Back in 1997-1998, President Ramos ordered the presidential palace, rather run down and ramshackle after a decade of being uninhabited, repaired so that, as he put it, his successor would have a place fit to live in. At the time, it seemed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would be a contender for the presidency, and I recall telling some friends (who were shocked) that if she won, you could be sure she would never step down. If she climbed the stairs of the Palace in an act of symbol repossession, I said, the only way she’d ever leave would be on a stretcher.
They asked me why I said that, and I remember correctly, I explained that she’d shown power was more important than anything else. She’d been elected to the Senate not as a Liberal, but as something else, despite her father having been one of the few absolutely loyal party men the country’s produced (DM got many people to switch parties but from the time he entered politics to the day he died, he was always a Liberal, and proud of it).
This told me, I said (engaging in some amateur psychology) that we should consider that the one, enduring lesson she’d learned from her father’s rise and fall, is that Nice Guys Finish Last. Every presidential family’s fall from power is traumatic to the members of that family, but the fall of Macapagal was followed by the longest period of political obscurity any presidential family’s had to endure: Macapagal was more often than not, used as a figure of fun by the Marcoses and so the psychological wounds would have been particularly great. The daughter had already done better than the father (DM had failed in his senate bid in the 50s), and she could look forward to not only posthumously vindicating her father by becoming president (a dream that had eluded Serging Osmena, Gerry Roxas and Doy Laurel), but also, to relishing the role of being the top dog after decades of having her family treated like dogs, relatively speaking. Like her mother, she has a long memory and nurses grudges.
What changed my mind was her biding her time, and her going for the vice-presidency: she’s capable of holding her ambition in check, I thought. And more or less I felt I’d unfairly estimated her as she proved overall, a good boss and as President, she seemed inclined to be generous to the memory of her predecessors and more inclined to institution-building. The high point of this was her announcement not to run for the presidency in 2004. I remember being quite touched and telling anyone who would listen, how proud I was to be working for such a president. This was a thing of personal importance to me, because in my article on Corazon Aquino as the Person of the Century, I’d argued that what our country has had all too little of, are leaders who willingly, and serenely, relinquish power (which is why I continue to admire Cory Aquino). And I recall my irritation when other people in the Palace (belonging to the camp of the President’s husband) were either non-committal or openly disappointed with the President’s decision.
But I began to return to my original impression of the President when she announced, a year later, that she would, after all, seek election to the presidency. Whether I should continue serving her or not was, in a sense, decided for me when the Inquirer offered me a job on condition that I relinquish any official appointment; I could return to focusing on my profession while supporting her but no longer as as part of her administration. And still, I tried to soldier on in support of her until 2005 proved that she would stop at nothing, thereby proving that, indeed, her guiding principle was, Nice Guys Finish Last. My decision to stop supporting the President has been chronicled in this blog, and there’s no need to revisit it.
An economist I recently met told me he’d had the President as his professor, and that he felt she’d been a lousy teacher. Why, I asked. She conducted classes, he said, like a bully. She gloried in bombarding her students with questions, saying it was how law students toughened up. The economist said that’s not the way questions are approached in economics, as a discipline, and that furthermore she derived too much enjoyment from demonstrating her authority every which way she could. She tried to pander to female students, he said, but the female students, oddly enough, resented it.
I do believe the President thinks she is doing the country a favor and that as she survives crisis after crisis, this belief has been buttressed by an absolute certainty on her part that she will do the country good even if the country thinks otherwise. Hers is the essentially self-defeating attitude of a weak person who becomes a bully, and thinks that it’s a virtue to hold on to power by appealing to the mercenary instincts of those who surround her. This is self-defeating because there always comes a point where someone can not be bought, and will no longer be for sale; while leaders who appeal to the higher instincts of their followers can often ask them to make superhuman sacrifices for a cause the leader’s been able to identify as a shared goal both leader and follower possess.
All this is a lengthy prelude to what we observe today. Two articles put the the recently concluded baranggay elections in perspective: Village polls become prep work for 2010 race and Arroyo seeks allies in villages, doles out more power, perks. In most healthy democracies, public opinion is what leaders aim to cultivate; in the case of the President, it is the machinery that she lovingly oils, and which hums its gratitude, in turn. This is what I called The “vision thing”, in 2005.
