As if things were not bad enough, the unexpected death of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s chief adversary during the last May presidential elections – Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ) – injected a new dimension to the forming “perfect storm”. The martyrdom of Ninoy Aquino had unleashed vented anger so powerful that it toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Now, the emotional aftermath of the unexpected demise of FPJ holds the potential of gathering and unifying all the anger and disgust felt by a widely divergent group of individuals, Muslims included, into collective action that could well deal a coup de grace against someone widely perceived to be an illegitimate president.
Before December 14, the fateful day when ‘Da King’ succumbed to cerebral thrombosis, there were reasons to presume that FPJ as a political threat was well on the wane. It was obvious then that his electoral protest was going the way of most legal processes in the country – doomed to languish forever in the badly rusted and excruciatingly slow wheels of the Philippine justice system.
But strange are the ways of fate. Who would have thought then that FPJ would present himself as an even more potent and formidable adversary in death? Neither Hollywood nor Broadway could ever outdo that spectacular farewell and memorial scene that had been scripted by Fate. Fate gave FPJ the grandest stage exit every actor would dream of.
As news of his stroke circulated in text messages even well into the wee hours of the morning of December 12, St. Luke’s Hospital where FPJ was rushed became a virtual tableau of Philippine history’s greatest deathwatch; participated in by the nation’s glitterati and great unwashed. How can anything happen to someone so immortal in the movies?
But as more and more people came out to be interviewed, a new facet of the FPJ mystique surfaced. One after another, people came out to tell their story: FPJ helped and supported them, many without having to ask for it, but he was the type not to herald his generosity. The spontaneous outpouring of remembrances about his kindness made FPJ look a bigger hero than the roles he played in the movies. When the end came, the whole nation grieved for someone they believed was a truly good man. According to BBC, FPJ’s funeral matched the strong outpouring of emotion and grief as that of Britain’s beloved Princess Diana.
Poe may have failed to convince the more politically savvy of Filipinos of his capability to govern and be a messiah in the way that Cory Aquino successfully did it in 1986. But FPJ did better than being elected president and, instead, he has now become a national symbol. To many, FPJ personifies ‘kaapihan’ (state of oppression) under the regime of Macapagal-Arroyo who most Filipinos (55% according to SWS) believe had stolen the elections from FPJ. Who can blame people then for accusing Macapagal-Arroyo for causing undue stress leading to the death of their hero?
Well-known for her mercurial temper and propensity to humiliate even generals in front of their men, Macapagal-Arroyo’s mataray image contrasts with FPJ’s on-screen soft-spoken image and uncompromising heroism for the oppressed and the downtrodden.
In the very same Sto Domingo Church venue where FPJ’s wake was held, Cory Aquino fearlessly spoke her mind in 1983, shortly before that historic funeral of her husband Ninoy, to a multitude of Filipinos in a milieu of swelling hatred for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The rest, of course, is history. No longer needing to keep behind the scenes as preferred by her husband and dictated by her moral and traditional upbringing – Susan Roces obliged the press with live interviews in Sto. Domingo Church. What the nation witnessed was a Susan Roces who was so out of character from the fragile, damsel-in-distress roles she had once been mostly associated with.
Her words poured out, spilling previously unrevealed hurts and anger for all the lies, defamation, ridicule and dirty tactics thrown at FPJ. They were words coming from the heart, from a grieving widow who once took it all in for love and sense of spousal duty. Even ABS-CBN was not spared. Before a live audience and in front of a tearful and apologetic ABS-CBN news anchor Karen Davila, Susan Roces lashed out at the network’s unfair reporting and for protecting vested interests. As the nation watched in awe and amusement, she scolded the network for deliberately downplaying FPJ’s campaign crowds and ignoring the many people who bothered to be there.
In all her years as leading lady of Philippine cinema, Susan Roces had always been low-profile and self-effacing. She created news when she opened up her innermost hurts and feelings last December 16, perhaps easily propping up primetime ratings to as much as 60% for both 24 Oras of GMA Network and the TV Patrol of ABS-CBN. Even my younger sister Carol who is very wary about Philippine politics ended up calling me to compare notes while we both watched the metamorphosis of Susan Roces to a center stage political player.
Susan Roces picked her issues well. She ventilated what many people felt in their hearts. In that regard, she not only enjoyed credibility, she also achieved that all-important empathy all communicators aim for. She had also delivered her lines with such finesse and class that had all this been a screen act, it wouldn’t have required a retake.
Asked bluntly if she will enter politics, she gave an equally blunt reply: she will not enter politics because she does not want to be exploited and she does not want to be a victim. But, she adds, she will speak out and she will continue her husband’s unfinished mission – without having to be a politician – because so much needs to be done to uplift the plight of Filipinos.
From where I am, I can only see that all this will mean even more problems for the besieged Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. FPJ’s death immortalizes his memory and had made him an even more powerful icon for the downtrodden. To have his widow, a highly respectable woman like Susan Roces take up his fight certainly makes a double whammy of a nightmare. Personality-oriented Philippine politics suddenly woke up to a fresh face in Susan Roces whose wholesome reputation and apolitical perspectives give her an edge in the communication game. An Establishment whose very legitimacy is questioned and whose economic management leaves much to be desired should find the Susan Roces phenomenon a real problem to worry about.
I was never for FPJ during the last elections. But I agree with my good friend Conrad de Quiros that between FPJ and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, FPJ is the lesser evil. Conrad and I voted for Raul Roco during the last elections as we both did not agree to vote for whoever is the lesser evil. Neither am I inclined to now see Susan Roces as the next Cory Aquino. Those were different circumstances and personalities and it will be folly to think that this situation today matches what happened in 1986.
Susan Roces – and I hope she remains true to her pronouncement – speaking as citizen Susan Roces is a much more potent force than a Susan Roces who will soil her credibility by becoming a political partisan. The moment Susan Roces enters politics, she will transform into the very same person she is fighting, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is perceived as a master manipulator. By joining the political fray, Susan Roces will be burdened by the same associations that hobbled her husband’s presidential bid – the associations with two regimes that EDSA events toppled; that of Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada.
Speaking for herself and Juan de la Cruz, Susan Roces enjoys the moral high ground where Macapagal-Arroyo cannot touch her. By speaking as citizen Susan Roces, she can raise a wide range of issues against the Macapagal-Arroyo regime as any taxpayer has the right to do. As a taxpayer, she is not expected to present any alternatives whenever she takes the government to task. She will be obliged to present alternatives if and when she enters politics and becomes a competitor for the position instead of the client to whom the service is due.
By entering politics, Susan Roces enters enemy territory and becomes vulnerable to the questionable operators of both the administration and the opposition. Once Susan Roces enters politics, the administration will abuse her the same way they abused her husband when he ran for president. Once she enters politics, the opposition will use her to get back the power that the Filipinos had removed from them. Speaking for herself and Juan de la Cruz, Susan Roces is untouchable because she speaks as a taxpayer who is the theoretical source of democratic power and not as a competitor vying for a share of power.
By refusing to enter politics, Susan Roces enjoys unassailable credibility as she speaks only to promote what serves public interest best. People then will not think she is trying to create an inside track for the position her husband failed to attain. By speaking strictly as citizen Susan Roces and on behalf of fellow citizen Juan de la Cruz, Susan Roces becomes a symbol of the shareholders of democracy.
As history has taught us, a symbol is the hardest thing to fight.