My PDI column today is Five months. I am of the belief that events are accelerating and that one way or another, the political fate of the President will be decided within five months, at the longest. My Arab News column is Philippine Military Coup Rumors, Though Rife, Are Taken Seriously: this reflects mainly the opinions of one of our military heroes, Gen. Vicente Lim, opinions I believe are held in a similar manner by our officer corps (at least the ones who remain idealistic) today.
We have, at most, five months, to get our act together, because this country can no longer “move on.” We are beyond that. The President has made any sort of “moving on” impossible, because within five months she faces two possibilities: the loss of power, or the need to retain it at a cost of so much bloodshed and repression, while lacking either the skills, or means, to effectively use the tools necessary for repression: a compliant or complicit armed forces, a political class engaged as a co-conspirator, and a public that thinks she can be the solution, and is not the problem.
The only way to head off such a debacle is to start gambling even bigger than the President has gambled before. The President and her people are, therefore, once more, engaging in brinkmanship. Let’s review, briefly, what that is:
Brinkmanship is ostensibly the escalation of threats to achieve oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s aims. Eventually, the threats involved might become so huge as to not be manageable.
The threats made by government have been escalated. First, there was the threat of various cases against enemies of the President, either charging them with sedition, or with various crimes. Next, came the announcement of the use of “calibrated, preemptive response” to public manifestations of dissent. Then came an unprecedented appeal to the Senate not to mount hearings and investigations. This was followed up by the signing of an executive order affecting both the military and civilian sectors. Instead of picking and choosing its battles, as it has (wisely) preferred to do so, so far, it seems the Palace has decided to mount an all-out war, on several fronts.
The first front is on the streets. This means preventing rallies from even taking place, and quickly dispersing them when they do take place; it means that the previous Palace line that rallyists are a nuisance and should just go home, is failing to resonate with the broader public. To put it another way, the Palace has decided it’s better off using force, in the hope that it will either provoke those who rally to defy the law (helping the Palace’s “rule of law” line), or that they want to prevent, at all costs, the message that there are civilians willing to mobilize -and keep mobilizing- against the government.
The second front is regarding constitutional change. President Ramos has been unhappy with the whole idea of a consultative commission. His being appointed some sort of senior adviser to it, is merely an obvious attempt to flatter him and diffuse the effects of his displeasure. The consultative commission for charter change is supposed to finish its work on December 15. But then what? Does the President then submit its findings to Congress? And what if the findings are in variance with what President Ramos and Speaker de Venecia want, which is parliamentary government under a unicameral setup? Recall that Jose Abueva, elected Chairman of the group, has some pretty clear proposals, including a bicameral parliament, and 11 or so Federal States, which worries local government executives: we currently have 79 provinces, each with a governor, vice-governor, provincial board, and so on. Do all these people stand to lose their jobs? And if the Speaker and Ramos prefer only a shift to parliamentary rule, and don’t care for Federalism, what of the non-politicians in the provinces who care more about Federalism instead of parliamentary government?
The third front is in the House. The President’s pork barrel has been increased, that of the congressmen hasn’t. That means they’re going to be held hostage to her next year, come election time. Also, how many of the promises she made during the impeachment period, have been fulfilled, and how many have been broken? How many promises have turned out to contradict each other?
The fourth front is in the Senate. The Palace is frustrated that the Senate can’t seem to be cowed, or bought, or blackmailed or ignored. In his testimony -during which he was foolhardy enough to decline to have counsel at his side- Sec. Norberto Gonzalez let slip what the Palace has been careful to avoid admitting for months: the President was bugged. This justifies all sorts of investigations. Then comes the attempt to screen people who may end up being called to Senate hearings: through the most blatant, and confrontational, manner possible: an Executive Order. The legality of this order can be debated till kingdom come, but it made for extremely bad politics. Such an order divides government officials between those loyal to the President, and who obey her wishes, and those disloyal to her, when they choose to appear before the Senate. This sets apart Congress as the enemy, and cooperation with either chamber as something tantamount to treason. Any other president would have reacted to the Gonzalez snafu by talking to her people, and writing a polite but firm letter to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House. But not by signing an executive issuance which pits the bureaucracy and military against Congress.
