What will the President’s State of the Nation Address on Monday prove, or show, Twink Macaraig asked me the other day, during a taped interview for Channel News Asia. Several things, I answered.
First and foremost, it will demonstrate the President’s grit and determination to stay in office, despite the efforts of all the sectors ranged against her. At the beginning of the crisis, July 25, the date of the State of the Nation Address, was supposed to be the make or break date. This assumption, I suppose, was based on the Oakwood Mutiny experience.
After all, when -and it seemed, for a time, if was the more likely question- the President enters the session hall of the Batasang Pambansa, she does so as President of the Philippines, Commander-in-Chief, titular head of the ruling party, head of state and government. The importance of a ceremony of state, which is what the State of the Nation Address is, is that it is a physical demonstration of the pecking order of our government and society. The legislature invites the chief executive to be heard, the judiciary listens, the military are in attendance, diplomats are in their seats, and, by all accounts, this time around, there will be a large number of governors and mayors, particularly from the President’s bailiwicks, in attendance. They will be there to listen to the President, who once more will show it is she who makes the news.
The President, too, at least from this weekend to days after her speech, will determine the talking points of everyone, regardless of their political persuasion. It will be the points made in her speech that will be commented on, objected to, applauded and derided. This is one of the fundamental powers of the presidency: to define the terms of reference, set the agenda, make the news.
So the President has a chance to bask in the pomp and circumstance, because formality and ritual strokes the egos of all those who participate in it; she has a chance to rally the faithful (and the unsure), she has a chance to thank those standing by her side and dangle goodies to those wavering; she even has a chance to confound her critics. Certainly, it sends a signal to all those who thought that by now she’d be a goner: don’t underestimate me.
Emphasizing that message will be those outside the session hall of the House of Representatives. It will be the same people outside the session hall every time there is a State of the Nation Address, regardless of who is president. This is something the Palace propagandists will probably point out bluntly and subtly, depending on the spokesmen doing tag-team appearances in the talk and news shows. It is a message that shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly if the demonstrations tie up traffic, or turn violent. the numbers, too, will be watched; if the turnout is not as big as expected, it will be used in the President’s favor. Even the weather, will be looked at: if it’s stormy, it will add atmosphere to the event, and also, somehow, even subliminally, be said to reflect divine displeasure with the rallyists (who, after all, will be the ones getting wet).
By all accounts, the President will be expected to focus on the economy, pushing forward her line from the beginning of the crisis: this is something cooked up by my enemies, because they know our plans and reforms are working, we’re poised to take off, and they want to derail our growth before the public gets to enjoy the benefits. She will also, perhaps, say something about a Truth Commission and impeachment, but also, dwell on a similar party line: if you dare throw stones at me, look among yourselves to see if you aren’t merely lusting after the position I hold. She will then unveil her plans for constitutional change, with the governors and mayors from the provinces on hand to leap to their feet and roar their approval, in tandem with the congressmen from the provinces: Federal! Unicameral! Parliamentary! Now! And perhaps even do this in as many regional languages she can squeeze in. The Vice-President will be there, smiling, supportive, unthreatening. The generals, too; the Papal Nuncio; and, perhaps, former President Fidel Ramos with no Cory Aquino in sight. The Speaker will be all smiles, the Senate President (if still Senate President) will try to look stern, but polite.The (new) Cabinet will bask in their master’s glory.
The picture will be one of a country, united -even in the face of an angry mob composed of Communists and Estrada loyalists -the people the armed forces, the provincial bigwigs, the congressmen, businessmen, and so on, all love to hate, all yelling anti -isms that hark back to the 1960s and 1970s. Unless the President totally bungles her speech, it will be a powerful message and picture. There will be a shock wave, of sorts, as all other news gets sidelined, and the President appears to once again have political momentum on her side.
Then of course, the questions will come thick and fast. The President’s rhetoric will be systematically analyzed, her proposals taken apart item by item, her vision looked into. The Palace will keep up the offensive by continuing a pretty effective line: she has a plan, but do you?
I would think the President, after putting forward her argument that the country is doing pretty well, and is poised to do better, if only her enemies would give the country some peace, will then have to focus on avoiding the Truth Commission land mine while avoiding making any categorical statements that appear like marching orders to her congressmen to block impeachment. She will then have to do a pretty convincing job coming up with a plan for constitutional change that doesn’t look like a total surrender to Fidel Ramos, while pleasing her party mates and provincial officials. It will be quite a balancing act.
