On Sunday the Inquirer editorial pointed out that Americans are not only keenly interested in their upcoming presidential election, but have been for some time -far earlier than usual. The editorial says this is due to Americans eagerly looking forward to regime change.
The 2010 presidential race has also begun, for us, rather early, which also points to the public heartily looking forward to installing the next administration in office -and giving thought to the various candidates presenting themselves even at this early stage. This is born out by the (admittedly unscientific) observation made by some bloggers and media people I’ve talked to, who’ve noticed that anything to do with the potential candidates for 2010 gets a large, and highly critical, readership.
Amando Doronila does not make the above point, but makes a different one that’s difficult to contradict:
Truly, 2010 heralds the closure of the turbulent EDSA-driven eras, defined by extra-electoral political change, and the beginning and the normalization of electoral politics now under the specter of military coups or withdrawal of support for sitting civilian governments.
This epochal shift gives us the opportunity to make a leadership change that offers this time a wide range of choices.
It is the advent of a younger generation in 2010 that makes the next election a qualitative change from the previous leadership handovers.
We will be electing in 2010 a new set of leaders who will take power with electoral mandates unblemished by the irregularity of an extra-electoral method of change represented by EDSA I and EDSA II, both marked by military interventions.
Year 2010, therefore, will mark a return to normal election processes as a mechanism of political change. This is what makes it a hopeful transition, although the relatively large field of choices does not ensure the emergence of an honest, efficient and results-oriented administration.
I suspect, though, that what we will find is really a two or at most, three person race, as both the politicians and the public narrow their choices and, who knows, actively seek a truly majority president for once, after a string of post-Edsa minority presidents.
Mon Casiple, in his blog, dissects the options that confront both the President and the opposition this year. In terms of the administration, he boils down the options available to three:
For the people in the GMA administration, the logical first choice will have have to be an extension of her stay in power–by a constitutional change allowing the president a second term or a change to either a parliamentary system or a federal state (which would require a transition provision). This is not possible at this time without a prior effort to dislocate the opponents of a GMA constitutional change–a scenario requiring massive political and electoral manipulation as well as ensuring an undisputed control of the armed forces.
A second choice is the building of a viable presidential candidate without the negative association with GMA in time for the 2010 elections. As in the first choice, this will maintain the ruling coalition but necessitates an early distancing from GMA or–more difficult–the positive upturn of GMA’s popularity.
A variation of this that benefits Vice-President Noli de Castro is an early retirement for GMA that would put him in the presidential chair to push forward the ruling coalition’s eventual candidate. However, it is a given that whoever this candidate will be, he or she will be campaigning with a huge millstone around his or her neck because of the present administration’s unpopularity, especially if GMA is still around in 2010.
Failure to make the above choices will effectively dissolve the ruling coalition and create a free-for-all where the strong presidentiables raid the ranks of the coalition to augment their own electoral coalitions. This will be evident in the incoming year as serious contenders make their moves to create the critical mass for their candidacies.
In terms of the opposition, Casiple lays out the main challenges, chief of which is the one that Doronila (see his piece above) credits Estrada with setting out to do: consolidate its forces (see Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, however, for his views on past presidents being permanently disqualified from running for the presidency again):
The momentary issue for the opposition (or for presidential hopefuls within the ruling coalition) is the possibility of a GMA endrun for a continued stay in power through a constitutional change. This possibility, though more remote than before, has to be laid to rest before the real battle for 2010 commences. 2008 therefore will lay the ground (or set the terms) for 2010.
In a situation where the president steps down or is passive in the 2010 presidential elections, the opposition–and the ruling coalition–will fragment and their component forces will go their own way to form new coalitions behind the presidentiables. The opposition as such will become irrelevant and the GMA factor will be a non-issue, except as another campaign issue against former administration candidates.
On the other hand, if the president continues on to 2010 or actively intervenes in the 2010 elections, then the main issue of the elections will be her administration’s legitimacy and record. The opposition, in this situation, needs to unite to ensure victory against the vast resources and machinery of the administration. Failure to do so will divide the protest vote and effectively jeopardize the chances of all opposition candidates.
The opposition (or the presidentiables from their ranks) will have its work cut out in 2008. A critical mass has to be formed behind one presidentiable capable of getting out the winning votes. The operative word here–crass though it may be to political reformers–is ADDITION.
