Are Filipinos Ready to Cha-Cha Just to Get Rid of President Arroyo?

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Are Filipinos Ready to Cha-Cha Just to Get Rid of President Arroyo?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Yesterday a camera crew from Star News Asia (based in Hong Kong) came to interview me about the Philippine political situation. They spent the past few days doing interviews, and it was my turn to give my take on the situation. One never knows what will happen to one’s statements after they’ve been edited into fifteen-second sound bites, so for the record, here is basically what I told them.

The political landscape is dominated by three contending forces, none of which are responding to what the public really wants. The first group is President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her people, who first and foremost are motivated by a desire to prevent the president being disgraced (either by being kicked out of office, imprisoned, or both) and by the sincere belief that they are the best qualified to run the country. The second group consists of the professional politicians of the country, who find themselves increasingly uncompetitive in a media-dominated and saturated society: They may be able to retain their control over provincial bailiwicks, but they are incapable of making themselves attractive in terms of national elections. The third group are the opponents of the professional politicians, including the president, who want a new political system to emerge.

All three groups recognize that in a country in which consensus is difficult to achieve, a kind of consensus exists. That consensus is that the present political system cannot continue. It must give way to something better. What that system is, however, is debatable. To the political class in general, the answer lies in changing the system to one conducive to a one-party state, in which executive and legislative functions are fused in a parliament, and where hopefully, the judicial branch is stripped of some of its powers. Eliminating national elections would be another benefit of a shift from the presidential to parliamentary systems: it would make elections cheaper, more manageable, and keep political offices within the reach of the professionals. The president, though by instinct a firm presidentialist, is willing to take credit for the political transformation of the country. Depending on how one views her, her additional motivations are either the good of the country, or giving her a new political lease on life as a future prime minister, or simply making legislation granting her legal immunity after she leaves office that much easier.

Those opposed to changing the system of government or the president (or both) do so because the changes proposed are not radical enough, or because they offer neither the political satisfaction of seeing President Arroyo kicked out of office before her term officially ends in 2010, nor the prospect of infusing new blood (and faces) into the national leadership.

All three ignore the desires of the public, which surveys (publicly and privately released) show very much likes the presidential system, and prefers to keep having national elections. The surveys also show that the president is thoroughly unpopular (at best having a solid core of support among only a quarter of the population) and continues to suffer from a crisis in legitimacy. The surveys also show a remarkable consistency — and I’d venture to suggest, political maturity — with regards to the most acceptable manner in which the crisis should be resolved.

When President Joseph Estrada’s end days began, those calling for his resignation were taken aback by public opinion polls showing that consistently and overwhelmingly the public was of the opinion that an impeachment trial was the only way to go. Calls for his resignation therefore had to shift to support for impeachment. Only when the impeachment trial collapsed, did people, by then engrossed in the process, go to the streets in protest.

Which suggests another thing that opponents of President Arroyo and observers in general fail to take into account: People Power, made famous by Filipinos, is a political instrument of last resort, and not the first instinct of most people. In 1986 (elections), 2001 (impeachment), and since 2004, Filipinos have shown a marked preference for going through established processes. Which explains that after it became clear that impeachment was going to be unsuccessful, opinion polls also show that most Filipinos today would prefer a “snap” or special election, to resolve the question of presidential legitimacy. A dirty secret of too many opponents of Mrs. Arroyo is that they are uneasy with an election, democratic as it may be, precisely on the off-chance the president wins.

And so, the real problem: The public has been pretty clear about what it doesn’t want (Mrs. Arroyo), but equally emphatic that it doesn’t dislike her enough to burn down the entire system just to smoke her out. It prefers doing things democratically. Neither the president, her allies, or her opponents, want to do the public any favors. The opposition, in particular, has fostered the impression the kind of changes its various factions want are too extreme to be acceptable to the public. Whether a restoration of Estrada, the simple resignation of Arroyo and her vice-president, or a military coup or “transition council,” public opinion has firmly responded by saying if that’s the solution offered, the majority of the country wants none of it.

The result is the Philippine political leadership using up its energy proposing all sorts of non-solutions to a basic problem. At present, much as it dislikes losing the vote for president and it distrusts a parliamentary setup, the public might be willing to trade national elections for a new system, gambling on a slim chance that by so doing, Mrs. Arroyo will leave office sooner rather than later. A possibility, incidentally, her own allies have been privately selling to the public, while publicly denying it. The result, of course, won’t be better governance, but an end to what all political observers admit is an impasse between the administration and its critics.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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