidence that we, as citizens should invest in the unfinished project of nation building, and speak to the world about our shared virtues as a people.

This may not appeal to skeptics and empiricists but for pragmatic idealists – those who have a disciplined imagination – this should be one of the considerations when choosing the sixteenth President of the Republic of the Philippines. –

Nicole Curato is a sociologist. She is currently a research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy & Global Governance at Canberra. She’s now tweets using the handle @NicoleCurato

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