Yet the absence of an inspiring vision matters less than a thorough, even if contemptuous, mastery of the levers of power. A mastery that trumps everyone trying to seize those levers.
Here’s s very interesting observation in The Blog:
This entire drama is being played out between the ruling classes, and there doesn’t appear to be any space presenting itself for a legitimate democratic revolution – who would lead one anyway, with the Left bitterly divided between the powerful Communists and the less radical but more responsible center leftists?
There is one interesting possibility that should be noted. Though no space has arisen yet, there is an opportunity for some opportunistic elite politician to finally decide to take the first shot and engage with the Left (who have all but completely sat this current fight out). A leader like that, from outside the left, might be able to unite the factions and lead a legitimate democratic revolution.
In another interesting development, that I haven’t seen anyone writing about or discussing, there is a gathering storm slowly approaching Manila. Though mostly out of the headlines in the capital, the MAPALAD farmers are gathering support from communities across the Philippines in their march from Mindanao to the capitol. Their 1998 hunger strike became a tremendous media event, earned them a later-broken promise from then-candidate Estrada, and probably was the single biggest factor in the extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
Today, CARP is up for extension again. With the political situation as it is, if, as we suggested above, an opportunistic trapo were to bring in the Left, the arrival of MAPALAD circa Dec. 10th would present a unique opportunity to gain mass support of many in rural communities and their allies. The Communists aren’t in favor of extending CARP (they oppose reform, and seek rather to overthrow the complete system and seize the land from the current landowners), but the NPA itself expressed support for MAPALAD in 1998. The symbolic value of MAPALAD could be the catalyst and rallying point for a real democratic uheaval in this country. The space isn’t there yet, but opportunity to make it is.
The blogger, incidentally, doesn’t think the Speaker will fall (see his article in Newsbreak, Ethics Complaint vs JDV Doomed; see, also, similar views in Philippine Politics 04), but considers what will happen if he does. This involves the baranggay elections which represent a political consolidation, and an investment in the future, by the President:
With barangay elections out of the way it’s full steam ahead into the legislative session as the House comes back from recess. If JDV falls, proving me wrong and possibly ending my journalism career before it ever begins, Arroyo will likely get an ally of hers in the House. This would set the stage for another fight over ChaCha (charter change), through which Gloria hopes to reorganize Philippine government under a parliamentary system, paving the way for her to stay in power through 2010, the end of her current constitutionally mandated term.
In his column, Tony Abaya thinks he has it all figured out (and I happen to think he pretty much does):
Readers may also recall that in the latter half of 2006, there were concerted efforts to shift to the parliamentary system.
One through a people’s initiative led by the Sigaw ng Bangaw, the other through a Senate-less constituent assembly shamelessly maneuvered by Speaker Jose de Venecia (who wanted to become interim prime minister, before the whip-wielding dominatrix takes over in July 2010.
That both maneuvers failed, thanks to an outraged public opinion and an uncooperative Supreme Court, does not mean the efforts toward parliamentary have been abandoned. Less than 14 days ago, President Arroyo, out of the blue and without anyone asking her, called for a shift to a federal form of government “by the year 2012.”
This means that agitation for federalism will begin before her presidential term ends in 2010. This would be a signal for the Sigaw ng Bangaw to launch another people’s initiative towards a simultaneous shift to parliamentary.
Proof? The baranggay investment strategy, the trial balloon involving names for possible Comelec appointments (keep your friends close, and you enemies even closer), and the rallying of support of the congressmen in cassocks known as the Catholic hierarchy. A thorough analysis of the dynamics within the Catholic hierarchy is in Conservatives Now Control CBCP; Bishops Won’t Join Resign-GMA Calls:
Although Lagdameo got a fresh mandate for another two years, the bishops–in a surprise move–replaced CBCB vice president Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro.
In CBCP history, members of the permanent council usually enjoy two terms in office, with the vice president normally succeeding the president when his term expires. Ledesma, described as a progressive bishop and a Lagdameo follower, was supposed to succeed Lagdameo at the end of the latter’s term in 2010.
