Senate switcheroo

By Herman M. Lagon

It is a lament expressed with increasing regularity these days. Recently, it appeared again on my social media network—the faces of senators of the past renowned for their brilliance juxtaposed with pictures of senators of the present who are regularly ridiculed. This sharp contrast goes beyond a mere change in personalities; it underscores a fundamental transformation in our political landscape.

The senators of yesteryear, such as Claro M. Recto, Jovito Salonga, Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada, Ninoy Aquino, Eva Kalaw, Raul Manglapus, Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Raul Roco, Joker Arroyo, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, mesmerized the public with their eloquent speeches and compelling visions for the nation. Our parents and grandparents chose their leaders based on superior intelligence, sterling track record, impressive academic credentials, and unblemished reputation.

Fast forward to today, and we see a different breed of senators. The current roster includes Bato de la Rosa, Bong Go, Lito Lapid, Robin Padilla, and Bong Revilla. If the latest survey results correctly foretell the election outcome for next year, Willie Revillame, Ben Tulfo, Richard Gomez, Isko Moreno, and Baste Duterte may join the ranks of pilloried senators. These figures, known more for their “celebrity” status than legislative acumen, reflect a significant shift in voter preferences.

One recent event highlights this shift dramatically. Sen. de la Rosa’s “dumbfounding” act in the recent “change of guards” from Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri to Sen. Chiz Escudero showcased the theatrical nature of today’s politics. Bato’s tearful display during Zubiri’s valedictory speech left many scratching their heads, much so that he eventually voted for Chiz merely because of the “covenant” he forged with his PDP party mates Sen. Francis Tolentino and Sen. Go. Was it genuine emotion or a calculated performance? Nevertheless, it has fueled numerous memes, cementing the moment in the annals of social media history.

Reflecting on the senators of earlier times, one can’t help but feel nostalgic. Figures like Recto and Diokno were admired not just for their intellect but for their steadfast integrity. They were the epitomes of the leaders our forefathers aspired to be. They captivated audiences with their oratory skills and inspired them with their visions. Today, such qualities seem almost anachronistic in a political arena dominated by entertainers, sports figures, and congenital comedians.

In today’s politics, sadly, lackluster intelligence, lack of track record, absence of academic credentials, and a disreputable past are no longer hindrances to a political career. In fact, we have reached the point where the absence of those credentials so valued by our forefathers is instead considered a positive qualification because it is viewed as proof that a candidate comes from the masses. This shift reflects a broader change in societal values and electoral preferences.

The Senate’s evolution mirrors changes in our society. Economic hardships have played a significant role. For many Filipinos, moving up the social ladder has become increasingly challenging. In earlier times, our parents and grandparents could elevate their status through intellect and hard work, even from modest beginnings. Today, even those with intellect and ambition find it difficult to escape poverty. This frustration translates into a desire for relatable and empathetic leaders, even if they lack traditional qualifications.

What has caused this monumental change in our preference for leaders? The decline in the quality of education is often cited. Illiteracy rates are rising, and many voters are more concerned with immediate survival than intellectual discourse. This shift has made it easier for entertainers and sports figures to transition into politics, capitalizing on their fame rather than their policy knowledge or principled politics.

But are our present senators genuinely working to uplift the lives of the marginalized, the oppressed, or the underrepresented? While their intentions might be sincere, at least to a few of them, their ability to effect meaningful change still needs to be determined. Voters must critically evaluate whether these leaders are advocating for the masses or simply riding the wave of their celebrity. So far, only Sen. Risa Hontiveros has consistently animated the likes of Estrada-Kalaw and Defensor-Santiago in the Upper Chamber.

We find ourselves at a crucial point in the years leading up to the 2025 elections. The names that have been popular in recent polls are easier to recognize in the entertainment business than in the legislative conversations and policies that take place. The electorate’s focus on charisma and ratings frequently overshadows competency and track record in leadership, and this propensity exposes a common thread that runs through the entire process.

The choices we make at the polling station will shape the future of the Senate and impact the growth of our democracy for years to come. We must hold our leaders to higher standards, look beyond celebrity status, and evaluate their capacity to govern effectively. That is the only way we will be able to elect notable, capable, knowledgeable senators dedicated to serving the public good, such as Ka Pepe Diokno’s son, Chel, and former senators Leila de Lima and Bam Aquino.

Ultimately, comparing senators from the past with those of today is more than a trip down memory lane; it highlights Filipino voters’ evolving priorities and values. While the political scene has undoubtedly changed, the demand for capable and empathetic leadership is as strong as ever. Hence, we urge our voters to scrutinize our leaders and aim for a Senate that genuinely represents the nation’s finest qualities.

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Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.

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