Quo Vadis the country?

GLORIA Macapagal-Arroyo will be inaugurated with almost everything, it seems, a president needs to be successful: a useful running mate who will loyally serve as vice president; an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress; a similarly formidable majority among governors and even mayors; acceptance, if not outright enthusiasm, from the business community and a grim sort of support from the Church; and a strong enough loyalty from the armed forces. She has the numbers in every political sense of the word, except in one, significant respect –her electoral mandate.

Legend says King Pyhrrus said of a victory, “one more such victory, and I am undone!” While this is the last campaign for the presidency Mrs. Arroyo can wage, her victory comes at the heels of an opposition angry enough to tarnish her political mandate even as it committed suicide.

As it went down in defeat, the opposition ensured that the taste of victory would be reduced to that of ashes in the President’s mouth. The supporters of the opposition either strongly or at least vaguely suspect the president’s victory was accomplished through fraud. Even those not in the main opposition’s ranks –and this includes 40% of voters who didn’t vote for either Arroyo or Poe- are of some sort of opinion that the president cheated her way to victory. And even if there wasn’t fraud massive enough to directly affect the results, the president’s mandate is neither historic nor inspiring. There will be precious little cheer, and no reason for triumphalism, during the president’s inauguration.

But she retains that which makes all political things possible: power. She retains her position, now under circumstances that have removed the shadow of the pretensions to lingering legitimacy of her predecessor. On June 30, President Arroyo will be president both de facto and de jure. This means that her power now rests on stronger legal foundations. It also means that in the time-honored nature of presidential politics, she, as the winner, takes it all.

The stampede to feed at the president’s trough began even before her formal proclamation. It will gain momentum as the first 100 days of her new term unfolds. But what politicians do is not necessarily what the public is inclined to want to do. Which leads to the question, what now?

Now comes the waiting to see whether the public mood will begin to match the one of the politicos. The overwhelming majority of politicos are jockeying to get in the president’s good graces. The public, if it acts true to form, will simply try to go on with life in expectation the president can deliver on her promised goodies.

The question of the percentage that voted against her isn’t important, because she won. She is already more popular than she was before, and can afford to become slightly more unpopular again. At the same time, she has the opportunity to become vastly more popular than she already is. If she can give the impression –never mind actually achieve the reality- that she is delivering on her promises, or starting to deliver on her promises, then the majority will slowly, but quietly, shift to her side. After all, she is the only president we’ve got.

Never mind the assertion of the leading opposition candidate that he really won. Or whether he decides to tour the country acting presidential. The charisma of a king deprived of his throne was one Joseph Estrada was hard put to maintain (or even retain); it is one Da King cannot wield effectively. The ranks of his supporters, while resentful of their loss, are not sufficiently outraged to risk their necks to gain a kingdom for Da King. Besides which, with the odds so stacked against them, it will become a matter of political survival for many in the opposition (politicians and their stooges alike) to line up at the administration trough.

If our politicians are opportunists, the public is opportunist as well. As each personal network of each politician begins to plug itself into the administration machine, so will millions of Filipino families who look to each sitting administration as a source of bribes, favors, exemptions, considerations, and other kinds of advantages. The mercenary nature of the public should not be underestimated. And neither should the ability of the opposition to foment the necessary destabilization be overestimated, either. The opposition can only do so much, because oppositionists in the citizenry are only willing to do so much –and what they are willing to do is all too little.

So there will be trouble. The extent of the trouble to come will rely on the abilities of the opposition, and the competencies of the administration. The public will warily watch to see if the administration creates some sort of momentum, and if it does, it will then turn its attention from politics to the grind of daily life –unless daily life takes a rapid turn for the worse.

People are tired. Life is tough. The hungry, since they are hungrier, are weaker instead of more audacious. The rest of the country, having tightened its belt, has gotten accustomed to the miserable conditions of the present. Misery and disillusionment, long enough endured, dulls the mind and subdues the passions. Most of all, people are sick of politics and political involvement. Indeed, the risk any oppositionists face, is the continued deterioration of their already-pathetic position: to the extent that the public begins to blame them, and not the administration, for the nation’s ills.

The end result of a presidential election is always an exercise in political physics. Once elected, a president continues to gain momentum until an a force of equal strength stops it. Who can assert they have any sort of strength to equal that possessed by the administration? No one –not even the armed forces at this point.

People thrive on the predictable comforts of routine. The routines politicians and the public engages in after a presidential election are so predictable as to be ritual. Everyone, after an election, knows what comes next.

There is nothing to make an overturning of such a predictable reality attractive to enough people to put that reality at great risk.

Options for the public, in a sense, are not really there. The habits are too ingrained. We have been conditioned by going on three generations of participation in national elections to slide into a political groove that leads straight to the next election.

But if the president fails to begin her term with a flourish; if she fails to get the momentum going; if she is unable to give the impression she can deliver on at least a majority of her promises: then the turbulence will come. However, the nature of that turbulence, too, will operate on tried and tested rules, based on tired yet equally tested issues: graft and corruption, an aroused and rejuvenated opposition, a political contest fought in the arena of the president’s 2007 mid-term elections.

Her second wind thus has a limited duration. She has 100 days to succeed, and three years in which, if she does not succeed, to hold out, before she is reduced to being a lame duck.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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