But breaking tradition, the conservative bishops ousted Ledesma and replaced him with Bishop Nereo Odchimar of Tandag, considered a conservative.
A CBCP officer privy to the June election disclosed that Lagdameo in fact barely won the presidency. He had to undergo three secret balloting before he was able to garner the required majority for his reelection.
The replacement of Ledesma, as well as Lagdameo’s tough reelection, showed that most of the bishops are already uncomfortable with the CBCP’s active involvement in political affairs.
In her column, Ellen Tordesillas gives us an insight into the dynamics of the Arroyo-Estrada AgrementL
Sources privy to the negotiations of the pardon said Estrada was dictating the terms. What Arroyo wanted from Estrada is for him stop funding the protests against Arroyo and for the ousted president to rally his loyalists to support the one who engineered his ouster.
Estrada complied in his statement early afternoon Friday when the delivery of the pardon was being delayed. In a statement read by his lawyer, Ed Serapio, outside the gate of his Tanay estate, Estrada addressed Arroyo “President” and thanked her for granting him “full, free and absolute pardon midway through her term.” The sentence recognized Gloria’s Arroyo’s term stolen from his dear friend, Fernando Poe Jr.
This was the clincher that finally made Puno chopper through cloudy skies to deliver the pardon: “I believe I can best continue to repay to our people the blessings that God has so graciously given me by supporting from hereon the programs of Mrs. Arroyo that are intended to attack generational poverty and hunger.”
Arroyo must indeed be desperate to hang on to this assurance by Estrada. If she thinks Estrada’s loyalists will love her because of the pardon, she is hallucinating. The adoration of Estrada’s fans of their idol is not transferable. In fact, they see the pardon as something that she owes their idol. No thanks to her.
Estrada’s funding of rallies has long been a non-factor among the “protest community”. If he was not able to gather an impressive crowd last September during the Sandiganbayan promulgation, he is not expected to subsidize the gathering of warm bodies for any protest activity. Besides, Edsa One and Two type of protest is already a thing of the past, rally organizers concede.
Ellen points out that the President’s much-diminished core group of supporters have to be troubled by the President’s efforts to cozy up to Estrada. Not least because the apparent easing out of Executive Secretary Ermita in a showdown over strategy with Sec. Ronnie Puno, puts the President’s political prospects in the hands of someone widely assumed of being the epitome of the mercenary.
As John Nery says, in his column,
Another traditional politician is in charge of the President’s own fortunes. Ronaldo Puno is not only the secretary of the interior and local government (and thus head of the country’s police forces), he is also the presidential adviser on political affairs. He chairs President Arroyo’s own political party, Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi)…
There is no question, however, that Puno is a political animal — in Aristotle’s original sense, of a species whose nature it is to live for the State.
But his many years in government service or political work (he also served as Joseph Estrada’s interior secretary) have given Puno a reputation associated with another philosopher: Machiavelli.
I am certain he will dispute the following characterization, but his political work can be said to display a signature style. He is fond of the feint; he is a whiz at the use of funds; his trail is followed by accusations of fraud.
He is adept at diversionary tactics (his crucial role in Estrada’s pardon, effected at a time of political scandal, has been both recognized and condemned). Political operators say he knows how to use special funds strategically (his own secretary-general in Kampi, Francis Ver, was involved in the attempted bribery of opposition congressmen; his own undersecretary at the DILG just happened to be in Malacañang during the alleged distribution of cash gifts in paper bags). And fraud continues to dog his name (he has been accused of masterminding the so-called Sulu Hotel operations, which reputedly gave Ramos the margin of victory)…
The point of all this: Is Puno the right man to guide President Arroyo in the endgame?
Granted, he can win elections; indeed, his signature working style (marked by those three F-words) works best, and was perhaps first perfected, in election campaigns. But it is a mistake to treat the President’s last days in office as though it were only the continuation of electoral warfare by other means.
John could also have observed, that every President who’s relied on Puno has had their ambitions foiled: Marcos fell; Ramos had his desire for a term extension thwarted; Estrada fell. And the President?
An an altogether unrelated note, this entry in Bayang Magiliw is just an enjoyable read.
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