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The problem with ‘Daang Matuwid’

08:30 PM October 15, 2013

“Daang matuwid,” with which President Aquino launched his campaign against corruption, is a catchy slogan.

It even proved to be effective — for a time.

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It helped project a more upbeat image of the Philippines under an upstanding president portrayed, by his handlers at least, as the ‘purest man’ in the archipelago.

Until recently, that clean image appeared to be helping change what it means to be in power in the Philippines.

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Take the fact that unless his administration drastically reverses the decisions on Hacienda Luisita, PNoy will become the first Philippine president whose family will have less economic clout after he steps down than before he assumed power.

But there’s one thing that’s always bugged me about PNoy’s “Daang Matuwid” battle cry: It made the fight against corruption sound like a crusade – a religious crusade.

That was a bad idea.

That’s because the fight against corruption should be really be waged as a political battle. And in political battles, the path isn’t always straight.

“Daang Matuwid” reminds me of a scene in the movie, “Lincoln,” when the American president, played by Daniel Day Lewis, talked about the use of compass to explain the need for flexibility in politics.

“It’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way,” Lincoln says. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to swing in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?”

As the movie ends, the anti-slavery crusader Thaddeus Steven calls a new law banning slavery in the United States “the greatest measure of the 19th Century passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

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That “purest man” was Lincoln.

As the Steven Spielberg movie and the book “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s compelling account of the Lincoln presidency, showed, he wasn’t exactly pure.

In the 19th Century, he took on a gargantuan challenge: Ending slavery at a time when the despicable practice was not only accepted in many parts of the U.S., people were actually willing to go to war to defend it.

But Lincoln took on this challenge not as a crusade, but as a political battle.

He didn’t put himself on a pedestal, pontificating about the evils of slavery and presenting himself as the “pure” president who will finally put an end to it.

Instead, Lincoln formed alliances even with people he may not have completely agreed with, compromised and, when faced with tough options, resorted to sneaky tactics. To get the needed votes to pass a law ending slavery, his allies, with Lincoln’s blessings, bribed some members of congress.

Many still think PNoy is serious about wanting to clean up government. But framing that goal as a crusade was a big mistake.

For one thing, you don’t present yourself as the pure leader leading a crusade unless you’re sure every member of your crusade is pure and untainted. Actually, let me change that: You don’t present yourself as the pure leader of a crusade unless every member of your team will be perceived by the public as always pure and untainted.

For this is, in fact, also a PR game. And Team Noynoy has repeatedly stumbled at critical times.

The Napoles scandal is one example. PNoy’s response to the most explosive corruption case in recent history went from deafening silence to vagueness to clumsy defensiveness. This week, they’re edging toward tone deaf arrogance.

The last was evident in Malacañang spokeswoman Abigail Valte’s press statement acknowledging that more people have become “dissatisfied” with Aquino and that it’s because of the scandals over the misuse of public funds.

“We share this anger and disappointment,” she says.

I was half expecting her to segue to an honest and humble assessment of how Malacañang mishandled the corruption scandals and how they will move forward based on lessons learned from those errors.

Instead, Valte launches into a hyperventilating speech, praising Aquino’s “sincerity in addressing the ills of the system, his unwavering commitment to do what is just and right, his compassion for the underprivileged, and his belief that only by weeding out corruption can we uplift the lives of the poor.”

“These remain our bedrock principles as the Aquino administration takes on its most significant fight yet, against those who have joined ranks to derail us from the straight path,” she adds. “Despite their efforts, we shall triumph, because we know—and the numbers show—that our Bosses, the people, remain on our side.”

Did she perhaps write this while the theme from Star Wars was playing the background?

Valte’s rant also did not change the impression that PNoy’s team fumbled their response to Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s speech that sought to redirect the attention from Napoles to the Corona impeachment.

Yes the Jinggoy counter-attack was disingenuous and hypocritical, but I’ve got some bad news for Team PNoy: It was effective.

No, people aren’t being led to believe Jinggoy and the other characters in the Napoles fiasco (Tanda, Sexy and Pogi) are innocent.

But that probably was not what he was trying to achieve anyway. Instead, he unleashed a classic political tactic, one that says: If you can’t convince them, confuse them.

For people are confused – and tired of the whole mess. ‘Kakasawa na,’ is how a few friends have described the situation.

Even more troubling for Aquino is the reaction that suggests his vaunted anti-corruption crusade is in trouble: ‘Pare pareho lang naman iyang mga iyan.’

If more people latch on to that view, it’s truly bad news for Aquino.

PNoy can still reboot. He can still reclaim his anti-corruption initiative, but only if he recasts it not as a crusade but as a political battle. A clear first step is to pivot toward pushing more aggressively for a freedom of information law.

Imagine Aquino declaring: “Not knowing how government works, how every centavo is spent, has made people confused, angry and powerless. My team also made mistakes. Now it’s time to change that, to give people the power to know how their government operates by giving them more and better access to information.”

For information, or rather the lack of it, clearly plays a role in this crisis. And PNoy’s reluctance to endorse a system that would make it easier for citizens to find out what’s going on in government is puzzling.

In fact, that reluctance has backfired, threatening to derail completely his anti-corruption campaign.

For people are embracing the “pare-pareho lang naman sila lahat” worldview after being hit by wave after wave of disclosures about this program and that program in what now appears to be a bureaucratic maze that only trapos understand and shamelessly manipulate.

Perhaps the only thing many Filipinos know for sure is that, after three years of Daang Matuwid, PNoy’s straight path may turn out to be a road to nowhere.

Visit (and like) the Kuwento page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/boyingpimentel

On Twitter @boyingpimentel

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TAGS: Corruption, Features, Global Nation, Hacienda Luisita
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