We are poised, I believe, at the edge of a great opportunity, and a great danger. The great opportunity is to effect a constitutional, peaceful, orderly transition from the President to her constitutionally-ordained successor. The great danger is the window of opportunity won’t be open for very long, because, in desperation and frustration, other forces could be tempted to gamble everything on a bid for power.
Yesterday I said that what might happen is that the Estrada-Left Alliance, having faltered, would give the President breathing room, which should not be confused with giving her an excuse to remain in power. Rather, I felt that having repeatedly sabotaged their own efforts, the Left-Estrada Alliance basically torpedoed their own chances, and have only one big card left to play: Susan Roces. On the other hand, having survived the repeated attacks of that alliance, the President leaves herself fatally vulnerable to logical conclusion the middle class, Civil Society, and so on, reached some time back: the President is unfit to continue in office. Her biggest prop was the thought of an Estrada restoration, or civil war unleashed by Susan Roces. Remove that prop, and she must fall.
Cory Aquino, the bishops, and Civil Society fear the Estrada-Left Alliance, and know that continued support for the President subjects the legacies of Edsa I and II to an equally fatal contradiction whenever “pragmatism” is invoked to prop up the President in power. The President can’t be propped up forever; certainly not until 2010. At best (or worst) until 2007, under circumstances that will still entail risk and no face-saving for the President.
In politics, timing is everything; push too soon, and you fail to push hard enough; push too late, and others would have done the pushing for you. When to push? To my mind, the time, if not right now, is very, very soon. To wait too long is to once more return the initiative, and the political momentum, to those who have, as of now, lost it: the Estrada-Left Alliance.
The Pulse Asia survey indicates how narrow the window of opportunity is, and how soon it may close. After initially backtracking, its results (apparently commissioned by the opposition) have gotten Estrada all revved up and psyched up to say he is president-in-waiting. This is a second wind, after he had already been inclined to grudgingly pass the baton to Susan Roces.
Where will Susan Roces go? In baseball, three strikes, and you’re out. She did not call out the faithful when she went to San Carlos Seminary; she did not do it at Club Filipino; she only has one more chance to do so, as I mentioned in in the past. I believe that for more than one group, that time may be upon us sooner, rather than later. Who would these groups be? As Jove suggests, things “are moving fast,” and the race might just be who can push Susan to do what they want. Estrada can pressure her, to reclaim his throne and take advantage of the Pulse Asia survey showing his increased popularity and attractiveness as president to 30% of the population (on par with those who want the Vice-President). At the very least, he wouldn’t be backing Susan Roces, she would be backing him. Maybe, just maybe, the more moderate Left would be swept along with the Militant Left, to go along for the ride in the hope they could influence the outcome.
Or, as the scuttlebutt says (with increasing emphasis), younger officers in the armed forces disillusioned with their commander-in-chief, could try to influence Susan Roces, pointing to the dangerous Communists affiliated with Estrada, whose people remain unattractive to Roces, as the bickering, backbiting people who sabotaged her husband’s campaign. They could convince her that better to trust in the armed forces than Communists who would eventually expropriate her Greenhills mansion. And, furthermore, it might be that Roces could be convinced to forget her irritation with Gringo Honasan (of whom, it is said, Roces doesn’t approve because she feels he also took advantage of her husband) by these younger officers, summon the faithful to the streets, giving the armed forces a pretext to overthrow both its generals and the government, replacing it with a revolutionary or transitional regime.
This assumes no channels of communication remain open between Roces and Cory Aquino, who is too busy consulting Civil Society, the schools, and the clergy, to notice what is being plotted by the soldiers. Or, one could also assume that Cory believes Susan too much in the hands of the Estrada-Left Alliance or the military, in which case, the mission of Cory Aquino and the bishops would be to neutralize Roces and whoever is pushing her, before things reach the streets.
Either way, this bodes ill for the President.
I do not think serving out the rest of her term is a rational expectation for either the President or her people to hold; rather, what would be reasonable, and worthy, would be to prepare for what’s often called an exit strategy, one that allows the President a chance to relinquish power peacefully, quickly, and in a dignified manner. But what would afford her the chance to do this, without the Estrada-Left Alliance claiming both a moral (oh, irony of ironies!) and political victory? To my mind, the Left-Estrada Alliance can’t be afforded this undeserved satisfaction.
