This evening, I will be a guest on The World Tonight, where the discussion will most likely lead to analyzing what will take place this week. I believe the guiding principle of the next few days will be brinksmanship. As Wikepedia puts it,
Brinkmanship is ostensibly the escalation of threats to achieve one’s aims. Eventually, the threats involved might become so huge as to not be manageable. This was certainly the case during the Cold War, as the threat of nuclear war was also suicidal, through mutually assured destruction. Brinksmanship is not just a political or military term: unions that threaten to strike and spouses that threaten divorce can also be involved in games of brinkmanship.
The dangers of brinkmanship as a political or diplomatic tool can be understood as a slippery slope: In order for brinkmanship to be effective, the threats used have to be continuously elevated. The further one goes, the greater the chance of things sliding out of control.
The British intellectual Bertrand Russell compared nuclear brinksmanship to the game of chicken. According to Russell, the principle between the two is essentially the same: to create immense pressure in a situation until one person or party backs down.
What forms will this take?
First is speculation over the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order on the VAT law, which the government will challenge. At present it seems the Supreme Court views objections (to the authority given the President to adjust levels, and the law having two subject matters when a law should only have one, among others) serious enough to take such a big step, which rattled foreign analysts last Friday.
Observers view two possible scenarios. The first is that the decision was a shot across the bow, so to speak, from the Supreme Court, to indicate it will be independent during the crisis. The second is that the Palace pressured the Supreme Court to issue the TRO, to deflect public anger over the effects of the VAT Law (higher costs for fuel, and also, new provisions on VAT credits that small and medium enterprises find highly objectionable and potentially ruinous). The political gamble here is that the Palace would forego at least 60 billion pesos in urgently-needed new funds, and the confidence of foreign business, to achieve a short-term calming down on the part of the public, including entrepreneurs and the middle class. I have heard some skepticism over the choice for a hearing date set by the high court -the day after the President’s State of the Nation Address, which is a landmark date in the current crisis (if she makes it to that date, she’s widely considered to have much better prospects for holding on to office).
If true, this is playing for extremely high stakes, not least because it could antagonize members of the cabinet such as Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, widely considered independent-minded. If the centerpiece of the President’s fiscal reform program was derailed for political reasons, it could shake confidence within her cabinet and among businessmen. Much will depend perhaps, on a knee-jerk drop in the peso’s value tomorrow, which could be great or minor, depending on how analysts have digested the news over the weekend (have they calmed down? or are they out for blood?).
Next is the widely-expected raising of the ante in the House, with the opposition being given the chance to play Alan Paguia’s tape, setting a precedent for playing any and all tapes that surface. Paguia is slowly being made to realize that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is; he has already had to admit he abridged the original tapes he had, because there might be things there embarrassing to the opposition. Yesterday, Escudero of the opposition admitted that there might be prominent opposition personalities implicated by talks with Garcellano (so far, the names bruited about are Loren Legarda, Juan Ponce Enrile, Jamby Madrigal and Jinggoy Estrada).
The administration gamble would be: fine, play the tapes, we’ll play ours, we’ll all sink together but you will sink more. Consensus among observers seems to be it will help the administration, but some of us think there’s a delicious chance here for a more far-reaching consequence to this scandal. Personally, I believe this will not help the President as much as her people might like, but will harm the Estrada camp, which can only be good in the long run. Check-mating the Estrada camp may just improve the prospects of the middle class and business finally taking a stand.
Civil Society, as indicated by what the bishops, Cory Aquino, and other signs such as today’s Inquirer editorial, that the minimum expected of the President is to convene a Truth Commission with credible members, and overhaul the Comelec. The former seems more likely than the latter, but both demands may be tests the middle forces don’t quite expect the President to pass.
The Catholic heirarchy has been meeting and initially announced that their consensus is that the country’s options are three: impeachment, the status quo, or resignation. The gathering of prelates will also result in the election of a new President for the CBCP, the organization of Catholic bishops. The Philippine Independent Church has already decided that resignation is their preferred option. Their meeting with Cory Aquino at UST on Wednesday may be crucial.
In a paid advertisement today, the de la Salle academic community (DLSU, La Salle Canlubang, La Salle Zobel, La Salle Greenhills, etc.) came out strongly for resignation:
We must restore our people’s faith in the Presidency and in the democratic process. This will most certainly require the full exercise of leadership that our President alone could effect. We would like to believe that she was sincere when she expressed her commitment to make a personal sacrifice for the nation’s interest. We now pray her [the President] to bring it to a full fruition -the supreme sacrifice of surrendering personal want, comfort and position. We pray her to voluntarily relinquish power so that a constitutional process of succession may proceed.
Tony Abaya’s column that was initially disapproved finally came out. Abaya’s column reminds us of something I wrote about too, which was the question of disenfranchisement during the last election. At the time, I said this was an issue and that also, it seemed quite probable the President won with a slim plurality. I pointed these things out in the Inquirer and the Philippines Free Press. If you want a broader view on elections, you can read my survey of our past elections, in my essay, Elections Are Like Water.
The indomitable Torn and Frayed is puzzled over my reaction to Susan Roces and I responded by pointing out the following:
This is what I see in Roces: she is the valve in the pressure cooker. Despite her losing it that day, she held back from the brink, which means she’s foregone two chances to call out the mobs. One more strike, and she’s out. At the same time, she has clearly shown disdain for the usual suspects rallying in Makati. This helps them neutralize themselves -its Jinggoy, Maceda, etc. trying to pretend they know what people power is, that’s paralyzing the middle forces.
At the same time, she’s allowed Cory Aquino to get a foot in the door, and I don’t think we can discount a Two Widows Finally Speak Up scenario, or, conversely, that having neutralized herself while allowing people to realize how cathartic it is to vent, the field is once again left to Cory. I think Cory will have to speak up sooner or later, and she can contribute to the tipping point.
I added a follow-up comment: By all accounts, Enrile will be hammered with allegations of massive fraud when the administration releases its own version of the Garci tapes. Recall that Susan and her husband both looked slightly askance at many in the opposition, and she feels stronger about that, since she may blame their bickering for her husband’s death (just as she lost it over GMA’s apology which rubbed salt into her wounds). I think some middle forces, including Cory, are wooing Susan to keep her from doing something rash, and having lost it on national TV Susan will be inclined to be extra-prudent.
Cory is the lodestar still, of many people, as far as democratic action. Definitely, if Cory speaks up for impeachment or resignation, the President will have lost yet another prop. Regardless of her presidency (which achieved two main things: keeping democracy afloat, and accomplishing a transition, remember we had the most phenomenal economic growth ever until Gringo’s coups), she remains aa figure of great importance.
Manuel L Quezon III