An extremely provocative blog entry by Jove, which basically suggests the President has been saved, as she has often been saved, by the bungling of her enemies, and thus concludes there’s a big probability the President is home free, for now, has got me thinking. Let’s continue playing armchair strategist, and see how we got where we are, and the few remaining plays open to either side.
From what we now know, it began with a package mysteriously appearing at former Senator Tatad’s house; his falling prey to a lapse in judgment by handing the tapes over to Alan Paguia. The suspended (not, apparently, disbarred, there seems to be a difference) Estrada lawyer then decided to have a lot of fun (and gain even more notoriety) by taking the source tapes, and turning them into an audio presentation, complete, of course, with a narration by Paguia himself. He chuckled, and cackled, and gleefully consulted friends in the Estrada camp, who chuckled, and cackled, and gleefully spilled the beans so that, at least, the President’s people got a copy in time to hurry up with some sort of plan to beat Paguia to it. Or, perhaps, Paguia’s plan began to go into effect, but with only one AM station having played the tapes, the President’s people decided to move quickly and preempt more broadcasts.
Meanwhile, let’s assume for the sake of argument, that there was a parallel plan: to have Atty. Ong go forth and plead a threat to his life, and thus push the only opposition figure with drawing power and credibility, Susan Roces, to make a call to arms and summon people to the streets. This particular plan failed for several reasons. First, the Church circled its wagons and refused to be an unwitting ally; second, the military and police closed off all avenues to a mass gathering; three, the amateurish antics of the opposition were demonstrated by Gen. Abat bellowing at Herman Tiu Laurel who was vainly trying to get himself beaten up; fourth, Susan Roces, after meeting Ong, decided he was not worth summoning the poor to a bloodbath.
Also, meanwhile, back in the Palace, the immediate strategy was apparently this: confuse and then deny. Sec. Bunye presented two CD’s, immediately resulting in a question that remains unanswered to this day -how many tapes are there, and which is the real tape? A question, incidentally, that Paguia himself quite thoroughly muddled later on. The Secretary of Justice, who never cares what people say, waved around the law enough so that while it angered individual journalists, it led the mass media to retreat behind a wall of silence as suggested by their lawyers.
This is not to say that the Palace had a cunning and refined plan from the start. I don’t think it did; there may have been various sub-plans launched without much coordination, but the breathing room afforded the President by the collapse of an Estrada version of people power (with a tacit alliance involving Sen. Lacson, who knows), allowed her people to then figure out how to coordinate the various efforts underway.
Still, the tapes continued to matter, because angry journalists and a curious public then undertook a type of people power, through ring tones and the sharing of audio files (whether of the Paguia, Bunye, or Ong versions). This was enough to convince people that something had to be done. Some felt, the President should barricade herself behind the law, and not speak up; others felt, she should explain herself; still more felt, that early on, she should quit.
As often happens in times of crisis, paralysis alternated with times of furious activity. After the lawyers had been consulted, and all that had come before (the presentation of recordings, accusations from within and outside the administration, the eroded credibility of the President), a statement was made to the people. The statement took the form of an apology, without, however, the admission of specific guilt. This relieved some, gave the President the opportunity to rally her troops, convinced others (like me) it was not enough, as it admitted nothing specific and failed to meet the reasonable expectations of some of her allies.
Still, the apology bought time, even as it hardened the attitudes of some of the President’s constituents. In buying time, it resulted in the opposition, composed of an alliance of Estrada loyalists and the militant Left (CPP-NPA-NDF, etc.) being exposed as having only limited numbers. Estrada as president-in-waiting was vigorously floated in the media at the height of the Ong antics, and continued to be proposed, but obviously, the proposal was a flop. However: Susan Roces lost her cool, and while she did not summon the people to the streets, she did vent her fury, and by doing so, expressed quite a few things on people’s minds, while showing how she, too, was a bit out of touch with those who might be expected to be disgusted with the President. The majority of comments I received in praising her passion and some of her points, was, “but she said GMA stole the presidency twice!” So, she cut off a big opportunity to rally Edsa I and II forces to her side. So that was her second strike, even as it reminded people of certain core values.