The fifth front is in the civilian bureaucracy. Again, the tactics being used are to publicly punish anyone with dissenting views or who doesn’t toe the party line, and instilling a culture of personal loyalty to the President, and not to the civil service or any other civilian bureaucratic institution. The larger signal here is not aimed at officials with civil service protection, but the overwhelming number of government employees who are contractual, and whose livelihoods could be endangered simply by someone reporting they refuse to toe the party line, or actively participate in the President’s political survival efforts.
The fifth front is against the military. She counts on the generals. She has to head off both the idea that there can be independent-minded generals, and that she cannot fully rely on the institutional inertia that comes from the well-drilled concept of the chain of command. In the President’s favor is the inability of the reform-minded young officers, at least at this point, to make a conceptual leap beyond the doctrines and failed strategies of the putschists of the past. The method for attempting a coup drawn up by Gregorio Honasan have been proven wrong time and again: Oakwood, with it’s fetish for taking over a “symbolic” center, then making bad speeches, was the dying gasp of the Honasan doctrine. What the military have failed to grasp is they would do more to prove the sincerity of their convictions, by engaging in a kind of mutiny. The kind that the General and Lt. Col. who testified before the Senate committed (which is why they are being court-martialed). In Germany after World War I, in Russia in 1917, even in France in 1915 and 1917, the enlisted men turned on their officers and generals living in luxury, and in some cases, lynched them, or had them shot. Or they simply imprisoned them. This is what reformist soldiers do: they don’t take over governments, they clean up their own ranks. Do that, and the civilians can then clean up their own civilian ranks, since those who abuse authority rely on the generals to save them.
The common tactic, in all these cases, is divide and rule. Sure, some may defy the President, but all who defy will be punished. Not everyone has the courage to dissent, or even insist on following the rules. The rules, after all, can change as the administration decides to redefine those rules. The President’s power must be upheld by the strongest card she still has in hand: the way she, and her people, can directly ruin the lives of lower-ranking soldiers, government workers, and anyone with more ambition than integrity, who don’t think being hailed a hero is worth losing a regular paycheck.
Others are attempting brinksmanship, too. Yesterday, former President Ramos (belatedly made some sort of honorary invited the “Hyatt 10” to a book launching of his, the first time he has made an effort to be seen with them in public. Prior to this was Carmen Pedrosa’s column (unfortunately not linkable) in the Star some days back, warning the President she owes her survival to Lakas-CMD, and that the President’s pet party, Kampi, should not get any ideas it can affect the political landscape. Pedrosa’s column was followed up, in turn, by Speaker de Venecia reminding everyone that constitutional change must proceed, and that most of the constitutional amendment scenarios require either the clipping of the President’s powers soon, or her leaving office before the end of her term in 2010. This means the main bulwark of support for the President is sending definite, clear, and strong signals that it is studying its options and those options consider the President expendable.
The opposition, despite the attempts by the Palace to portray it as hopelessly divided, is coalescing, too. Good will is being built, mutual distrust is slowly being set aside. Those formally disliked have discovered they rather like being hailed for standing for principle. This is something we forget about People Power: it began with people realizing no one, not even themselves, were beyond redemption. Support of the President has involved far too many mental reservations and compromises. Opposition to her has been handicapped by too many sins committed in the past by its leaders. Yet recall at Edsa 1986, the nation absolved Juan Ponce Enrile (and even let him keep his loot) by his confessing to his role in martial law and in the cheating during the elections.
Finally, another point. People, I think, have been waiting to see individuals willing to pay a personal price for saying what they believe. The officers who testified before the Senate took their punishment like men. They’re not complaining. They took a stand. The Hyatt 10 should have done that, and people are still hoping they will do that. In the coming days, or weeks, we might suddenly see an epidemic of people deciding they have to take a stand for their principles. If a general and a lt. col. can simply tell it as it is, if the House and Senate can simply stand for the principles of Congress’s right -even duty- to exercise oversight over the Executive; if civil servants decide they will stick to the rules; if people like Cory Aquino, threatened with the dismantling of her estate, simply reply, go ahead; and if the young decide to stop waiting for the old, and start something bold, and new, what then?
The President had better decide where she wants to be setting up her new home within the next five months.