The author is the coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms.

The rise of FPJ as a leading presidential contender is phenomenal. Yet,
this phenomenon can easily be explained. It has been generally observed
that the masses yearn for a messiah in times of crisis and helplessness
and in conditions where the elite has lost the capability and the
credibility to rule.

Recall again Lenin and his Bolsheviks: They seized power, thanks to the
rottenness of the tsardom and the fecklessness of the Mensheviks.
Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the wake of Germany’s defeat in
World War I and the hardship and humiliation its people suffered
arising from the terms of surrender.

In contemporary times, the Venezuelan masses elected, and continue to
support, the populist but demagogic Hugo Chavez as a demonstration of
their indignation over the rapaciousness and social irresponsibility of
their elite. In other parts of Latin America, the existence of
programmatic Left parties with charismatic and sensible leaders (e.g.,
in Brazil) has fortunately averted the spread of demagoguery.
Nevertheless, the masses in Latin America treat the likes of Lula da
Silva as their savior.

The conditions in the Islamic world are far more complex and volatile.
It is nonetheless sufficient to note that the Muslim poor have
increasingly turned to charismatic fundamentalists to deliver them from
the yoke of oppression.

In Europe, the far-right, charismatic personalities have made inroads
at a time that the mainstream socialist and conservative democratic
parties are stumbling and groping for new visions. The search for
saviors is obviously not confined to the borders of developing

And in the Philippines, we just had Estrada. This is not to say that
the Philippines is just following a global trend. In the last analysis,
the national conditions define the rise of charismatic but simplistic
political leaders. In this regard, the threat of the FPJ candidacy
stems from the very specific Philippine context of the post-Estrada

Many of us believed that Estrada’s removal through people power would
have taught the people a hard lesson. EDSA II that ousted Estrada was
the instrument to realize what the Supreme Court later invoked the
people’s welfare as being the supreme law: Salus populi suprema lex.
The so-called EDSA III (more appropriate is the term “EDSA reaction,”
coined by Emmanuel de Dios), on the other hand, was likewise the
people’s voice, although manipulated by the reactionary opposition. It
was nevertheless an angry tone that warned the elite to heed the
pent-up demands of the masa.

EDSA II was a rare opportunity to implement bold reforms, if not
transform Philippine society altogether. EDSA I gave us that golden
opportunity, but the elite blew it. Lightning struck twice, so to
speak, with the occurrence of EDSA II. EDSA II might well be the last
opportunity. Sadly, the Macapagal-Arroyo administration failed to
exploit the favorable conditions then brought about by EDSA II to
institutionalize changes. The momentum for reforms created by EDSA II
simply dissipated.

This criticism is not new. The Yellow Paper group had already raised
this point at a time that the events of EDSA II and EDSA III were still
fresh. To quote the Yellow Paper document written by de Dios: “The main
danger however is the loss of tempo and will for economic and political
reform. Instead this is being replaced by a creeping sense of inertia
and growing cynicism that, EDSA notwithstanding, no major changes are
impending.” Moreover, the Yellow Paper correctly predicted that this
danger would lead to a “further retreat of investor confidence” and “an
erosion of the administration’s original political base, particularly
among civil society.”
On top of this, investor uncertainty has increased in light of the
approaching presidential elections. The businessmen would rather wait
for the outcome of the elections before making investment decisions.
Moreover, the forthcoming elections prevent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
from undertaking bold reforms that would cost her votes. It is likewise
regrettable that the reformists in her administration have been
neutralized. In fact, some so-called reformists are working hand in
glove with the administration in the implementation of a narrow “agenda
of compromise.” It is therefore no surprise that the people have grown
tired of the Philippines.

The sense of disappointment and despair is manifested in the migration
to other lands of scores of thousands of Filipinos from different
social strata. A fewer number – the newly politicized – join the ranks
of radical groups. But it is the majority of non-politicized and
immobile Filipinos – largely the masses – whose options are much
reduced. Understandably, they would pin their hopes on a public figure
that they can identify with. Hence, it may be bye-bye, Erap, hello and
welcome FPJ.

To discredit FPJ and campaign against him at this time is premature.
This could even backfire. In the first place, FPJ has denied that he is
seeking the presidency. Of course, there is mounting pressure for him
to run for public office. All quarters, not only Estrada and the
conservative opposition, are courting FPJ. The GMA administration would
gladly accommodate FPJ into its ticket. It has also been reported that
Raul Roco, who has begun a discreet campaign, is seeking FPJ to be his
running mate.

The campaign against FPJ assumes that the masses who intend to vote for
him are not well-informed. But is it simply a case of information

Recall the popularity of Estrada. The masses voted for and stood by
Erap even as they were bombarded with information that Estrada was a
gambler, a drunkard, a womanizer, etc. Leading intellectuals who
supported Estrada, especially those from the University of the
Philippines, also had direct knowledge of his ugly side. Still, they
calculated that on balance Estrada was then the correct choice.

In FPJ’s case, the masa would still prefer him to GMA, even as they
recognize that he, like his friend Erap, comes from a “frivolous
profession.” After all, they can reason out, the professional
background of the president does not matter. GMA – a trained economist
with a Ph.D. from the premiere university – has not delivered even on
their most basic needs. In times of despair and vulnerability and
offered with no credible alternative, the masses would see the FPJ
advantage – his ability to reach out to the poor, to empathize with
their plight, and thus give them a sense of belonging and hope. All
this fits neatly into the framework of bounded rationality but one that
goes beyond the problem of information.

FPJ can indeed beat GMA, regardless of whether the voting is rational.
GMA cannot compete in a popularity contest. Further, the alarming
budget deficit constrains her from adopting populist but financially
costly policies. The honorable option for her is to recapture the
spirit of EDSA II and give flesh to it by focusing on key reforms that
can restore investor confidence, national pride, and social cohesion.

In this regard, the threat of an FPJ candidacy can compel GMA to pursue
the reform track. In economics, the threat of competition-that is,
market contestability-increases overall welfare. We can likewise apply
this concept to politics-the threat of losing to someone who has not
even announced his intention to run-may well pressure GMA to reform.