Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the January 11, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Manny Villar is on a roll.  The latest survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) shows that he has narrowed the gap between him and Noynoy Aquino, the frontrunner, to 11 percent.

The survey came in the wake of a media blitzkrieg during the holiday season. A friend of mine, an executive in a major television network, conservatively estimates that Villar has spent PhP 2 billion since the third quarter of 2009 for his media campaign.  (Other estimates are on the high side, ranging between PhP 3 billion and PhP 4 billion.)

His ads are very populist.  In one ad, responding to Michael V’s complaint about the prohibitive cost of education, Villar says that college education must be free.  Why Villar focuses on college education, not on basic education, which is a bigger problem, is easy to answer.  Villar wants to get the vote of college students.  Elementary and high school children don’t vote.

Populist rhetoric works during elections; that was part of Gloria Arroyo’s tactics in 2004.  She ordered a price subsidy on electricity, mainly benefiting the rich and the non-poor; she wasted billions of pesos for dole-out; she stalled revenue-enhancement reforms so she would be popular.  All this led to a fiscal crisis, and the people had to suffer from the consequences of Arroyo’s irresponsible populism.  But Arroyo won the elections—her populist rhetoric and action attracted votes, though the decisive factor was the cheating.

Villar is doing a Gloria. Villar, like Gloria, is a master of populist language bordering on demagoguery.  He even adopts the program of the Left so he can get its command votes. In his obsession to win the presidency, this multi-billionaire has wooed a force that regards him a class enemy. (Incidentally, Gloria also forged tactical ties with the Left in the 2004 elections.)

And Villar is doing to Noynoy what Gloria did to Fernando Poe, Jr. in 2004:  question the leadership qualities of his main rival.

The Villar camp attributes the gain from the latest SWS survey to “the shift in voting preference over the last three weeks in December as respondents start to put a premium on proven competence, leadership and accomplishments.”  And in a televised debate that was staged immediately after the release of the SWS survey, Villar highlighted again the issue of competence and leadership.

The problem is that Villar’s propaganda on leadership will backfire.

One of the enduring quotes from Winston Churchill is:  “The price of greatness is responsibility.”  Villar, however, has exhibited recklessness and waste, not responsibility.

Let’s take another look at his ad where he promises free college education.  If only the Philippine government were very rich in revenues, free college education would have been a viable option.  But because of the severe lack of resources, the next administration must specify the priority spending.  And undoubtedly, basic education must be the top priority because it has a bigger impact on poverty reduction and has higher social returns.

It is the mark of irresponsibility for Villar to promise many good things like free college education, without identifying where he will get the resources.

Villar would have a more responsive contribution to society, at the same time he would gain political capital, if he devoted the billions that he spends on ads to the housing and education projects initiated by civil society—like Tony Meloto’s Gawad Kalinga on housing and Nene Geuvara’s Synergeia on basic education. Let an undergrad economics student calculate the opportunity costs of the billions that Villar spent for his media campaign at a very early stage of the campaign.

Villar is thus the opposite of a good leader who knows how to husband resources and use such resources efficiently.

Villar also boasts of his performance in the Senate to boost his claim of being a good leader. But let us not forget how Villar turned against the very institution that he once led as he resisted the Senate inquiry into the controversial C5 project.  The C5 controversy, at the very least, exposed Villar’s  conflict of interest with regard to the budget insertion.

In fact, Villar did a Gloria act by boycotting the Senate inquiry and by condemning his fellow Senators for prejudging the case.   This was the same way Gloria rejected the Senate in relation to the notorious ZTE-NBN deal.

At any rate, Villar is correct in making leadership a main issue in the elections.  He may be a good manager, but he misses the point that what we need now is someone who will rebuild the institutions that Gloria has destroyed.

And there’s the rub.  Villar’s leadership is no different from Gloria’s.

To repeat what Churchill said, “the price of greatness is responsibility.”  We can also quote Dwight Eishenhower, Churchill’s ally during World War II:  ”The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

Unfortunately, Villar has neither responsibility nor integrity.  He does not adhere to the ethics of honesty, uprightness, and transparency.  He makes money do the talking, but he veers away from obligations, accountabilities, and tradeoffs.  He is another Gloria.