At the forum I attended, I presented the following analysis of the situation:
I. The collapse of Philippine Institutions
In 1998, an electoral revolt against the established sectors resulted in the elite unleashing a period of reaction that began in 2000 and is culminating now. There is also a generational shift evident in many sectors.
1. Church: Reflects the global crisis in nondescript or inferior prelates put in place by previous pontificate. Unable, unwilling, incapable of matching previous historic (martial law) role; returning to reactionary traditions of previous centuries. Inability of Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines to consistently engage does provide an opportunity to build a genuinely secular society.
2. Civil Society: discredited and disreputable because of closeness to President, and refusal to engage in any meaningful mea culpa. There is a division between the discredited Civil Society leaders who engineered collaboration with the President, and then left her, and the successor generation that has decided either to simply work with the President, or pursue a different and more government-independent strategy. Civil Society contributed to current deadlock by agonizing over succession issue, only now being resolved, four months after crisis began. This reflects a fundamental distrust of society that is being rewarded, in spades, by society greeting Civil Society moves with skepticism and derision.
3. Political Class: has given up any pretenses to statesmanship and is unabashedly struggling for survival. The political class is operating in a political landscape which it is unequipped to cope with, particularly with reference to media, the national economy (kept afloat not by government efforts, but by default due to remittances, which makes economy resilient and resistant to government tinkering, and for whose buoyancy government cannot take credit), and the electorate (which it can only successfully handle in purely local, and not national, terms).
4. Bureaucracy: Disgruntled but also increasingly incompetent. No successor generation being trained and the vestiges of the last properly equipped generation from the 1960s fading from the scene.
5. Military: Divided horizontally, not vertically. Stuck with the same lack of imagination as the rest of the political players. Dangerously susceptible to utopian delusions.
6. Middle/Professional Classes: Opportunities elsewhere has led to a decision to abandon the country, and an open and frank contempt for any prospects of change. There is no incentive to invest either time or money in changing things when energies can be harnessed to build a better life abroad.
II. The President’s options
1. 2006: The Ramos plan, which remains the only thought-out and viable option for the political class.
2. 2007: Plan B for political class, to establish gains in elections; the President’s minimum graceful exit option.
3. 2010: President’s preference, provided she can receive certain guarantees such as immunity.
4. President for Life: her ultimate fall-back position if opponents remain intransigent.
5. The foil of military intervention: increasingly attractive, and dangerously so, to various groups in order to achieve 2, fend off 3, and ultimately prevent, 4.
III. A hardening of positions
1. Preemptive, calibrated, response: so far, despites occasional snafus, handled effectively and adeptly.
2. Executive Order prohibiting testimony by bureaucracy and military: part of a strategy of pushing the envelope. Has not met with enough resistance.
3. Demolition of opposition: Successful, so far, in no large part due to inherent weakness of opposition, particularly Estrada and Lacson. Less successful with Mrs. Aquino.
4. Cases against opponents:
5. Take-over of industries: To keep businessmen (oligarchs) in line. Provides prospects of increased government attention and incentives for cooperative businessmen. Government has been less confrontational with business than previous administration and has been more prudent in the rackets it pursues for itself.
6. Emergency Rule: Not to be discounted as an option that seems poised for success if current trends continue.
7. President tapping provinces as antidote to unrest in capital: Successfully reaping rewards from cultivating provinces from Day One of administration.
IV. Transactional foreign policy:
1. Weakness vis-á-vis USA due to Iraq blunder, has resulted in the promise of an anti-terrorism law patterned after Singapore and Malaysia
2. “China card played by administration: China’s regional focus on business to build goodwill portrays USA as having been transformed from a conservative, consensus-building power, to a destabilizing, renegade entity in the region.
3. Australia and Visiting Forces Agreement: Australia as surrogate for USA points to only US interest in the Philippines at present, which is security-related (not to discount USAID achievements in Mindanao, but the perception remains that American policy is uneven and unreliable)
4. Japan: questions on ODA due to government incapacity to provide matching funds
V. Charter change
Parliamentary government is being pushed forward on the basis of a crafty calculation that the increasing irrelevance of politics will ultimately justify, in effect, disenfranchising the population.
1. Uncooperative Senate: main obstacle to charter change; the upper house remains the only major government institution displaying independence.
2. Public unsure: Uncertainty fostered by President’s tactics such as Consultative Commission; issues such as parliamentary versus presidential government are quite alien to majority, and not even clearly understood by those claiming to support it; questions about real motives of proponents (e.g. Speaker of the House) add to skepticism, as does the question of whether public will accept new Constitution as a means to achieve a graceful exit.
3. Federalism popular, but misunderstood: Weakening of gubernatorial support will pit them against provincial supporters; question of how it will benefit poor provinces unresolved.
4. Parliamentary insistence of political class: Their desire for survival through parliamentary government leaves others, even reformers who genuinely prefer parliamentary model, cold. No consensus on what kind of parliamentary government, particularly on the question of unicameralism.
5. Only Germans involved in party-building: And at least one German observer has pointed out the futility of a parliamentary experiment without strong parties.
VI. US Policy challenges:
1. Historical burdens (e.g. WW2 vets claims) remain
2. Democratization is clearly not a primary US agenda
3. Mindanao suffering from uneven US focus
4. Anti-insurgency versus Maoists not receiving enough attention: insurgency, not terrorism, is the clear and present danger to the Philippines
5. Failure to realize Filipinos better at manipulating US than US is at manipulating Filipinos
6. Great opportunities lie ahead in education programs and entrepreneurship assistance
From those present (one-on-one, informally: what was discussed at the round table itself was “off the record), which included scholars and diplomats who have studied the country and are involved in projects affecting the country, no one disagreed with my analysis. I also received the following feedback:
1. The Philippines is stuck. It is not yet a failed state, but is acting like one.
2. The issues at hand –parliamentary versus presidential, etc.– are the same that have been debated for forty years. Inability of sectors to resolve the various debates indicates how poorly they serve the country.
3. Federalism is demand of MILF for peace. If true that FVR et al. are skeptical about Federalism, then prospects for peace are slim. Were peace to be declared in Mindanao, it would be awash in money. Donors are poised to pump in funds, but only if peace is achieved. There are questions, though, if Mindanao can properly absorb the funds earmarked for it.
4. The “brain drain” is the most serious problem facing the country. “The brain drain is killing the Philippines.” Common assumption: increasingly desperate elite fighting for crumbs among each other, and there is no longer “center” with clout.
5. Reforms targeted at eliminating patronage ignores that patronage is the lifeblood of politics. The question is not eliminating patronage, but ensuring such funds reaches the population and is not diverted along the way, and eliminating cronyism, the vast appointing powers of the President of the Philippines (bringing it back to at least the pre-martial law level and not the bloated Marcosian levels that have been retained), and the tendency of Philippine business to intervene in politics to ensure favorable concessions (“rent-seeking”).
6. Politics increasingly irrelevant to Philippine life. Party-building must be done first, otherwise all other institutional changes will be cosmetic at best. Indonesia studied Philippine multi-party system as example to avoid at all costs, hence decision to go for more expensive (in the sort term) but more efficient (as it guarantees clear mandates and hence, stability) run-off elections system. Most skeptical about parliamentary government in the Philippines.
7. Anti-Terror law
8. While generally admiring of the “richness” of NGO life in the Philippines, overwhelming sense that Civil Society is morally bankrupt and discredited.
9. Consensus that way out of impasse begins with holding a clean election.
10. First priority equally divided on finally finishing land reform (Asian view) or delivering impartial justice (American view).