Here are my thoughts on the President’s Eighth State of the Nation Address (pictures and video here), as I conveyed them on Korina Sanchez’s show and briefly on Channel News Asia (Singapore).
A State of the National Address, in particular, has two main audiences in mind. Those sitting in the Session Hall of the House of Representatives, that is, officialdom; and those watching or listening on TV or the radio (or lately, on the Internet) -the citizenry. The President can be more subtle when it comes to sending messages to fellow members of the political class; she has to be more explicit when it comes to the impressionable public or politically naive allies such as the Catholic hierarchy (to whom she pledged the adoption of “natural” family planning as her government’s definition of birth control).
First, however, some thoughts on what we should bear in mind. This is the penultimate, or next to the last, State of the Nation Address the President will be making, under her current term of office. It is also the last she will be making as an effective president. By sheer force of tradition and reality, if presidential elections are held under the current rules in May, 2010, this means next year’s State of the Nation Address must be her swan song. This is her last chance to really push the country in the direction she wants; it is the last such occasion where Congress and the local officials need her, in a sense, more than she needs them.
By next July, the presidential campaign would have been well under way; her ruling coalition, quite conceivably, would be up for grabs as officialdom obsessed over which candidate to affiliate with and support. Her cabinet would be, by then, composed of tired, old holdovers deprived of prospects in the next dispensation, as the more politically-adept and ambitious would have started resigning by then, to run for higher office, enter a comfortable (and relatively case-free) retirement secure in the knowledge that their successors would bear the brunt of the inevitable lawsuits that accompany every change in dispensation. She would be a lame duck, though far from powerless.
The stark political choice facing her would be to dangle the prospect of her figuring out a way to keep the coalition fat, content, and in power, or throw in the towel now, and thereby fan the embers of ambition already glowing in the hearts of several prospective presidential candidates: to adopt a fatalistic attitude is neither like her nor politically wise; to at the very least hint that she has the means to reward and punish members of her coalition, and that they may have a prize worth brazening it out with her, is, I’d argue, not only clever, but necessary.
Her defense of her policies on VAT, which came as no surprise, carried with it this statement which I think distills the message she’s trying to convey to her coalition:
Take VAT away and you and I abdicate our responsibility as leaders and pull the rug from under our present and future progress, which may be compromised by the global crisis.
This was her warning to a coalition that, if you noticed the volume of their applause during the entire VAT-related portion of her speech, was quite publicly torn between manifesting its bootlicking for the President and not being too enthusiastic about a President prepared to be unpopular, but who can do so while they all have to bear the crushing memory of Ralph Recto’s going down in flames during the last election because of being tagged as the chief legislative architect of the VAT.
She warned them, essentially, that no money, no honey -and buttressed her point by listing, in detail, the multitude of programs she and her coalition must undertake, not only to help the poor, but court their votes. I believe that politically, the observation of that Bear Stearns analyst back in 2005 remains valid: eVAT provides the funding for patronage in our government, and the President pointedly reminder her coalition on which side their fiscal bread is buttered. Filipinos may instinctively realize the government isn’t to blame for the rise in the price of oil, they may be so naturally docile that in truth, rioting in the streets is a remote possibility; but she knows as well as they, that as the nation’s stewards they will get the blame for the belt-tightening everyone has to undertake at present.
Retaining VAT, then offers up the best possible combination: in certain respects, it is the appropriate response at the appropriate time, providing a windfall necessary for funding relief to the poor; at the same time, it maintains an appearance of government sobriety and even political will, in being unpopular domestically but impressive to the bankers and financiers whose blessings have helped obtain favorable credit (and rates) for the government; and relief becomes a convenient cover for patronage.
And perhaps as an exercise in demonstrating how unpopularity can still result in popular applause, there was this, most-noticed and sole genuine crowd-pleaser in her speech:
Texting is a way of life. I asked the telecoms to cut the cost of messages between networks. They responded. It is now down to 50 centavos.
Which was as much a shot across the bow at big business, as it was a sop to gain propaganda points from the public. As of this writing, talk is already going around that this is a “limited time only” thing, perhaps along the same lines as the President having used moral suasion to demand that the oil companies roll back oil prices in the weeks leading to her speech. And while the oil companies grudgingly complied -but stated, with ill-disguised bad humor, that this might be one of the last times the President could do that to them- and while the telecoms companies will have to react to the President planting the idea of cheaper SMS messages in the public’s mind, this is of no consequence to her. The propaganda points have been made, she can worry about businessmen later.
This was the passage that I felt was overlooked by most but which was pregnant with meaning:
The sad irony of Mindanao as food basket is that it has some of the highest hunger in our nation. It has large fields of high productivity, yet also six of our ten poorest provinces.
The prime reason is the endless Mindanao conflict. A comprehensive peace has eluded us for half a century. But last night, differences on the tough issue of ancestral domain were resolved. Yes, there are political dynamics among the people of Mindanao. Let us sort them out with the utmost sobriety, patience and restraint. I ask Congress to act on the legislative and political reforms that will lead to a just and lasting peace during our term of office.
Why do I say this statement’s pregnant with meaning?
Ricky Carandang on July 21 laid out the stage for what actually unfolded today:
Recent efforts by the Regime to resurrect the long dormant peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have led to pronoucments by lead negotiators Rodolfo Garcia and Hermogenes Esperon that revisions to the constitution would be required in order to give more legal and fiscal autonomy to the expanded region of Muslim Mindanao. They point to a resolution to shift to a federal form of government proposed by, of all people, Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr.