One way, and this is, of course, quite the scuttlebutt these days, is for the bishops to issue a pastoral letter saying the President must step down, and for Cory, having done the rounds of Civil Society, the schools, and so on, to amplify this call, and appeal to the President to make the supreme sacrifice for her people. The President would respond by saying the people have spoken, the voice of the people is the voice of God, she will heed the appeal of the bishops and Cory for the good of the country. Doing this would accomplish the following: prove the value and validity of both Edsas; deny the Estrada-Left Alliance the (unworthy) satisfaction of claiming it was due to them; leave the field safer, and in the sole command, of her running mate, since the Estrada-Left Alliance had already revealed itself hypocritical and incompetent; denied her enemies the chance to play the Susan card, and removed the pretext for military action.
But this relies on a highly compressed schedule, all of the remainder of this week, unless, of course, Cory has Susan Roces on her side, in which case, then the President may have a little more time. But I think the best game plan at present, is to allow the President to step down with some dignity now, when her enemies are at their weakest in a long time, and Civil Society and the middle class can’t be accused of having behaved rashly. Affording the Vice-President, at the same time, to begin his presidency with a State of the Nation address.
Incidentally, this is a very dangerous (because subject to misuse and misinterpretation) finding in the Pulse Asia poll:
Former President EstradaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s improved political stature may actually be gleaned from 30% of the respondents who now believe that it is right for him to be reinstalled as president should President Arroyo resigned or be impeached or be removed from office in some fashion. Additionally, another 7% would have him as a transition president until elections are held and a new president is duly elected. Finally, yet another 3% contemplate his political role to be the overall leader of all groups now opposing the Arroyo administration. These figures suggest that the former president may already have about 40% of the public Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a truly impressive multitude — ready to consider a leading role for him again in this nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s political drama.
What does this mean? Of course it means that, shockingly, Estrada is better-liked, and better-trusted by more Filipinos than the President (findings elsewhere in the survey). But what it means is that in terms of Estrada’s core constituency -those that voted him into office- he has actually lost ground. Recall the following: in 1998, Estrada won 39.6% of the vote. Check the figures. Today, 30% of the population, according to Pulse Asia, still thinks he should be president. That’s a loss of almost 10%, and of course, while comparing the voting population to the total population is not exactly comparing the same thing, it’s a fair assumption, I think. It still means that at best, 60% of the population today doesn’t want Estrada president, just as 60% didn’t want him as president in 1998. He became more popular than that, initially; he lost it; he has, in seven years, merely regained it. Not bad, but not that great, and only amazing in terms of the President’s unpopularity.
Still, his rehabilitation in the eyes of many is significant, frightening, and helps Estrada the big lie peddled from Day One of his administration: that he achieved the “greatest majority in electoral history.” In 1998, he got 10,956,610 votes. Even if you think 2004 was tainted with massive cheating, Fernando Poe, Jr., who lost, officially got 11, 782, 232 votes. More than Estrada. Ferdinand Marcos, according to the rigged official numbers way back in 1986, only got about 100,000 votes less than Estrada did 12 years later. As for the biggest margins in Philippine electoral history, they are (for first term elections):
Ramon Magsaysay in 1953: 68.9%
Manuel L. Quezon in 1935: 68%
Diosdado Macapagal in 1961: 55%
Ferdinand Marcos in 1965: 54.78%
Manuel Roxas in 1946: 54%
Elpidio Quirino in 1949: 51%
Cory Aquino (according to rigged Comelec results) in 1986: 46.1%
Carlos P. Garcia in 1957: 41.3%
Joseph Estrada in 1998: 39.6%
Fidel V. Ramos in 1992: 23.6%
Estrada then, compared to all our past presidents, did only better than Fidel V. Ramos. The numbers are even worse for the few presidents that ran for a second term:
Manuel L. Quezon (won) in 1941: 81.78%
Ferdinand E. Marcos (won) in 1969: 61.5%
Diosdado Macapagal (lost) in 1965: 45.22%
Carlos P. Garcia (lost) in 1961: 44.95%
Elpidio Quirino (lost) in 1953: 31%
So even when they lost, Macapagal and Garcia did better than Estrada did in winning in 1998.
I reiterate my call that the Center must hold in my PDI column today. Virtual Sword of Damocles is my Arab News column for this week.