By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/24/2004 4:40:53 AM ET 2004-03-24T09:40:53

It was a special lunch, to celebrate the 30 years since my wife and her closest friends — all Filipinos — graduated from college in Manila. And all had actively participated in the People Power revolt that toppled former dictator Ferdinand Marcos back in 1986.

As I looked around the dining table in our host's swank multimillion-dollar home, situated in one of Manila's most expensive — and most highly protected — communities, I saw a virtual Who's Who of Manilan society.

There, among others, was the owner and managing director of one of Manila's largest banks; a top insurance broker (our host); a tobacco magnate; a real estate developer; and a former public relations director. Several at the table had family — or close friends — in high places of government. And while the food and drink were generous, and the decor right out of Architectural Digest, the mood was generally grim.

''We're doing what Filipinos do best,'' said the tobacco magnate. ''We're shooting ourselves in our own foot.''

Democracy in a bad state
He was not directly referring to the kidnappings and terrorist operations by al-Qaida affiliated groups in the central and southern islands; nor to the rejuvenated, 30-year-old Communist or Islamist insurgencies that continued to wreak havoc over much of the archipelago; nor to the crushing devaluation of the Philippine peso, which has lost over half of its value to the U.S. dollar in the past 3 years. Nor to the disgruntled military, or the two unsucessful coups against the government since 2001.

No, what had him, and his peers, in such a funk was the sickly state of Philippine democracy, only months before the next Presidential election, scheduled for May 10.

''You get the leaders you deserve,'' bemoaned the banker. ''And I guess we deserve the bad movie we're in.''

Life, like a B-movie
That bad movie's latest episode really began in 1998, when the Philippine ''masa," or impoverished masses, elected former B-movie star, Joseph Estrada, to the presidency in a landslide victory.

'Erap," as he is called, played mostly rogues in his films, and made few adjustments as leader of a nation of 80 million.

In 2001, Erap was impeached and landed in jail, facing charges of illegal gambling and embezzlement of some $80 million in public funds. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a smart, Harvard-trained economist whose father was himself a former president, took over for the remaining 3 years of Erap's 6-year term.

But, despite some success against al-Qaida and impressive — if debatable — economic growth figures, Arroyo has been unable to break out from the shadow of her former boss, who many analysts say still runs the country from his prison.

And, according to the latest polls, Arroyo trails Erap's hand-picked candidate for president, yet another movie star, named Fernando Poe Jr.

AFP-Getty Images file
Fernando Poe Jr., Philippine action movie star and presidential candidate shakes hands with supporters during a campaign stop on  March 4, 2004.  

''If Erap was a Charles Bronson type, FPJ is Clint Eastwood,'' the real estate developer explained. ''He was always good, moral, upstanding  — an underdog who got the bad guys, in the end.''

And that seems to be good enough for the voting block of some 40 million Filipino poor, who earn a dollar a day or less, and for whom celebrity matters much more than policy.

And it's not just the poor — even acting President Arroyo has jumped on the bandwagon, choosing Noli de Castro, a former TV star with established machismo, as her vice president.

Not to be outdone, FPJ managed to lure none other than the stunning former TV news anchor, Loren Legarda, as his running mate, and this despite the fact that, as a senator, Legarda actually led the impeachment proceedings against Estrada — Poe's mentor and best friend.

This blatant political bed-hopping has left many observers here, including all the VIP's at the dinner gathering — none of whom voted for Estrada — fairly dumbfounded.

''This,'' ventured the insurance broker, ''is why the cartoonists are having a field day with the ''balimbing'' (a local, star-shaped fruit with many facets, or faces). Philippine politics is not about issues — only about power and popularity. And, these days, with things going so badly, only fantasy heroes are popular.''

U.S. relations
President Bush may have sung the nation's praises when he gave a speech to lawmakers during his visit here last October, remarking how the Philippines' ''deep committment to democracy'' will continue ''to inspire people throughout Asia." U.S. - Philippines relations

But the view on the ground is more of a democracy running amok. There are 48 registered political parties for the May ballot, but none of the parties has any real platform.

Indeed, in the free-for-all, a presidential candidate from one ticket can actually be paired up with a vice-presidential candidate from an opposing ticket, if they get the most votes.

Meanwhile, votes — and loyalties — are routinely purchased: a fact of life which most at the college reunion lunch railed against, but which no one knew how to change.

Small wonder that the Philippines, once considered Asia's bread basket, still lags so far behind its neighbors, despite its "Western-style" democratic values.

''We'll never learn,'' said another of my wife's former classmates, a stock market investor. ''It's the same people behind the throne. They were behind Marcos. Then Estrada, and now they will be behind Poe, who will be our next president. We are doomed.''

Missed opportunities
As the afternoon wore on, most at the reunion were of the opinion that the Philippines' seemingly intractable problems will only get worse — endemic corruption; one of the world's largest gaps between ''haves'' and ''have nots''; and a people made up of dozens of ethnic groups and dialects, spread across thousands of islands, who share little if any sense of nationhood.

This dark consensus, and sense of helplessness, were striking — coming from a group of "living witnesses" to history.

All of of them could recall marching in the streets of Manila, among half a million Filipinos who defied a military and ended a dictatorship without firing a shot. But, 18 years later, they spoke of their frustration, and of so many missed opportunities.

It reminded me of what one of Manila's more astute editorialists, Conrado de Quiros, had described in the Daily Enquirer, a popular Philippine newspaper. ''I've always said that we are not incapable of rising to heights of great heroism,'' he wrote. ''We are simply incapable of sustaining it, falling to depths of abject mediocrity afterward.''

Where Bush saw a strong democracy ''shining as a light to all of Asia and beyond,'' these Filipinos, some at the table already preparing to leave and work abroad, saw a nation that would be ripe for violent revolution, if ever a Lenin-like firebrand stepped forward and galvanized an otherwise apathetic people. It struck me that these very Filipinos — all rich, landed, and Western-minded — would be prime targets. But none seemed too worried.

''A Russian revolution is not likely here," explained the tobacco magnate. ''450 years of Catholicism has made people feel too guilty for that.''

So, with hugs and kisses, an exchange of e-mail addresses, and a last round of digital group photos, these close friends said goodbye. But not before concluding that the future of their country, despite a new president, would probably hold more of the same — over-population, choking pollution, insurgent violence, massive poverty, soaring crime and corruption — and a series of ''fantasy'' leaders, plucked from stage and screen, with no answers to be found in their script.

Jim Maceda, an NBC News correspondent, recently returned from a private trip to the Phillipines.

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