Arroyo’s Opponents Faced With Limited Options
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Foreign observers may be puzzled by the political crisis that has engulfed the Arroyo presidency merely a year after being inaugurated into a 6-year-term in June 2004.
The issue can be summarized thus. President Joseph Estrada left office in January, 2001, after an impeachment trial collapsed in the face of a tactic by his allies in the Philippine Senate to block the opening of an envelope of evidence on procedural grounds, the late Catholic archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin (who had helped provoke People Power against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986), Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over the presidency. Her serving our Estrada’s four remaining years in office was marred by legal questions, since Estrada never signed a letter of resignation. In 2004, she ran for a full six-year term, and won. The problem was allegations of fraud (normal in the Philippines), which a Congressional canvass (official counting of returns) did nothing to dispel. The proclamation of Arroyo as president-elect mere days before her inauguration thus left her mandate under a cloud. It didn’t help there were credible accusations of massive disenfranchisement, among other things.
However, the most serious crisis confronting Arroyo has come from allegations in a Senate investigation of her husband and son taking money from gambling racketeers, and the surfacing of tape recordings of a commissioner of the Philippine elections authority, a controversial appointment in the first place (the man, nicknamed “Garci,” is Commissioner Virgilio Garcellano, notorious since the Marcos era for being an expert in fixing voting results in favor of the highest bidder). The tapes indicate the president of the Philippines talked to Garcellano on several occasions, as did many other politicians. However, in light of earlier doubts about the conduct of the election, the question of the president’s mandate thus resurfaced.
Hearing that the tape would be revealed by the opposition in a press conference, the president’s press secretary pre-empted it, distributing copies of the tape to the press, with another recording he claimed was authentic. Furthermore, an aide of the president’s brother-in-law came forward and said he was the one the president talked to. The public was skeptical of the explanation. It didn’t help that the government then claimed that being wiretapped conversations, the tapes were beyond the purview of Manila’s rambunctious media. Having brought forward the tape, government was seen as having no right to prevent its distribution. A rebellion, of sorts, among media people took place primarily by means of the Internet; cell phone-obsessed Filipinos avidly downloaded ring tones of what seemed to be the president saying, “Hello, Garci.. Will I win by one million votes?”
The president at first kept silent, then after mounting public pressure, reversed herself after three weeks to apologize to the nation for “a lapse in judgment,” which resulted in more questions being raised. Chief among them, if it was her, talking to a person she admitted was with the elections authority, then wasn’t her press secretary’s and other allies’ comments a cover up? The House of Representatives began hearings, complementing hearings being conducted by the Senate (the Senate has been looking into accusations the president’s family took money from illegal gambling).
The president further tried to mollify critics by sending members of her family into exile; this effort was overtaken by the widow of her leading opponent in the 2004 elections calling for her resignation in a very emotional speech. After a few chaotic weeks of congressional hearings, members of the president’s Cabinet decided to give up on her, and resign. President Arroyo got wind of it, and pre-empted matters by dismissing her Cabinet in the evening of July 7. The next day, the disaffected Cabinet members resigned anyway, calling upon Arroyo to follow suit. In quick succession, leaders such as former President Cory Aquino, business organizations, schools, and others took up the call. Just when it looked like Arroyo’s major constituencies had turned their backs on her, another former president, Fidel V. Ramos, appeared in the presidential palace and pledged his support (and, perhaps, that of the generals close to him). Suddenly, a stalemate was reached.
Civil society, that is, the middle class, business class, entrepreneurial and big business segments of the population, have thus far shown a disinclination to take the protest to the streets. Street protests at present are dominated by the Communists and the followers of Joseph Estrada. The president says that having said sorry, she should be allowed to concentrate on reform. Ramos suggests changing the Philippine constitution, which would allow Arroyo to preside over the dismantling of the system she was elected to lead. However, instead of slavishly accepting Ramos’s plan (which would have a new system in place by mid-2006), Arroyo has said she’ll study it. Having survived a concentrated political attack, she shows every sign of desiring to restore, instead of dismantle, the levers of power.
Those who failed to pressure Arroyo into resigning are now faced with limited options. The first is to continue marching, hoping for a miracle (resignation). The second is to push forward a potentially ill-fated impeachment in Congress. The third is to establish a fact-finding “Truth Commission.” The country’s Catholic bishops, in a much-awaiting statement, said impeachment and investigation are the best course, which denied the enemies of Arroyo the only major constituency that had, so far, remained silent. Now that the bishops have spoken, it seems both pro— and anti-Arroyo forces must gird up for a long, drawn-out fight. Very few now expect Arroyo to serve out her full term, until 2010. The questions has been reduced to a face-saving transition between now and 2010, or a renewal of the efforts to pressure her to leave office. The problem is, outside of the national capital, the rest of the country, like the middle class, is still making up its mind.