The Long View: Pawn-feeding time

Pawn-feeding time
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Published on Page A11 of the July 13, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE appointment of Rep. Jesli Lapus of Tarlac province as secretary of education brings down to 77 the number of votes required to send articles of impeachment to the Senate. Never has the bar been set so low and yet seemingly unattainable. One reason is that the pressure on members of the House of Representatives remains divorced from the unpopularity of the President: Some political observers are of the opinion that supporting an unpopular president will never be a political liability for members of the House. The congressmen know it and act accordingly. Many are the blessings to be gained for continuing to pooh-pooh impeachment, as Rep. Rodolfo Antonino of Nueva Ecija province fully knows (as part of the President’s party in Rome, he was seen wearing a broad smile).

However, the administration’s behavior in recent weeks showed continued nervousness on its part, and increasing ruthlessness in dealing with allies who have come to be perceived as liabilities. But then, what are pawns for, if not victims to be offered up as strategic sacrifices? It’s pawn-feeding time.

The war on the Catholic Church has proven fruitful: So long as the bishops remain divided, their words can be downplayed. What does it matter if some bishops were offended, as one bishop put it, by the offer of cash envelopes? What’s important is that bishops are portrayed as not beyond the temptation of cash. That perception, once planted in the minds of the public, can only erode the credibility of whatever they say. In the time of Ferdinand Marcos, for every Jaime Cardinal Sin who became increasingly critical, there was always a Julio Cardinal Rosales to fawn on the ruling couple. The same applies today, resulting in, at the very least, a pastoral statement that can still be spun in helpful ways.

The release of the video of Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim, while disproving the existence of a “leftist-rightist conspiracy,” let loose a cloud to follow Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Generoso Senga and a downpour on every one of his going-away parades. Every officer has been warned that military discipline should be along the lines of Gen. Fabian Ver’s famous (though apocryphal) response to Marcos’ order for him to jump out the window: “From which floor, Sir?” The Commander in Chief’s expectations of obedience are indeed strict.

The question of a conspiracy can be addressed through the apprehension of escapees: There, the administration can claim, was a conspiracy, though how they could have accomplished their aims by being on the run remains unanswered. What official revelations suggest is that those captured may have been full of bravura, but pretty far from actually accomplishing anything. Though I really wonder how many Filipinos would weep were Congress to be held at gunpoint — not even the President’s local government allies, themselves constantly at odds with congressmen, would mind.

There, too, was the rather clever sidestepping of a Supreme Court deadline by throwing the least partisan — and controversial — of Commission on Elections members to the wolves. And now, reports of the arrest of Joc-Joc Bolante, the one administration-identified individual who served as a living antidote to all the hysterics aimed by the President’s supporters at critics like Dinky Soliman (déclassé as she is, can you honestly find her more reprehensible than Bolante?). The pawns are indeed plentiful, and handing them over one by one not only buys time, but further clouds the issues.

A recent survey by the Social Weather Stations poll group says the President’s unpopularity has significantly decreased from -25 in March of this year, to -13 as of June. It’s a big improvement, bringing her a couple of steps higher, but still pretty deep in the basement of public opinion.

Her unpopularity has significantly increased in Metro Manila, sinking to an unprecedented -48 as of June; and what’s of greater significance, her unpopularity has increased among those formerly considered the bulwark of her support base: the ABC classes. Those classes had her at -17 in March; as of June, her unpopularity stood at -27, which is a big change. The only times she’s been more unpopular, apparently, were in December of 2000 and May of last year.

So while the President can breathe a sigh of relief that the masses are less inclined to lynch her, it’s still not saying much. In the Visayas, her regional bailiwick outside of Pampanga, public opinion seems statistically neutral: she has a +2 rating, a big improvement from the -12 she had in March. Mindanao, too, showed a large shift, from -32 to -7. Negative numbers aren’t something to boast about in a democracy, where the Americans for example, are heaping scorn on George W. Bush for having a rating in the low 30s: he’s never hit negative numbers but it seems scandalous to Americans that they have a president disliked by roughly 70 percent of the population. Here at home, the chief executive knows she’s luckier.

It doesn’t matter that more people dislike her than like her, so long as those who don’t like her fail to reach a critical mass. As it stands, those who are satisfied with the President make up 34 percent of the population; those who are dissatisfied make up 48 percent. Subtracting one from the other is why the SWS can conclude that the President’s net satisfaction stood at -13 as of June.

It’s all a matter of, as the song goes, “how low can you go?” Like singing “Limbo Rock” at a beach party, the surveys only serve to show that the stick of public opinion can be held lower and lower, but the President will find a way to slide underneath, without falling on her back. And that’s because she recognized, earlier than most, that our democracy operates not on what majorities you hold, but the stubbornness of the minorities you can retain.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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