Grief, and why I will campaign for Leni

The passing of my beloved wife Mae has led to profound changes in my life. I have become meditative and spiritual. I have become more engaging with family and friends. I give more time to nurturing personal relationships, even if it means sacrificing work-related matters.
My cousin Odette told me that the death of a loved one — in her case, her only daughter — is a life marker. A line is drawn between “before death” and “after death.” Attitudes, feelings and behavior change upon crossing that marker.

Grieving has made me less argumentative, more tolerant; less confrontational, more understanding. Dealing with politics has taken a backseat.

Despite being a progressive activist since my youth, I, for now, do not have the zeal for political struggle. I avoid debate and sarcasm. Realpolitik makes it necessary to accept the rational and calculating Machiavellian way of doing things, but I no longer find this game inviting.

I even find the unfolding 2016 election campaign uninspiring, though it is full of drama. It does not help that many candidates running for national office have dull if not dubious credentials.

Yes, I ridicule Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. on Facebook. And he deserves the mockery, not because he is the son of the dictator, but because he sees nothing wrong with what his father did, and because he acts like his reprehensible father and mother.

At this time, I would have preferred being politically passive and would have kept my partisanship to myself, if not for a friend’s request. My friend, who for a private reason cannot come out attacking Bongbong, occasionally asks me to post his anti-Marcos Internet memes. And I oblige him.

It is disturbing that Bongbong is faring well in his campaign for vice-president. Surveys show that he is a strong second to Francis Joseph “Chiz” G. Escudero in the race for the vice-presidency. No matter how limited the office’s powers are, the vice-presidency is Bongbong’s stepping stone to becoming the country’s chief executive.

That Bongbong is behind Chiz in the contest is not a consolation either. Chiz and Bongbong are two peas in the same pod. The only difference is that history has unmasked Bongbong, while Chiz has cleverly disguised himself as a likable, populist politician.

Their opposition to the sin tax law (tobacco and alcohol excise taxes) shows common nasty attributes of Bongbong, Chiz, and other politicians — they are beholden to vested interests, and they use demagoguery to sabotage progressive reforms.

They argued that raising tobacco and alcohol taxes hits the poor consumers most; that the increased taxes adversely affect workers and farmers in the tobacco industry; that the taxation is merely disguised as a health measure. These are distortions or fabrications.

The sin tax reforms, I assert, is the most important piece of legislation passed under President Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s administration. I reiterate the key messages for the passage of the sin tax: The reforms are a win for health (reduction of smoking consumption and prevalence; allocation of incremental revenues for universal health care); a win for the economy (substantial increase in revenues, wider fiscal space, credit rating upgrades), and a win for good governance (the defeat of Big Tobacco, which is one of the most powerful lobbies in Asia and in the world).

Indeed, the biggest accomplishments of the Aquino administration are found in the areas of fiscal policy, universal health care, and good governance.

The action of politicians with regard to the sin tax law is thus a basis for choosing candidates in the 2016 elections.

Among the politicians who did not support the sin tax law include two other candidates for vice-president — Gregorio “Gringo” B. Honasan and Alan Peter Cayetano. In Cayetano’s case, he absented himself from the ratification of the bill in the Senate. In the Senate ratification vote, the bicameral bill won by a margin of one vote, 10-9. Several senators including Alan Peter S. Cayetano did not show up for the vote. The internal story is that the tobacco lobby persuaded some senators from not voting, in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the passage of the sin tax reforms.

Lest I be accused of being selective in naming names of those who blocked the passage of the sin tax reforms, I must likewise mention other antagonists, namely Senators Ralph G. Recto (who earned the moniker “Recto Morris”) and Vicente “Tito” C. Sotto III, both running for reelection. They took up the cudgels for Big Tobacco.

Like Cayetano, Teofisto “TG” D. L. Guingona III (also seeking re-election) must account for not showing up during the crucial ratification vote. I cannot spare Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas III either. Although not a legislator then, he intervened at the bicameral conference committee to show support for the pro-tobacco lobby.

The sin tax law is dear to me also for a personal reason. I recall what then Senator Franklin M. Drilon said to explain his passionate championing of the sin tax reforms. His wife Violy died of lung cancer, arising from smoking. My wife Mae suffered a similar fate. Smoking during her youth and early midlife worsened her diabetic condition resulting in renal failure, and contributed to her weak heart leading to cardiac arrest. Henceforth, I have vowed to make tobacco control a life-long advocacy.

Striking out Marcos, Escudero, Cayetano and Honasan from the list of preferred candidates for the vice-presidency makes Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo the only good choice. (Sorry, the mercurial Antonio “Sonny” F. Trillanes IV is not a viable candidate.)

But I choose Leni not simply because I dislike Bongbong, Chiz, Alan, and Gringo. I do not vote for someone just because the other candidates are bad.

Leni has the exceptional qualities of a progressive yet pleasant politician. She has integrity, honesty, commitment, humility, and folksiness. Name any positive attribute, and she has it.

She has consistently supported the difficult political and economic reforms. In truth, she would have been the ideal candidate for president.

She was not yet a legislator when the sin tax law was passed. But she has paid attention to the law’s implementation, defending the law from unfounded criticisms and monitoring the use of the revenues in terms of effectiveness and transparency.

Leni is a champion of transparency.

She is a principal author of the bill on freedom of information (FOI), which is now up for second reading in the Lower House. Unfortunately, her colleagues in the Liberal Party, especially Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte, Jr. (who said that he would hang himself if the FOI would not pass under his term), are among those obstructing its passage.

Not many know that Leni’s role has been the most decisive in having the Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act (TIMTA) ratified by the Senate and the Lower House. The TIMTA encountered stiff resistance at the bicameral conference committee. A couple of senators wanted to dilute crucial provisions that ensure access to information.

In the end, Leni succeeded in getting the progressive version of the TIMTA passed. The House version, principally authored by Leni, became the bicameral committee’s working draft.

Further, she led the introduction of improvements like giving the Department of Finance the database on incentives, which will be used for regular cost-benefit analysis to be done by the National Economic and Development Authority.

I also have a personal reason why I am campaigning for Leni, though in a non-militant way. It would have made my wife happy. If Mae were alive, and despite her immobility, she would have been out on the hustings for Leni.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.

www.aer.ph

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