The Long View: Rootin’ tootin’ regime

Rootin’ tootin’ regime
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Published on Page A11 of the July 27, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THERE’S supposedly a car rental brochure from Tokyo that has this amusing example of English: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him vigorously.” The administration does this, trying to charm the critical with the melodious ka-ching! ka-ching! of cash and other financial instruments, and then vigorously tootling its opponents (and if all fails and the enemy is a provincial yokel, it lets off a rat-tat-tat of ordinance).

At her recent State of the Nation Address, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo certainly did enough melodious trumpeting and vigorous tootling to last a lifetime. The tuba-like braying of her critics naturally ensued, although if you ask the Palace (even if you don’t, it’ll respond, anyway), the opposition is pure piccolo.

Still, whoever occupies the presidency, whether de facto or de jure, has the immense power of setting the national agenda, and the agenda was “PowerPointed” for all to see. Planes, trains and automobiles: who can question it, much less oppose it? We Filipinos are among the greatest draftsmen of the world; our plans are always a delight to behold. And I think it’s important to consider that many of the schemes included in this latest blueprint, are products of many months, if not years, of consultation and combined planning. Therefore, one way or another, they can, and should, be implemented.

The scholar Mina Roces once proposed that an important element of Philippine politics — aside from actual patronage — is the politico’s ability to appear “malakas,” that is, someone who has the ear of higher-ups. In this sense, a little rootin’ tootin’ tootling from the Palace helps.

This year, at least, Ms Arroyo seemed convinced about what she was discussing-and, therefore, looked more convincing.

It is much easier to convince someone of something, if you yourself are convinced about what it is you’re advocating. Ms Arroyo, back when she still enjoyed the presumption of legitimacy, once met with the Inquirer editors. When she began discussing one of the genuine achievements of her administration — the Strong Republic nautical highway — she became more relaxed, confident and she impressed a pretty hard-boiled audience with
her capacity to recall facts, tying them together according to her Atlas-like knowledge of our geography. This was at a time that the organ grinders at the Palace were cranking out fabulously futile attempts to portray their principal as cuddly, caring and possessed of a great vision. Their efforts fell flat; for Ms Arroyo is like William Pitt (the younger) in the film, “The Madness of King George.”

In one scene, the opposition head, Mr. Burke, playfully asks the cold and clinical prime minister, “Is there anything at all that you love, Mr. Pitt?” To which the stone-faced Pitt replies, “A balance sheet, Mr. Burke: I love a good balance sheet.” This kind of love — for numbers, charts, graphs, blueprints and public works allocations — is shared by many who continue to support Ms Arroyo. As Rep. Joey Salceda said after listening to her speech: He would have preferred it if it had gone into even greater detail.

As our society assumes an even greater technocratic orientation — preferring PowerPoint to the mental exertion required of listening to a speech devoid of visual aids, or reading reports or essays not in the form of bullet points — the idea that leaders can inspire, not by appealing to ideals and non-scientific principles will increase. And it is precisely when Ms Arroyo speaks of such things — that of themselves are as much a respectable means for trying to make sense of the challenges of the present as any other — that I can’t help but think, if only she weren’t stuck under a cloud of legitimacy.

But she is. And under such a cloud she remains.

In politics and, indeed, in any human activity, legitimacy is essential. It is non-negotiable; otherwise you end up making the ironic argument that at least Mussolini made the trains run on time in Italy; that Hitler gave Germany the autobahn and the Volkswagen Beetle; or that Stalin, regardless of his purges built dams according to five-year plans; while Mao meant well when he launched the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. According to that framework, Pol Pot was simply a misunderstood man trying to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency.

Now some will say: Unfair! It is wrong to appeal to the monsters of the past to vilify Ms Arroyo. She can never be so monstrous. To adopt this line of thought is to ignore the monstrosity of what is being committed: brainwashing a country into thinking it is a virtue to defy demands for accountability.

The Indonesians, after the excesses of Suharto, staggered through a series of uninspiring and even inept leaders: Habibie, Wahid, Sukarnoputri. They decided to fix the infirmities of the presidency by establishing run-off elections to ensure a firm and unquestionable mandate (they reportedly examined the Philippines to figure out how not to establish a self-defeating government). The result is Yodhoyono who is being called the Ramon Magsaysay of Indonesia.

An election isn’t worth the paper a congressional proclamation of winning candidates is printed on, if the election is viewed as having been bought or as fatally flawed by cheating. The Thais, from their king on down, know this: They nullified the last one, and have begun rounding up and locking up members of their own version of the Commission on Elections. They are in the process of investigating — and potentially disqualifying from future elections — political parties accused of either bending or actually breaking election rules.

We should be as lucky as the Thais and Indonesians.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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