After more than three hours during which STAR editorial staff grilled Bangon Pilipinas standard-bearer Eduardo Villanueva, someone who is assisting in the campaign of one of the top two presidential contenders said she might end up voting for “Brother Eddie.”
The atheist-turned-Christian evangelist garnered two million votes, according to the official tally, in his first stab at the presidency in 2004. I thought that was an impressive showing for a non-politician, but Villanueva indicated to us last Friday that the figure had been drastically trimmed by the same forces that gave us the “Hello, Garci” vote-rigging scandal.
Villanueva can count on a solid voting base in the Jesus is Lord movement, which he heads. Unlike other major religious groups or charismatic movements, the JIL has not been tainted by scandals involving corruption, estafa, or influence-peddling and arm-twisting of public officials.
So far I have not heard stories of the JIL using its voting clout to meddle in appointments and promotions in the police, the prosecution service, the judiciary and the rest of the bureaucracy. This is so unlike certain groups that purport to be religious in nature but behave no better than the mafia or the gangsters in the Arroyo administration.
Over three hours, Villanueva also showed a good, nuanced grasp of the state of the nation and had sound ideas on how to deal with a wide range of problems, from public health care to the economy and poverty alleviation.
He is not beyond simplifying his message for campaign purposes, promising a seven-point road map to “a new Philippines” by employing the “seven E’s” – energizing the economy, empowering the people, eradicating corruption, emancipating the Filipino, educating the Filipino, elevating living standards, and establishing peace and order.
But Villanueva appears to be in a better position than most of his rivals to deliver on his campaign promises and lead by example.
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Among the presidential candidates we have grilled so far, he was the one who (echoing a foreign woman’s observation) stressed that the nation’s biggest problem is the “diminished patriotism” of the Filipino.
His dream, Villanueva said, is to restore national pride, and for his descendants to see their own country as the best place in the world to live.
Villanueva has ideas that may be described as nationalistic by some quarters, but which he knows could be considered radical by certain interests, making it unlikely for him to receive support from big business and entrenched political clans.
At one point, in his atheist days as a law student in the University of the Philippines where he imbibed Marxist-Leninist ideas, Villanueva had wanted to assassinate landlords in his home province of Bulacan for land-grabbing.
But his drift toward violence, he recalled, was blocked by his elder sister Leonor, a born-again Christian living in Los Angeles, who repeatedly urged him, through letters and telephone calls, to recite a simple prayer, which he remembers to this day.
At the same time that he started praying, he said Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial regime issued the dreaded ASSO – or Arrest, Search and Seizure Orders – for the land-grabbers he had wanted to assassinate. The incident, Villanueva said, ended his atheism and put him on the road to evangelism.
Unlike certain religious leaders, Villanueva does not have the aura of a snake-oil salesman. He does not have aides who behave as if their leader is God’s gift to humanity and crossing him will earn you a sure place, if not in Hell, then at least in prison or the cemetery.
His kind of leadership has earned him his verified following of millions – something that made certain groups persuade him to run for president in 2004.
Aware of the JIL following, a rival tried to persuade him to withdraw. Villanueva told us that President Arroyo herself went to his home and offered to make him one of her advisers. He was also offered the position, he said, of finance secretary, with supervision over the Bureau of Customs and Bureau of Internal Revenue. In addition, he said he was offered half a hectare of land within Villamor Air Base plus a large financial contribution to JIL in exchange for his withdrawal. He refused.
Before the mid-term elections in 2007, with the administration slate weakened by a string of corruption scandals, he was asked to be the anti-corruption czar. But Villanueva was aware that he would merely be used as window dressing for corruption operations that he described as “80 percent wholesale” – mostly emanating from or influenced by the Office of the President – and only 20 percent “retail.” Again he turned down the offer.
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Villanueva can be an entertaining speaker – a big plus in a campaign. But there are people who feel uncomfortable with religious leaders entering politics.
Being part of a group can also make non-members feel excluded, which is the weakness of the bid for the presidency by any leader of a religious or charismatic movement.
The JIL has put Villanueva’s son in Congress as a party-list representative – one point against the JIL leader, who could lead by example in avoiding the abuse of this flawed system. How can any group claiming a following of millions be marginalized? But it remains to be seen whether those millions can give Villanueva the presidency.
Villanueva’s rating in surveys swings between fifth and sixth – good enough for a kingmaker, although not enough to win him Malacañang. But he is urging people not to be swayed by surveys and to let their conscience be their guide.
Throughout the campaign he has had to reiterate that he does not intend to withdraw and give the solid JIL votes to another candidate.
Villanueva is hoping that voters will experience the same epiphany that converted him back to Christianity.