Cory Aquino came forward with those core values: justice, peace, the constitution. The bishops reiterated the importance of those values. This liberated the President (and the people) from the specter of an armed revolution, but also imprisoned the President in a cage of middle-class values. Archbishop Rosales summed it up -no apology counts without both contrition and punishment.
At this point, when the Estrada trial balloon was not only deflating, but crashing back to the ground, the very factor that resulted in the issue remaining front and center -middle class interest- again brought forward the option of resignation. The calls for some sort of reckoning to take place thus shifted from the opposition camp, to the camp that constitutes the constituency of the President -the middle class. Some schools spoke up, the other schools decided to meet, the bishops all decided to devote their conference meetings to it, and Cory did not give the President a get out of jail card. It didn’t help that some of the President’s initial tactical moves, such as exiling her hsuband, seemed belatedly and unenthusiastically done (by this I mean the personal pain of sending away her husband and son was not matched by the equally significant move of neutralizing her pesky brother-in-law). No cabinet revamp has yet to emerge. And the best that has been put forward, is to expect a major announcement on charter change during the State of the Nation Address.
Indeed, the chance -the high probability, as Teddy Locsin put it- of an impeachment has to be considered, which can go either way for the President. An impeachment might be won by her, but it would bog her down, and the country, too, in a long-drawn out process which, because of the ad hoc nature of the coverup after the tapes became an issue, can always develop not necessarily in her favor. The TRO by the Supreme Court has temporarily sidelined her economic policy, and demonstrated a diminishing confidence in her ability to carry them out. It is significant that it would seem about half of her official family stuck to her not because they were convinced of the President’s innocence or suitability for office, but because they feared an Estrada restoration more (and, of course, feared the Vice President, too).
The opposition then fell prey to something the administration seems to have fallen prey to early on, but recovered from, faster: making calculations and assumptions on incomplete facts and information. The Palace only realized, later, just what was in the tapes; the opposition only got to know the tapes were potentially equally lethal to them, later on, too. The Palace gambled the tapes would be more harmful to the opposition, and are probably correct in this, not least because the opposition’s momentum had already ground to a halt, what with the resolve of the middle class not to play footsie with them in the way the Communists had.
The administration still has some cards it can play, not least among them, the Garcellano card. The opposition, what cards does it have? Erap? Played out. Susan? Played out, and only useful one more time, and the probability is, she won’t let herself be played for people who couldn’t hold a presidency (Estrada’s) intact, elect her husband, or keep themselves from being tarred and feathered in the same manner the President has been. Paguia, Tatad, even Escudero? All tainted now, in one way or another, and this includes senators allied with Estrada in the senate.
I argued, however, that neutralizing the Estrada camp, which gives the President breathing room, actually favors the possibility of a harsher judgment on the President. Thebig threats left, now, are the military, Cory, the bishops, and Civil Society. The military may not move on its own, yet, but its rumblings will certainly make Cory and the bishops decide to do something, because the reported anger of junior officers is motivated by a collapse in their respect for their commander-in-chief and senior officers. It is possible that Civil Society has reached a consensus that the President had to be bought time, if only to permit the Estrada people to neutralize themselves, but that once this was accomplished, it would be time to make demands on the President.
I do not think, at present, there’s time left for a Truth Commission, the choices left are impeachment or Charter Change. Charter change might offer the President an opportunity to redeem herself, and preside over the dismantling of thoroughly discredited institutions. How would this dismantling be best done? A Constituent Assembly? But do Cory and the bishops, Civil Society and the media, trust Congress? But can the country afford elections to a Constitutional Convention? Can it afford to wait two years for the President to step down, forbidden office for life, with the Vice-President on down turning into members of parliament?
For now, I believe there will be a hard line that will demand resignation, with the Vice-President to call for a constitutional convention, with Congress to go on until a referendum next year, and then parliamentary elections in 2007. Ironically, in surviving the challenges of the Estrada camp, the President has made herself that much more expendable. But at least, the man she kicked out, has failed to kick her out in turn. But she looks forward to a shortened term, and one she will leave, not in a blaze of glory, but with a catalog of lost opportunities.