This means that aside from Arroyo and her politicans, there will be a significant number of people in Mindanao who will find it in their interest to support charter change this time around. The regime can also pre-empt potential opposition from the international community by arguing that that the revisions would enhance stability in Mindanao and make it less susceptible to terrorism. In which case extending Arroyo’s term would be a small price to pay. I’m told that this the line taken during Arroyo’s recent working visit to the US. Its almost like blackmail. If you want stability in Mindanao, you must allow us to stay in power beyond 2010.
Even as it puts the wheels into motion, the Regime can therefore argue that amending the Constitution will not be self serving, it will be a big step towards a lasting peace in Mindanao. Besides, it will argue, it was actually the opposition, through Senator Pimentel, that proposed the idea, not us!
Mindanao is the President’s achilles heel. Recently I was able to have a talk with a former official (see my blog entries, Thoughts on Mindanao and Dismal Diplomacy), among others, who confirmed my view that the increase in rice prices in Mindanao reflected war jitters -or as the former official preferred to explain it, an added premium on all business activity in Mindanao to reflect uncertainty and risk. From what I’ve been able to gather, the dilemma facing the President, as far as Mindanao concerned is simple: the government only has enough money to attend to programs for the poor, or to fight a war in Mindanao, but not both. The last thing it needs are for tensions to rise there, further complicating the situation.
And that situation has been bad and deteriorating for some time, as the President has had to coddle her Moro allies from the traditional and warlord clans, who hold government positions, while parlaying with the MILF. But what should have enabled her to negotiate from a position of strength, has proven less than outstanding in recent months. If you survey the papers, NPA offensives have increased not only in the Visayas (which may be due less to an actual increase in the ranks of the NPA, but low morale and poor leadership in the AFP) , but also in Mindanao, where there is talk of a growing MILF-NPA tactical alliance. This has given the MILF, if I understand it correctly, added clout, while the President’s dilemma is that the forthcoming ARMM elections -widely expected to go the way of her allies, by hook or by crook- would deprive the MILF of a chance to not just sit at the bargaining table, but formalize its control over some areas. The MILF’s ultimate strength, of course, is its perceived ability to cause real mayhem if things deteriorate to the point of open hostilities.
Put another way, she owes her allies a victory in the ARMM elections but she will be hard-put to convince the MILF and other rebel groups she’s serious about bringing them into the Republic’s fold if all they can look forward to is being on the outside looking in on her allies ruling the official roost in Moro areas. Not to mention the demand of the MILF for the President to find a way to expand the territory covered by the ARMM, without making the MILF a party to a plebiscite, which might prove embarrassing if it results in a loss for the proposed expanded ARMM (it seems many of the areas proposed for addition to an enlarged ARMM are borderline majority Muslim, at best, and in the case of quite a number of towns, borderline Christian-dominated).
The President, a political pragmatist, wasn’t inclined to postpone the ARMM elections previously but recently, there’s been a noticeable shift, after things got a bit warm with Malaysia’s showing its displeasure with our official foot-dragging on the peace process (said the former official: the real Malaysian concern is that the fluid situation in Mindanao is leading to the kind of power vacuum governments abhor; Malaysia doesn’t want a further radicalization in Mindanao which has already caused problems because radicals who find refuge in Mindanao then smuggle arms to Malaysia’s own radicals).
As Carandang suggests, perhaps because it offers up the prospects of finally accomplishing Charter Change at a time when the Palace can count on an obliging Supreme Court to smooth away all constitutional obstacles to either Charter Change as a whole, or the expansion of the ARMM’s territory. During Korina’s show, I had the chance to ask Sec. Jesus Dureza some questions (I have interacted with him in the past, in his capacity as Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, in which he laid out, in bold strokes, the government’s willingness to basically offer Commonwealth status for Muslim Mindanao).
I asked him (Dureza) about the President’s statement, and specifically, what the agreement arrived at last night was about good courtier, he said I was being fanciful but then he hemmed and hawed, saying he wasn’t a party to the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, but that what seemed to be on the table was not expanding the current ARMM but rather, creating an additional (for lack of a better word) ARMM II. While he pooh-poohed the possibility of Charter Change in general terms, he declined to give additional details as to how whatever has been agreed upon, will be carried out, broadly hinting that it merely had to do with scheduling a plebiscite to approve the ARMM II, which required a law. If the coming days reveals that the MILF has suddenly returned to the bargaining table and gone as far as withdrawing their objections to a referendum, there was obviously a quid pro quo.
Could it involve something as easily fixed as postponing the ARMM polls (sending those interested in it as a laboratory for electoral automation into hysterics, and probably irritating the President’s warlord and traditional Moro allies, too, specially if they will then have to share power with MILF nominees)? Maybe; but the possibility of going whole hog by using it as a cover for broader constitutional change -by declaring it “political reform”- seems to me quite probable. The dividends are too tantalizingly delicious to pass up. Allies -from the USA to Malaysia- will be reassured; business might perk up; popularity might be reclaimed if Federalism proves politically attractive; the MILF and other groups will be pacified; and the ruling coalition and the President get a new lease on power.
This is why the President didn’t dwell, unlike last year, on her leaving office and instead, issued a warning to potential succesors. This is why the speech she delivered focused on pandering to the groups who’d check-mated her Charter Change and other ambitions in the past, from the bishops to businessmen: delivering, instead, a speech, which if you dissect it, is a gigantic public works/pork barrel roster.
Blog@AWBHoldings takes a cue from Queen Elizabeth I and puts forward a satirical version in the manner of a Speech from The Throne; A Filipina Mom Blogger offers up a parent’s reaction; over at Filipino Voices, there is a call for less market intervention and a whole lotta hope. And finally, here is how the Palace wants you to interpret the President’s speech.