THE crowd erupted with every line Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago uttered.
One student screamed at the top of her lungs while another pumped his fist in the air.
It was a superstar performance. Santiago came across big and fearless – on three giant screens at the Bahay ng Alumni at the University of the Philippines.
Thousands of supporters awaited the arrival of Santiago – who first ran unsuccessfully for the Presidential post in 1992 – at her “meet and greet” gathering on October 26.
The boisterous crowd - mostly college students from different universities – was effusive in their evaluation of her.
“She's brilliant and charismatic. Watching her address the people in 1992 made me wonder why Filipinos never helped her win the Malacañang seat,” Janine De Guzman, 18, a second year UP student said of the feisty senator, known as the “Iron Lady of Asia.”
A former Immigration chief and trial court judge, Santiago lost to administration bet Fidel Ramos in the slimmest of margins in the race marred by allegations of massive cheating.
This time, Santiago made her intentions even clearer. “I warn the politicians in the strongest terms – do not threaten me with your protected bribery, cheating or even black propaganda. I shall run for president or I shall die in the attempt. I shall prevail or I shall perish!” she declared.
Her determination was evident, the booming speakers firing up her supporters who wore red shirts bearing “#Miriam2016” and “#MiriamFight.”
Santiago, who recently declared being cured of Stage 4 lung cancer, is running for President under her own People's Reform Party. And with the response she’s getting so far from the youth, it seems that the “Miriam Magic” is back.
In an online poll conducted by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, the partial result of the survey on Oct. 21 showed Santiago, named as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world in 1997, ahead by a wide margin against three other presidential bets – Sen. Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay and former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.
According to the university’s Facebook fan page, Santiago got 71.3 per cent of some 80,000 votes cast while Poe had 12.4 per cent. Roxas got 11.9 per cent and Binay 3.2 per cent.
Santiago, who is 70, said: “In 1992, there was a huge, monumental change. The young students went home to their provinces and instead of following the dictates of their fathers and mothers, the situation turned around: It was the young people who told the old people, 'Vote for Miriam because she’s the wiser one.' So I hope that this voice will continue to be resurrected, and, in fact, will prevail in this elections.”
Aside from her fearless exposes and eloquent speeches in Senate hearings, Santiago's popularity among the youth was partly due to her witty political pick-up lines she delivers in her rounds to universities and colleges across the country and her best-selling books Stupid is Forever and Stupid is Forevermore.
Santiago's appeal to the youth is also fuelled by her strong social media presence.
While experts don't see a translation of her online popularity to votes in the May 2016 elections, her dominant and free publicity on the internet is undeniable.
Santiago, who gave up her stint as the first Asian from a developing country to be elected as judge to the International Criminal Court because of chronic fatigue, is the most “liked” and “followed” politician in the Philippines.
The former Agrarian Reform secretary and Ramon Magsaysay award recipient for government service boasts of 3.1 million likes on her Facebook page and over 2 million followers on Twitter, earning her the label of “Social Media Rock Star” among leading media outfits.
Joy Martin Santiago, 52, who voted for Santiago, said: “I believe this is our last chance to elect a truly competent president, free of corruption charges who is brave and can proudly represent us in the international arena.”
After filing her certificate of candidacy on Oct. 16, Santiago, however, found herself facing online criticism regarding two key points: Her true state of health and her choice of running mate in Sen. Bongbong Marcos, the son of dictator Ferdinand, infamously known for his declaration of Martial Law that resulted in the alleged extrajudicial killings of thousands and corruption in the government.
Philippine history books label the Marcos family as thieves, stealing billions of pesos from the government coffers when the elder Marcos was in power from 1965- 1986.
An online open letter by a doctor expressed doubt on Santiago's true health condition, asking the senator to make public her medical records.
But Santiago shot down the idea, insisting on her right to privacy, and instead told the doctor to check her medical records with St. Luke's Medical Center.
She immediately doused cold water on the health issue the moment she stepped on the stage at the Bahay ng Alumni, where supporters partied as if the gathering was a rock concert.
“I have passed through the hardest of physical trepidations and hardships known to man. Cancer is not an easy disease to have.
“I decided upon consultation with my doctors at Saint Luke's [Medical Center] that it should be up to me to run for president,” said Santiago in the event where Toots Ople, an ardent advocate of the OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) cause, was introduced as part of Santiago's senatorial slate.
“My answer is: do you want a clean, courageous government? A government of, by, and for academic excellence? If that is the case, do you want me?”
The crowd, including her party mates, roared back with a loud yes, and chanted, “Miriam! Miriam! Miriam!”
Marcos also defended Santiago.
“For me, if she said she can campaign and that she is already healed, of course, I will believe Senator Miriam,” Marcos said.
For her part, Miriam who as trial court judge helped college students from persecution against Martial Law, defended the young Marcos in her speech in a forum with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Pasay City on Oct. 27.
“I have not seen prima facie (on its face) evidence that (the young Marcos) killed someone, raped someone, or burned a house, that he violated the Penal Code. I don't know of any crime he did. Martial law photos show him as a child,” Santiago said in a Rappler report.
She added: “We cannot punish someone on the basis of suspicion. I can't support that as a lawyer.”
In the same report, “Santiago (who) took religious studies at the Maryhill School of Theology in Quezon City, said that even on moral grounds, she cannot fault her running mate.”
“There is no allegation he himself sinned against his neighbour. We are going against what the Bible says: 'The sins of the father are not the sins of the child.' I weighed these matters very carefully.
I wrote an entire book on theology and religion, and that's my humble conclusion,” Santiago, whose son committed a suicide in 2003, said.
Santiago, who was recently elevated to the Philippine Judges Hall to Fame, said Marcos' 2010 Senate election victory, where he got 13.1 million votes to land in the 7th place out of 12, is a sign that Filipinos want him for a high national post.
“He won as senator, meaning majority of the people do not see an objection in putting him into public office,” Santiago said.
In a response to a question about concerns that Marcos will order a cover-up into his family's crimes if he is elected vice president, Santiago, in the same report said: “That's possible. But unless I see prima facie evidence, I cannot be guided by thoughts that are negative against a fellow man.”
Marcos, who hails from Ilocos Norte, boasts of the vaunted “Solid North” that accounts for 5 million votes according to a CNN Philippines report, while Santiago, who is from Iloilo, is seen capable of capturing the Iloilo votes which form a large part of the Visayan vote.
Meanwhile, Santiago, in another Rappler report, has said if she is elected, her first priority would be the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, which creates a system to release public records and data to institutionalise the constitutional right to know.
Santiago was among those who supported the measure, and even suggested that politicians should also be required to disclose their sources of income, the same report said.
Whether or not the Santiago- Marcos tandem will work wonders remains to be seen. But the partnership appears to be intriguing.
But Santiago can be sure of one thing. If she is able to keep up the momentum, the youth will give her their votes.