Arroyo Can Only Buy Time Now
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun came out with an editorial on March 6, critical of the Philippine president. Japanese media, which had been fascinated with the efforts of Filipinos to bring down late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, were once more in evidence over the past few weeks, as the country geared up to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Marcos’ departure. They found themselves covering Arroyo’s proclamation of a state of national emergency and the subsequent government crackdown.
The Japanese paper opined, “Arroyo cannot fix the situation with an iron fist. Unless she sticks to her promise to amend the constitution and offers adequate explanations about the allegations against her and her relatives, the political situation in the Philippines will remain unstable.” Pointing out that Philippine “democracy has often been troubled, with citizens having to resort to people’s power to make their voices heard,” and that, “Failed attempts to reform society and the economy are at the root of the country’s persistent political unrest,” the Japanese paper’s editorial observes that in the meantime, ”politicians and their cronies are amassing fortunes. The allegations of corruption against Arroyo and her family mirror those that ended Estrada’s political career. No wonder the people are up in arms.”
The ongoing political crisis in the Philippines is a case of what happens when the mailed fist greets all those seeking to question government’s actions. What might have begun as a normal, perhaps naïve, request for a sign of good faith and a demonstration of accountability, transforms into a situation that radicalizes people. From the very start, the unreasonableness of the Philippines president’s reaction to criticism not only emboldened further criticism, but inspired outright defiance and opposition. A good case in point was the handling, by the president’s people, of the normally ceremonial procedure of proclaiming the winners of a national election.
In May, 2004, as the Philippine Congress proceeded with its constitutional duty to survey the election results and proclaim a winner, the process got bogged down in questions of intent and procedure: Was Congress supposed to conduct a superficial accounting, or a genuine one? The supporters of the leading opposition candidate cried fraud (as is always the case), but the government’s reaction, instead of engaging in some sort of conciliatory measure, decided to force through a proclamation, regardless of any doubts. At the time, I recall being uncomfortable with the arguments used by the president’s Congressional allies: It was a lot of noise, they said, and a waste of time; everyone knew the results.
I was uncomfortable with what they said, because of the reasoning behind it: That objections, and even procedural delays, can be swept aside in the name of efficiency. To justify efficiency in the face of skepticism by the defeated is to fail to understand how democracy works. It works only as far as not only those outside power, but those holding it, are prepared to demonstrate a capacity to trust their mandates and more importantly, go the extra length required to prove that mandate. With inauguration day looming, even the suggestion from the opposition, that only a limited number of provincial election results be looked into, was ignored. And with it went the chance to either call the opposition’s bluff, or prove them wrong beyond a shadow of doubt.
Going on two years later, the doubts remain. They have been reinforced. The initial skepticism and suspicion has been compounded by every political scandal that has erupted ever since. Every public manifestation of opposition or questioning — the very things that not only forced Marcos out of power in 1986, but brought Arroyo to the presidency in 2001 — has been swept aside, in repeated instances of official intolerance to what was once officially welcomed and even encouraged, when Arroyo was still anxiously waiting in the wings to become president.
Personally, of course, I am convinced that the reason Arroyo has increasingly resorted to methods and policies that would have been unthinkable for every previous, post-Marcos Philippine president, is that she cannot afford to submit to any scrutiny of how she conducted her presidential campaign, and her reactions to challenges to her legitimacy since. She has used — and I would say, abused — her powers such that, what may have been her original intention of simply surviving until her term expires in 2010, can no longer be her objective. Having jailed her predecessor, she can be sure, should an unfriendly government succeed her, that a similar fate awaits her. Even if she is not jailed from day one of a new government not controlled by her, she would have lost the immunity from suit she now enjoys. She would therefore be deluged with case after case: For plunder, corruption, abuse of power, and so on.
That is why, quite early on in the present political crisis, I said in private that Arroyo has no option but to seek to be president-for-life. I have said in public, too; I say it again, because it needs to be said, now, early on, and not later. There is a saying, often repeated, by Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I would go further and repeat A.J.P. Taylor’s comment on Napoleon III — an elected leader turned dictator — that “Like most of those who study history, he learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.” Arroyo is trying to avoid being immediately written off as a new Ferdinand Marcos, but the objective of her rule is proving all too much the same: To turn her back on the democratic nature of her country, however flawed, in order to pursue a more perfect form of security from a skeptical and even hostile people. She forgets that the most she can do is buy time; but that eventually time cannot be on her side.