The Long View
According to a congressman I asked about the prospects of Charter change, the campaign for amendments is dead. The Speaker, according to the representative, told his colleagues that any changes proposed – and approved – wouldn’t apply to themselves, to make the whole thing acceptable to the public. When they heard this, the Speaker’s fellow congressmen expressed not only disgust, but that they’d immediately drop all interest in amendments.
Whether that story’s true or a tongue-in-cheek tall tale, only House insiders know. What I think is emerging, though, is that after years of being on the defensive, the Palace is now on the offensive. It has taken the measure of its enemies and found them wanting. And while conventional wisdom has it that time is running out for the administration, it may just be that its window of opportunity is wider than conventional wisdom dictates.
That conventional wisdom says that if Charter change isn’t accomplished by June, when the current second session of the 14th Congress draws to a close, the President (and her people) will have to resign themselves to making an accommodation with a successor, as she becomes a lame duck. Her lame-duck status would be inaugurated by her July State of the Nation Address (under her present term, her last). She’d never been able to escape the Supreme Court and the AFP serving as the ultimate check-and-balance on her, or her subordinates’ ambitions.
However, Tony Abaya thinks the window of opportunity’s wide open and will remain so, not just until June or July, but until May next year. With regards to the Supreme Court, if the administration wants to ram Charter change through sooner rather than later, the possibility of impeaching the Chief Justice remains a viable one. There’s also what Abaya calls “Plan A-1,” which is to postpone – not cancel – the May, 2010 elections, on the pretext that social unrest has broken out because of the economic crisis; the Chief Justice having to retire in May, a new Chief Justice could be appointed in time to validate a House-led amendments proposal.
Indeed, Ana Marie Pamintuan says that there are people within the present dispensation toying with the idea of emergency rule. If true, this would be the revival of a plan previously thwarted by former Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr. and former Ambassador Albert del Rosario and John Negroponte, who flew to Manila to express Washington’s opposition to the plan. Cruz and some other Cabinet members then thwarted an attempt to wield emergency powers on the sly, by publicly countering the assertion made by other Cabinet members that the President’s declaration of a state of emergency gave her martial-law-like powers.
Behind the scenes, it’s said that Gen. Alexander Yano, the widely respected AFP chief of staff, has fostered a kind of consensus within the Armed Forces: the AFP will not look kindly on coup attempts, so long as the administration refrains from any attempt to extend its stay in office or engage in unconstitutional behavior. But that consensus is only maintained by Yano’s own personal prestige within the military. Pamintuan says the things to look out for are whether the defense secretary ends up replaced in May or June, as well as the appointment of Lt. Gen. Delfin Bangit as the next chief of staff.
Which brings me to the latest Pulse Asia survey, which revealed 65 percent of the public considers holding elections in May 2010 a “big possibility” and which has 51 percent saying they agree there will be “big trouble” if the elections are not held. However, the same survey has big chunks of the public thinking otherwise. There’s 13 percent who think there’s a “small possibility/none” that the elections will take place; while 22 percent are undecided. That totals 35 percent. Even more interesting are the figures for combining those who are undecided (21 percent) or who disagree (27 percent) that “big trouble” would arise if the elections weren’t held. That’s 48 percent of the country that more or less shrugs off the possible cancellation of the elections.
Why do these numbers cause me unease? I’ve argued for some years now that the country’s basically divided; that while half the country opposes the President, that half is hopelessly divided on which options to pursue or leaders to follow. On the other hand, the divisions in the President’s half of the country are simpler: there’s a quarter of the population that calls itself “undecided” on most serious questions, with another quarter supporting her come hell or high water. In the end, the passive and active support combines to form a blocking force.
The President’s committed 25 percent is enough to closely match the support of any individual leader angling to replace her; another 25 percent can be relied upon to bury its head in the sand at the first sign of trouble, which adds to the equity of the incumbent. The Palace is now methodically targeting leaders with enough residual popularity (Estrada) or will (Lacson) to galvanize the opposition should a make-or-break effort be launched to extend the President’s term – or to give her a new lease on political life as Member of Parliament for Pampanga.
The potential presidential candidates, of course, have no choice but to embark on building alliances, in the hope that the process snowballs into an unstoppable public demand for elections come May 2010. But as it stands, practically half the country could live without those elections, and the other half would quarrel among themselves as to whose lead to follow in opposing a possible postponement-or conversion of the polls to a parliamentary one.
It’s a situation begging to be exploited. And when did the present dispensation ever decline to exploit any situation with political potential?