On May 28 in Berlin, Germany, Siegfried Herzog, Mark R. Thompson and I came together under the auspices of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation to participate in a roundtable on the recently concluded elections. Herzog is the project director for the Philippines of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German foundation for liberal politics which has as its Philippine partner, the Liberal Party. Thompson is a professor of political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and a visiting scholar at the University of California-Berkeley who has written extensively on Philippine politics.
Herzog had given another presentation to his foundation colleagues the day before, arguing that the 2010 elections featured two “Black Swan Events,” which were so surprising as to have been impossible to predict. The first was the impact of Cory Aquino’s death; the second was the campaign of Jejomar Binay and how he overtook frontrunners Loren Legarda and Mar Roxas.
Herzog’s identifying these two as “Black Swan Events” was particularly interesting because of the context in which he situated them. The outpouring of public grief also became a gigantic public demonstration because Aquino’s death was accompanied by the public scandal caused by the President’s dinner at Le Cirque. The drawn-out, highly Catholic “good death” of Aquino crystallized the contrast between the two lady presidents, one who had stubbornly continued protesting Ms Arroyo’s methods even as she was already fatally ill, while Ms Arroyo for her part showed how divorced she was from public opinion by uncorking the champagne at the precise moment the country was plunged into mourning.
On the other hand, Herzog believed that the Binay campaign was so unprecedented as to have been beyond the powers of prediction. (I was reminded of Galeazzo Ciano’s famous remark that victory has a hundred fathers while defeat is an orphan. In true Black Swan fashion, credit has been taken for the Binay campaign but only after the fact: it was, at the very least, a real nail-biter all the way down to election day itself.) On the whole, Herzog believed that the supporters of Benigno Aquino III and Joseph Estrada remained loyal to their tandems, and that what clinched matters was the mass defection of Legarda supporters to Binay instead of the poaching of Roxas supporters who remained firm in their commitment.
For the purposes of the roundtable, Herzog focused on the mixed legacy of the Arroyo administration. The Edsa Revolution in 1986, he argued, had deep repercussions in Asia, including China, and the success or failure of our democratic project since then continues to have repercussions in Asean, where until recently the democracy and human rights impetus came from three countries: the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. As for China, Herzog said it has no real interest in having successful democracies at its front door, so to speak.
The Philippine record vis-à-vis Asean and China has been downright reckless under the Arroyo administration. The country has been an unreliable ally, has thrown caution to the winds in cozying up to China, undermined the Asean position on the South China Sea, and treated otherwise friendly countries like Germany with fundamental discourtesy, whether in terms of investments (Fraport) or diplomatic relations (the humiliating replacement of Ambassador Delia Albert).
Whether the Philippines as a functioning democracy would flourish or backslide to authoritarianism depends on how the Arroyo government’s weakening of the institutional fabric would play out. Herzog identified three broad areas in which the democratic fabric was being torn: persistently toying with emergency powers; patterns of fraud in the 2004 and 2007 elections; and the Mindanao peace process ending up “instrumentalized for tactical purposes,” such as using it as a means to accomplish one of the administration’s long-standing (but frustrated) efforts, which was to change the Constitution.
These three areas were pursued along three broad lines: creating political crises in order to remain relevant; treating all criticism as “political noise”; and using the presumption of legality as a defense. These were, in turn, resisted along three broad fronts: by Senate investigations; by the Supreme Court stopping Charter change, efforts to wield extraordinary emergency powers, and putting a stop to human rights abuses, though increasingly less effective over time; and by society as a whole, and government institutions, quietly moving to ensure elections would successfully take place in May whether or not the administration liked it or not.
The result, he said, is that the Philippines is OK. The backsliding has been stopped. The public itself enthusiastically followed the presidential campaign and trooped to the polls. Institutions generally strived to make the system work, enabling a transition to take place along constitutional lines and with widespread public satisfaction that the polls rendered a verdict on who should govern. The three crises—of legitimacy, dating to 2001-2004; of credibility, dating to the time the President broke her promise not to run, and her calling “Garci”; and of morality, demonstrated by the abduction of Jonas Burgos, the presidential favor bestowed on Jovito Palparan, and the Maguindanao massacre—have been resolved by repudiating Ms Arroyo.
Instead, we can look forward to six years of stability under a government that enjoys legitimacy; there is the opportunity for corruption at the top to give way to improvements; and it seems slow but sure changes in the composition of society, ranging from a more urbanized population, market pressures, the proven determination of society to stay democratic, may lead to a more balanced society.
(To be continued)