Diminished Expectations, Diminishing Returns
by Manuel L. Quezon III
In his autobiography, Diosdado Macapagal wrote, “The greatness of a ruler lies in his ability to exercise restraint in the use of tremendous power. The essence of a democrat consists of the patience to secure his wishes through the complex machinery of the system of checks and balances, which is the indispensable life-blood of the democratic system and not through the expediency of crushing all opposition. The essential trait of a democracy is not power but responsibility, not authority but duty.”
It would be easy to say that President Gloria Arroyo Macapagal as chief executive has not lived up to the description of leadership written by her father. But Sen. Joker Arroyo for one, represents the view that she has. He’s pointed out (to defend, of course, his decision to run under her coalition banner) that much as he’s been a pain in the neck when it comes to her executive issuances, the president has never used her position as nominal chief of the administration coalition to put pressure on him; and that what she has done, he essentially agrees with, anyway, and that is, to make life difficult for those clamoring for people power, for the fall of her presidency, or who support ideologies traditionally opposed to anything and everything our Fifth Republic stands for, anyway.
As far as that goes, it’s a fair statement. The president, by instinct, belongs to the old political culture that kept its hands off its enemies who also held office. Reward and punishment was — is — straightforward, involving the pork barrel. Any harassment would strictly be small potatoes, say arresting someone for crossing the street, without detaining them for very long, but never really letting a case reach the point of being filed or ever going away.
In contrast, the Estrada era began with the disappearance of the man said to have taped him gambling, and ended with the disappearance of a political public relations fixer at odds with him. Not to mention the use of the BIR against enemies, or advertising boycotts. In contrast, President Arroyo, for example, even when business was being critical of her, never hit them where they’d hurt: their pocketbooks; and except for the left, she has avoided many opportunities to hit her enemies really hard.
She has had no compunctions, of course, about using the police and armed forces against the poor, the obscure, or those who don’t belong to her social and political circles — but then again it could be argued few presidents have ever had such compunctions. What sets her administration apart is that it lacks two fundamental things required for a president to get away with such acts of impunity. The first being a large mandate and the second, the ability to present herself as the personification of the country’s destiny.
During a break at Media Nation 4.1 someone (a partisan of the president) observed that the presidency as an institution is much diminished, meaning that our historical expectations of the presidency, and our traditional assumptions of the influence a president has, no longer applies. To me, that view suggested something notable, sad, but perhaps quite true: the era of the great leader is past, and it might be unrealistic of us, that is, we, the people, to expect greatness in our leaders. To that extent, the president was on to something when she said, at the beginning of her presidency, that she aspired to being a good, never mind great, president. The person who made this observation made another one in a forum we both attended: in many ways, because of the trauma of the martial-law years, our present system is designed to prevent an overly strong leader from emerging. In the process, this guarantees that practically no president will be able to lead effectively.
The traditional strengths of the presidency haven’t been there for some time: a majority and not plurality mandate, a party machinery solid enough to last at least as long as an administration’s term. The last time a president achieved an unquestionable majority was in 1965; the last real landslide was in 1969. Since then the best percentage a post-EDSA president has managed was Estrada’s 39.6 percent in 1998. This only put him on par with the most underwhelming presidency of the Third Republic, Carlos P. Garcia, lone plurality president of his time, who obtained 41.3 percent (over time, it’s the percentage, not the number of votes that matters, since our population is always increasing). As for a party, the one Ramos built didn’t survive his presidency and neither did Estrada’s coalition; neither is the current one, which is devouring its own children in the Lakas-Kampi conflict.
In retrospect, it’s even more understandable now why the president was so insistent on a million-vote margin of victory instead of simply, victory. Since 2001 she’d realized how wide the gulf between the mythic place of the presidency, and its diminished reality, is. It is a lesson those jockeying to succeed her may be coming to realize, now. Try as anyone might, on both sides of the aisle, public participation in our politics may have already peaked.
In the senate race, fellow Inquirer Current blogger John Nery points out something interesting. A survey score in the low to mid 30s got Honasan 13th place in 2004; today, rating lower, the mid to high 20s, it’s enough to put Honasan in 11th place. A candidate can therefore do more, with less, but the relevant fact here is that this means all the candidates are having to do more with less — with less being public support.
Diminished expectations, diminishing returns: the fight can only get more vicious as fewer are involved and whoever may be swayed one way or another, get smaller but more crucial. Debased and degenerate?
As far as describing the system, the president was correct; but so far, so have been the solutions except the tried and tested, but also diminished though tried and true way of elections.