Miriam Defensor-Santiago has been running for the Philippine presidency thrice. Can she win this time?

Miriam Defensor-Santiago has ran for the Philippine presidency thrice. Can she win this time? (Photo by International Rice Research Institute)

Is the third time really the charm? One woman who runs for the third time as president of the Philippines thinks so. With a highly comprehensive educational background and extensive government experience, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago is probably the best candidate to lead the ever-growing Southeast Asian country already experiencing a thriving economy under the administration of outgoing president Benigno Aquino III. Yet she struggles to win votes despite her huge popularity and appeal to the youth, as she faces her own personal battle against cancer and has paired with a infamous political scion. Her candidacy looked like a shoo-in for somebody who wished to run for presidency but is threading carefully, mindful of his family’s dark past and trying to impose a historical revisionist belief among the disillusioned youth.

The few good technocrat

Senator Santiago is known for being one of the fiercest legislators the country had. She has a very good academic record, excelling in all levels of education both in the Philippines and abroad, with the notable exception of not topping the bar exams, probably the hardest licensure exams in the country. She was also the only presidential candidate in this general election to hold positions in three branches of government: judiciary, where she was a trial court judge and was known for a ruling in favor of student activist during the Philippine martial law era; executive, cleaning the corruption-ridden agrarian reform department and immigration bureau, arresting foreign pedophiles and appeasing hacienderos in between; and legislature, where she currently serves as a senator and chairing the upper legislative chamber’s foreign relations committee.

Her undeniable credentials have earned her both praises and critiques. She won numerous awards for her service, including the Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel peace prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award. The senator was also elected as a trial judge to the International Criminal Court, only hindered what she said was then chronic lung fatigue that now turned out to be lung cancer. Her eloquence did not fit everybody, though. While she graduated top of her class in law school, she failed to ranked high in the Philippine bar exam. Rumors had it that she used several highfalutin words in the exam that checkers thought it would not be appropriate in legal practice. She was also then rumored to suffer from brain damage, an accusation fairly common among those who smart-shame intelligent people especially in politics.

Santiago almost ruled the country in the past century. Aiming to be the second female president after the troublesome administration of Corazon Aquino in 1992, she had a huge following among the youth impressed with her wit and charm. Leading during the first few days of election results counting, her imminent victory was snatched, allegedly, by the administration-backed Fidel Ramos, Aquino’s then military chief-of-staff and defense secretary. She also tried her luck on a second presidential candidacy in 1998 but, facing different circumstances, she received fairly small number of votes against then actor-politician Joseph Estrada.

Lessons learned?

In the advent of social media and a burgeoning youth population, Santiago runs again for a third time in what seems to be a vital election to sustain the gains made by one of the fastest growing nations in Asia. She now faces a new set of circumstances, including her recovery from cancer and teaming up with Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the namesake of the former dictator who ruled the country and brought it down during its post-World War recovery period.

It is not new for the senator to leave the campaign trail due to a medical condition. In her first presidential run, she had a vehicular accident, which she called an assassination attempt, and was out of the campaign trail for two months. Now, she is in the recovery stage of her treatment for lung cancer and this hinders her from campaigning, considering the huge territory she should go and the humid climate the country has. In fact, she does not have a regular on-ground campaign schedule compared to her adversaries and just let her vice presidential candidate Marcos to campaign for her. Santiago also missed the second organized presidential debate due to her trying a new drug to help her recover against the post-treatment effects of chemotherapy. While she claims that she is in the pink of health, even joking to the point that God did not kill her so she continued to run, voters are quite adamant to vote for her. She does not  get higher than five percent on pre-election surveys despite winning university and groups-based polls. Despite a huge social media following, support for her candidacy seems to lack for her.

Sleeping with the enemy?

Many are surprised when she announced that she will run with the younger Marcos last year. The late dictator’s namesake has benefited from a well-planned, subtle, and massive historical revisionist movement depicting the era of martial law as the “golden years of the Philippines.” Done extensively in social media, this unlikely movement has the millennial generation long for those years as they grow frustrated with the inconsistent policies of the current administration and its perceived lack of political will. Bongbong has probably planned his allegiance with the popular senator and may have served him more than he wanted to be as his numbers continue to rise but not of Senator Santiago’s.

The decision of Santiago of not quitting despite her low numbers on polls is indeed commendable. Her over-dependence, as some say, on social media and the “youth vote” is not helping her winning her third try from presidency. While the country seems to utilize social media so well and the youth population continues to rise, there are still more than half of Filipinos not connected to the internet, and the youth do not vote as a block. The woman may have the best credentials to lead the country but with an outdated political system, she will not be the president of the country.

Image source: International Rice Research Institute