A shrewd political observer I talked to over the weekend distilled both points into three broad questions which will determine things, politically, this year:
1. Will the President be more liberal, or restrictive?
2. Will the armed forces be adventurers, or remain firmly wedded to the constitutional order?
3. Will the public be active or passive?
My editor at the Philippines Free Press last week gave me my first assignment for the year. “I want you to explore whether the President can turn things around, and recover her popularity,” he said. The result of this challenge was the following:
MARILYN Monroe once said, “I’m selfish, impatient, and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control, and at times hard to handle… But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” The President of the Philippines is no blonde bombshell, but maintains much the same defiant, even petulant, attitude toward her critics. Divided as her critics may be on what they want to accomplish, the President has only two things to say to them: “I will survive,” and “I will continue to be relevant.”
Her perpetually having to be in survival mode is a problem unique to her administration; that of making every effort to remain relevant is an occupational hazard faced by all presidents approaching the end of their constitutional term.
Political analyst Mon Casiple says this year “will lay the ground (or set the terms) for 2010.” According to him, the President can do one of three things: try to extend her stay in office; intervene, actively, in the election of her successor; or step down gracefully and not bother with trying to influence the outcome of the 2010 presidential race. At stake is not just her personal and political safety, but also, the prospects for the continuing control of the levers of power by the coalition she’s built up and maintained, and the opportunities for her critics to gain control of those levers for themselves.
The President has been able to face down constitutional and extra-constitutional challenges to her rule; she has done so, not by mobilizing public support, but by capitalizing on public mistrust of the entire political class –and by mobilizing the resources available to her as the incumbent. Patronage, whether in cash or kind, by means of promotions or demotions, has kept her coalition much more united and purposeful than her opponents. She has also managed to step back from the brink whenever any administration initiative, such as the proposal to amend the constitution, threatens to galvanize opposition to her government.
Recently, the President said she was a better economist than she was a politician –a statement that inevitably sparked a debate on whether she was good at being either. What’s significant is not whether her self-analysis was objectively true, but rather, what it revealed about her. Her belief in herself as an economist first, and a politician second, may have been there all along, but has been unevenly expressed throughout her term. That she is more comfortable with herself helps explain, to my mind, why she has both endured and continues to maintain the allegiance of a significant portion of the population. Her self-satisfaction taps into a yearning from those sectors who consider it a virtue to sacrifice some of their freedoms in order to move the nation forward.
In contrast to the equally significant portion of the population convinced she has indeed presided over the erosion of freedom while not really moving the nation forward. To be sure, this analysis requires the stipulation that we accept that the surveys are correct: a quarter of the population solidly supports the president, another quarter tolerates her as the lesser evil and the least-inconvenient option, and the other half of the population can’t stand her but are utterly divided among themselves on what they want as an alternative.
In such a situation, essentially a battle of attrition, survival is highly probable so long as both sides continue to have access to resources. The President, by virtue of her controlling the national treasury, possessing the appointing power, and playing off the provinces versus the metropolis. Her critics, by means of their ability to marshal public opinion, have denied her total control of Congress and continue to flourish in pockets of opposition-controlled provinces and cities. Neither side, however, is capable of mounting an offensive to crush the enemy.
But the President’s attempt to make a virtue of her unpopularity, can’t obscure the fact that she holds a job whose powers are built on the cultivation of popularity. It is popularity that provides a president with room to maneuver, which allows a chief executive to pull the rug out from under the opposition, and which cushions the impact of programs or policies that may be unpleasant, but necessary for the common good.
The President and her team have tapped into simple, but effective, messages that resonate with enough of the public to keep the opposition divided and the rest wedded to the status quo. These messages are: the peso is strong, and the stock market high; we are attending to the serious business of governing while ignoring political noise; and we are pursuing infrastructure and economic reform while avoiding exotic and frightening economic options beloved by certain sectors in the opposition.
In the meantime, the administration has been fairly careful to avoid closing off the avenues that allow the public to do their own thing, never mind if the government takes credit for private sector achievements. Emigration abroad is encouraged; overseas contract work continues to be proclaimed a form of heroism. The real mass media, radio and television, has been kept manageable through a combination of co-opting individual media practitioners and the use of government media to sound a constant note, if not of reality, then of achievement and optimism. Print media has born the brunt of government pressure, applied more consistently and daringly than in the case of other media, which anyway has proven liable to being divided and easily intimidated.