I’ve had two conversations over the past couple of days that seem to me indicative of how delicate this balancing act is, for the President.
The first was with a retired general who has a good reputation as far as retired officers go. I didn’t ask him how the younger officers felt about the President, but the general was aware of my position concerning the President’s fitness for office, and gave an encouraging smile, which is as far as he could go, under the circumstances. But our conversation focused on the Communists and his response was extremely dismissive. He says their number of regulars in the field have dropped by 1,000 in recent years, but that they have made great gains in the propaganda front.
How so, I asked him. By their access to the media and expanding their presence (or rather, the volume of it) in the metropolitan areas. They are also getting more skilled at promoting the concept of a united front among civilian and legal sectors in metropolitan areas. He added that the Reaffirmists (loyal to Jose Ma. Sison), realizing their great error in sitting out the 1986 Edsa Revolution, have even gone so far as to build alliances with the Rejectionist (anti guerrilla war) Communists and Socialists, even though “you know that as soon as they win, they will then proceed to try to exterminate each other.” Now there is nothing particularly new in what this retired general said, but it’s indicative of the mentality of the armed forces, and it suggests to me they are keeping a way eye on precisely these efforts at building a united front against the President. While most analysts and observers I talk to (except the extremely committed to the CPP-NPA-NDF line of being poised to gain power) say it’s practically impossible for the militant Left to seize power on their own, the idea that they might could trigger the armed forces to step in to prevent such a takeover (it doesn’t have to be a real threat; the perception only has to be there). What I don’t know is if the mindset of a fairly recently-retired general is reflected by the mentality of the younger officers.
Another person I talked to is a political operative. The topic was the ruling party, Lakas-CMD, and how strong or soft its support for the President is. The operative said, “pretty soft.” Why so, I asked. The operative explained, “she gave the party nothing after the elections, she seemed more interested in the Liberals, the party mates would say, ‘look, she’s more of a Liberal than one of us,’ and then there was of course, Kampi.” But the President’s pet party, I pointed out, is being merged with Lakas-CMD. True, the operative replied, “and of course now, the President is doing everything the party wants, and moving heaven and earth to court the party, but the party only wants Charter Change and it’s not certain if she’s the one to do it.” Apparently there is some concern that Charter Change might be hindered by the President’s advocacy of it. “Don’t get me wrong,” the operative explained, “she can say she’s been consistent in supporting it, and she can say, which is true, she and Noli made it a campaign platform since day 1 of the campaign.”
But the operative pointed out that there are still significant sectors opposed to Charter Change, and most surprising of all, to me, was the operative’s opinion that among the fiercest (or most skeptical) opponents are members of the Makati Business Club, and other business organizations:”these people have already figured out the system so why should they want the rules changed now? Besides which, they may have nightmares of Danding Cojuangco ruling parliament.” The question in some party members’ minds (and the operative emphasized, it’s not only Lakas-CMD that wants Charter Change, “all of the parties want it”), is whether the President can deliver -and they will support her so long as they think she can- or whether they might be better off risking it with the Vice-President, who has no party constituency, and would need a multi-party coalition to govern. There also seem to be genuine fears that the President is taking a big risk with impeachment, as it would be best to kick around the charges in the House rather than send them straight to the Senate, where things could get out of hand.
So the operative suggests that there remains significant hurdles in the path of getting support for Charter Change; that even within the ruling party, support for the President is premised more on keeping up appearances (after all, she is the titular head of the party) and on the President’s ability to deliver on what they want, which is a change in the system of governance. This is a constituency that feels it has turned the tables on her, and what’s more, is sort of enjoying it, because of grudges going back to at least the presidential campaign.
The President, in the Presidential Study (often erroneously called “The Study Room,” which features the presidential desk used by all presidents except Cory Aquino. Note on the upper left, there is a rather large “Jesus I Trust in You,” or “3 o’clock habit,” image, which wasn’t there before. This is an official Palace photo.
What other signals will the State of the Nation Address send? Senator Panfilo Lacson already sent his, and it is, that he is indeed, the last opposition senator standing. At least in his mind. I really think that it will turn out that when former Senator Tatad received an envelope with audio tapes, it was an apple of discord sent as a special gift from Lacson’s orchard. Lacson has established himself, in many ways, as the only opposition leader who has been left stronger, rather than weaker, by the President’s weakening, too. Edwin Lacierda, though, thinks it’s all much ado about nothing.