An Unimaginative Official Response to 2008
by Manuel L. Quezon III
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, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, 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.
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.
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, than achievement and optimism. 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?
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 overseas remittance cash cow, a healthy stock and property market, a content upper and middle class — operational. 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.