By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer

TRUTH-TELLING IS AN IMPERATIVE THESE days when we Christians are asked to reflect on our sins and ponder how we can properly atone for them.

Truth-telling is likewise a necessary exercise in this election season, when candidates attempt to sell themselves to voters by citing the facts of their lives, their claims to accomplishments, and their promises of vision and reform.

But truth-telling is also increasingly under attack, as candidates desperate for public attention and sympathy seek to paint biographies and formulate slogans that appeal to the greatest number. They hope to create mythical personas that will be durable enough to see them through election day.

Yes, we expect candidates to tell us the truth. Or if they seek to tweak it, “truth” that is at least based on fact. For how else could voters decide who are truly deserving? Is not our relationship with candidates based on trust, on the expectation that, so early in the game, they would not be fooling or deceiving us?

For my husband, the most egregious examples of untruth-telling in this electoral season are the many posters of Erap Estrada using a photo that is at least three decades old. He is shown with a remarkably unlined face, slimmer and with a full pompadour of lush pomaded hair at that. The posters are more amusing than disturbing, harking back to the disgraced President’s acting days. But my husband says, “If a candidate is afraid to show how he really looks like today, what else could he be hiding?” Maybe it’s just a case of movie star ego?

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MORE serious than Erap’s deceptive posters are claims made by Sen. Manuel Villar that “black propaganda” is the main reason behind his slippage by six percentage points in the latest SWS nationwide survey.

Villar decried what he called a “smear campaign” mounted by the Liberal Party, to which his closest rival, Sen. Benigno Aquino III, belongs.

The supposed campaign centers on claims made in Villar’s ads that, having grown up in poverty, he naturally understands and sympathizes with poor Filipinos. And that, having risen above his penurious background by using his “sipag at tiyaga (industry and perseverance),” he will likewise bring an end to poverty in this country.

It is indeed a compelling story and it is told in poignant ads featuring urban poor children singing a catchy jingle against a backdrop of abject squalor. In fact, the song lyrics ask voters if they had ever “lain on a sea of garbage” or “spent Christmas in the streets,” which presumably Villar has done. Another version on the same theme has the candidate “confessing” to losing a brother in childhood because his family was so poor they could not even afford to buy medicines for him.

These claims have been refuted mainly in the media (most notably by Solita Monsod in her column in this paper), and circulated through e-mail and, I hear, Facebook. Using public documents and historical context, Monsod said the Villars may, at best, have belonged to the Pinoy lower-middle class, but were certainly not the poorest of the poor.

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NATURALLY the refutations cannot but please the LP hierarchy, but by ascribing the counter-stories to a “smear campaign” organized by the party, is Villar insinuating that Monsod and other media commentators have allowed themselves to be used by the LP?

There is, after all, a candidate’s primary duty to tell the truth—and nothing but—to voters. And if a media person discovers documents that contradict the candidate’s version of truth, is it not the duty of the media to lay bare the facts for public consumption?

There’s a lesson here for all would-be candidates, and that is to make sure that any claim or statement made in the course of a campaign is supported by fact. In their efforts to create the persona of a poor boy who made good, Villar’s image handlers may have gone too far with overly dramatic claims and embellishing on the already-touching story of Villar’s late brother.

You will recall that Villar had relied on his storyline about an impoverished childhood and his dramatic rise to fame and fortune long before the campaign for the presidency seriously got underway. Surely, he had enough time to ensure that his ads and propaganda material hewed as closely as possible to facts borne out by documents like his brother’s death certificate or the location of his childhood home.

True, the average voter would not take the time or make the effort to look up public documents or check out the neighborhood where Villar grew up. But in a heated campaign every candidate should be aware that every claim he makes, every aspect of his life, is open to public examination and that these had better stand up to scrutiny.

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PERHAPS the Villar camp felt they had to amp up the sympathy factor because they were suddenly faced with an opponent with a personal and family history that needed no touching jingles or compelling images to dramatize.

After all, Aquino’s entry into the presidential race was dramatic enough: impelled by the huge public turnout at his mother’s death and funeral. This response was widely seen as an expression of the public’s disgust with politics as usual, and their search for someone who could symbolize both their anger and their hope.

But this battle for people’s hearts and minds has turned into a battle for melodrama. In response to Villar’s heart-tugging tale of growing up poor, Aquino’s ads show him recalling his father Ninoy’s assassination and his mother Cory’s death and his determination, in the wake of the support shown him by the people, to pay them back with his dedication. Whose is the more moving story? And who is telling the truth?

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.