Intervention in the business sphere has been less clumsy than in the case of past administrations: there is no Midnight Cabinet, deal-making is done overseas or in private homes and golf clubs, no particular business group or company has been targeted for destruction, and presidential corruption can at worst, be whispered about, but there are no obvious cases of high living or high-profile acquisitions to make businessmen and the middle class particularly nervous. Even in terms of the political class, the administration can be said to take things less personally than the opposition: once back in the administration fold, there’s far less lecturing and hectoring than takes place in opposition ranks.
Every bill, however, has a due date. Presidents use popularity to both charm and intimidate not only their critics, but their followers. Kissinger famously said power is an aphrodisiac and the art of seduction is an integral part of the political game. Bereft of charm, the President’s policy has been to buy the love of her supporters, but being transactional, there isn’t any real warmth: diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but cannot sustain political friendship. What real loyalty does the President command, or more precisely, can she continue to command, as the country prepares to select her successor?
This is her dilemma. It is a dilemma that presumes she is no different from her predecessors in wanting to accomplish three things in her last years in office: go down in history positively; remain influential (and safe); and possibly, convince the country it needs the incumbent more than it needs a replacement as chief executive. Ideally, every president (except for Corazon Aquino, the only exception in terms of never showing an interest in perpetuating herself in power) wants to accomplish all three. Though of the three, the last is, perhaps, the most expendable.
If we take the President at her word, meaning she looks forward to stepping down on June 30, 2010, her main problem becomes figuring out when to make her resolve unambiguous, without turning herself into a very lame duck. If her last State of the Nation address is any guide, she prefers ambiguity to the certainty of being a lame duck. In adopting this attitude, she makes recovering a semblance of popularity, virtually an impossibility. No President likes being unpopular, but any president would prefer actual power, to impotently enjoying the affections of a fickle people.
The President’s main task, then, becomes threefold: continuing to pay off political debts but not so recklessly and lavishly as to arouse the people; keeping everyone guessing as to what she truly intends to do in 2010, while pursuing every means to keep every option (including an extension of her term or a change to parliamentary government) on the table without, again, solidifying the opposition; and keeping the pressure valves –the OFW remittance cash cow, a healthy stock and property market, a content upper and middle class- operational.
She does not have to do these things particularly well; she never has. She only has to keep the impression going, that everything she does is not on an ad hoc basis, but instead, is based on a plan. That plan is simple: keep remittances coming in, which obscures the weaknesses of the domestic economy; keep the deficit under a semblance of control, by means of selling off government assets; juggling tax collections and spending so as to never put a crimp on her doling out patronage; and creating as many jobs as necessary for her supporters, whether civilian or military to maintain their tactical support.
Along the way, she can hope that she continues to enjoy better luck than her enemies. This includes hoping that nothing takes place in the outside world, that threatens to close off any of the safety valves in our society and economy. In the absence of anything extreme taking place, she can expect to coast along, and with her, the country. Lurching from event to event, but without risking any fundamental change, may not seem much in terms of governance, but what matters is that the President believes –and with her, her supporters- that along the way, small, incremental changes have been made.
At the start of her term, the President said she hoped not to be a great, but simply, a good president. Her legacy has been to take these diminished expectations, and convince enough of the country that it is better to do small things, and not bother with the big things –and who, in the end, can argue that this is not a genuine achievement? For a President who may not be loved, but who is tolerated, still gets to wield the same thing –power.
My column for today, Shod and unshod, takes its cue from the Sunday column of Joseph Gonzales. My column also makes reference to Randy David’s Civic duty and national renewal. In his column, David does his own distilling, this time in terms of what modernity demands of the citizenry:
The modern society that is upon us demands that we abide by its most basic rules. They are not difficult to understand. What are these? Three things, basically: (1) Fall in line and wait for your turn; (2) Know the rules and follow them; (3) Come on time. These simple rules will permit us to navigate the complex terrain of the modern world with ease. There is not a single modern society in the world today that does not strictly enforce these rules.
He then goes on to make a point about the evils of patronage, and with this particular point in mind, I’d like to refer you back to my entry, Charismatic expectations in noncharismatic times, where David’s point is echoed in the writing of Gary Wills, who makes reference to Max Weber and others whose thinking has influenced David’s, as a Sociologist.
At its simplest, the point is, a modern society relies on a bureaucracy to fulfill the social purposes that politicians dispensing patronage used to provide.