The Untold Influence of Ex-Presidents in the Post-Marcos Era

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The Untold Influence of Ex-Presidents in the Post-Marcos Era

by Manuel L. Quezon III

The restoration of democracy in the Philippines has resulted in three presidential elections. Two of those elected, Fidel V. Ramos in 1992 and Joseph Estrada in 1998, are now former presidents. The third, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, elected in 2004, is now the controversial incumbent. Together with Corazon Aquino (elected in 1986), these four figures define the political landscape.

The question is, aside from the incumbent, why should they? Certainly in Philippine politics, ex-presidents were never as influential as today’s former presidents are. Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president elected by a short-lived Congress, was defeated by the United States, taken prisoner, and retreated into quiet retirement. He ventured forth to participate in politics with disastrous results thereafter, most notably in 1935, when the Philippines had its first national elections. He suffered a massive defeat to Manuel L. Quezon (who died in office in 1944). Sergio Osmena, Quezon’s successor, was defeated by Manuel Roxas in 1946: both Aguinaldo and Osmena lived until the early 1960s, but as elder statesmen with little political authority or personal following. Roxas, who died in office in 1948, was succeeded by his vice-president, Elpidio Quirino, who was defeated in 1953 by Ramon Magsaysay (who, like Quezon and Roxas, died in office). Quirino only lived a few years after facing defeat.

Magsaysay’s successor, his vice-president, Carlos P. Garcia, was elected president in 1957, was defeated by Diosdado Macapagal (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s father) in 1961, and died in 1971. Macapagal himself was defeated in 1965 by Ferdinand E. Marcos, who of course became a dictator and died in exile in 1989. Macapagal lived on until 1998, but became something of a laughing stock during his successor’s dictatorship and commanded no great following or authority after his presidency in the same manner that his predecessor, Garcia, retired quietly except for a brief stint as Constitutional Convention delegate (at which point he died).

It is not as if there haven’t been extended periods during which former presidents were on the scene, to potentially cause trouble. There were. However, the difference between the pre— and post-Marcos eras is that prior to the dictatorship from 1972-1986, the presidential term was four years with the possibility for re-election for an additional term. Except for Quezon (reelected to a partial term in 1941), Roxas (who died in office but was expected to win a second term), Magsaysay (who undoubtedly would have won a second term), and Marcos (who won a second, full term), all the other Philippine presidents from 1935 to 1972 failed in their re-election bids (namely Osmena, Qurino, Garcia, and Macapagal). This meant that even though these presidents survived their terms in office, they had suffered a repudiation at the polls. The repudiation was often in the form of a landslide victory for their opponents, which meant that the public’s verdict on their performance had been rendered clearly, decisively, and in such a humiliating manner that it clearly meant an end to their political influence.

On the other hand, since 1987, Philippine presidents have been restricted to a single term without the possibility of re-election, which means former presidents leave office without having had to subject their governments to any kind of verdict at the polls. The most that can be said is that Philippine presidents have tried to handpick their successors, and failure to get their hand-chosen successor elected serves as a kind of repudiation. In reality, it does not — certainly not to the extent an old-fashioned defeat would have done. The restoration of the single six-year term without reelection (dispensed with by Quezon in 1941) was supposed to be more democratic, leading to more statesmanlike presidential rule. Instead it eliminated accountability, and fostered delusions of grandeur among past presidents. To further complicate matters, Joseph Estrada, elected by a kind of groundswell of populist rebellion against the previous, technocratic government of Fidel V. Ramos, was removed from office, leading him to claim to this day that he is the rightful president.

When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who had succeeded to the presidency in 2001, finally ran for the presidency in her own right in 2004, critics said it was a constitutional travesty, because it was never the intention of the framers to restore the old setup under which incumbents could run for office. I myself welcomed the chance at the time, having opposed the one term limit on presidents. I felt it was a golden opportunity to restore a fundamental aspect of democracy: The chance for the electorate to pass judgment on the incumbent.

What neither I, nor those opposed to Mrs. Arroyo’s running for the presidency while occupying the position of president, took fully into account was the peculiar effect the unusual removal of her predecessor would have on the election. To my mind, obviously the framers of the constitution knew a vice-president succeeding to the presidency could be expected to run for election even as an incumbent. As long as two-thirds of the predecessor’s term hadn’t been used up. What they never considered was the possibility an incumbent would run while the predecessor sat in detention, thundering that his successor was an usurper.

Mrs. Arroyo won in 2004, but without regard to the old conventions of an admittedly pretty ruthless contest: There was nothing, it seemed, she would not do personally to get elected (the old convention was, presidential candidates had to maintain a certain distance from the dirty work). Things, as we know, fell apart, and it was a former president, Fidel Ramos, who came to her rescue, even as two other former presidents, Cory Aquino and Joseph Estrada (both opposed to Mrs. Arroyo but not allied with each other), tried to summon the faithful to become politically active. Both have had limited, and uninspiring, success. For a time, it seemed, though, that even as Mrs. Arroyo’s woes wouldn’t go away, former President Ramos was riding high, and achieving some sort of post-presidential vindication.

Apparently not. The most recent public opinion survey (October of this year, by Pulse Asia), has pretty galling findings for everyone concerned, except Mrs. Aquino, who wasn’t included in the survey. The survey says 58 percent of Filipinos want Mrs. Arroyo out, and only 35 percent want her to stay in office. Former President Estrada has 14 percent of Filipinos wanting him to lead the country, with 20 percent opposed. And former President Ramos? His unpopularity is second only to President Arroyo: 39 percent of Filipinos don’t want him to lead the country, while 40 percent of Filipinos feel that way about Mrs. Arroyo; only 3 percent of Filipinos view Ramos as someone to lead the country while 12 percent of Filipinos still believe Mrs. Arroyo should.

The numbers for all three are damning compared to the percentages they achieved when they were elected. Ramos, elected with 28 percent of the vote in 1992, has lost virtually his entire constituency; Estrada, elected with 39.6 percent, has lost a third of his constituency; Mrs. Arroyo, claiming to have been elected by 40 percent in 2004, can now count only on 35 percent (with 25 percent as her truly loyal following, an erosion of 15 percent).

The numbers, are on the whole, disgraceful, pointing to an irrelevant leadership. The Philippines, after all, has not had a leader elected with a majority of over 50 percent since 1965.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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