Arroyo Moves Underscore That Resistance Is Indeed Futile

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Arroyo Moves Underscore That Resistance Is Indeed Futile

by Manuel L. Quezon III

In politics to be effective, one has to make sure one’s rivals are always two or three steps behind you. To perpetually play catch-up is to perennially be on the losing side. From the moment the political momentum against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was broken, when former President Fidel V. Ramos publicly gave her his (at the time conditional) support, the Philippine president has nimbly stayed a step or two ahead of her critics in the power game.

The message that all the Philippine president’s moves are calculated to underline is: resistance is futile. Whether by design or accident, events have conspired to validate that message. Even the president’s critics, I’ve observed, find themselves expressing a kind of shell-shocked awe. And really, there’s a kind of malignant magnificence to it all.

Take the political landscape as it now stands. President Arroyo and her allies have boiled down their solutions to the country’s many problems to three words: parliamentary, unicameral, and federal, though the last (federalism) is as vaguely expressed as can be. What they are fully intent on achieving by next year are the first two: a single-chamber Parliament.

There are many objections from many quarters to this political magic bullets. Among the most compelling, to my mind, are the following: that it is pointless to debate over forms of government when the same people who have run the country into the ground will be manning it; that at the threshold of extending the right to vote to millions of Filipinos working abroad, that right will now be taken away; that for a nation long cursed with officials who respect no limits on that power whether imposed by law or precedent; or that a country dangerously polarized along class lines since 2001 cannot afford such a naked display of oligarchic attempts at self-preservation: the dawning of a new era of one party rule leaves little incentive for participation in the democratic process.

But these objections have been brushed aside on the calculated belief that if the Philippine government refuses to admit such views represent reasonable misgivings, it will underscore that resistance is, indeed, futile. Instead, a combination of the McCarthy-Rove playbook can demonize all opposition. Call everyone a communist and if that doesn’t work, say that they are what they say the administration is: in other words, those concerned about oligarchy are themselves the lackeys of oligarchs, and those worried about the extinction of democracy are undemocratic people. And overall, pretend the economy’s coming up roses.

Meanwhile: there are reports in the Philippine media (and not emanating from the hysterically-inclined, mind you) that enormous pressures are being applied on the Supreme Court to rule in the government’s favor. The case in question? Whether a government-sponsored and funded effort to petition for a referendum to approve the change in form of government will prosper. In case it doesn’t, the House of Representatives is poised to force a constitutional crisis, by insisting it alone can directly propose a referendum, without the concurrence of the Philippine Senate.

And because the Philippine Constitution requires that whether by direct petition or congressional mandate, any constitutional changes require approval in a plebiscite, all obstacles to a result favorable to the government are being eliminated. In Makati City, financial capital of the country, the mayor, his vice-mayor, and the city council have just been suspended. It’s no coincidence that the suspended officials are all famously oppositionist and disliked by President Arroyo. The last time an entire city government was removed from office in this manner was in 1986 — when the country had proclaimed a revolutionary government.

The formerly politically-influential Roman Catholic hierarchy, after dithering and thus, providing Ms. Arroyo political breathing room last year, find themselves studiously ignored by her government, which doesn’t appreciate their publicly-stated misgivings about constitutional amendments. They requested that the country’s election authority be revamped; the administration replied they can’t do that. And to questions from the press — itself under assault as Ms. Arroyo’s husband goes about filing libel suits with record-breaking abandon — as to whether it’s a little too convenient that congress has just voted to substantially increase the patronage funds of its members, the president’s Cabinet replied, “it’s pure coincidence.” Coincidence, too, is that the national budget also has substantially increased funding for election-friendly (and by extension, plebiscite-helpful) feeding programs.

There is no such thing as a coincidence in the formulation of a national budget, its approval, or how it will be used, of course. Just as the decision to suspend one of the few opposition mayors of political consequence is no coincidence. Makati City, which the suspended mayor, Jejomar Binay has ruled with a Tammany Hall-like grip on patronage, was the only place protesters against the government found a friendly welcome last year. It is where an effort to protest a possible Supreme Court decision friendly to Ms. Arroyo’s efforts would have centered; and it would have continued to serve as a focus for the campaign to defeat her administration in a plebiscite.

Now that Binay’s city government’s been sacked, and a functionary of the Department of the Interior put in his place, it can well and truly be said by Ms. Arroyo’s forces: resistance is futile. The only problem is, when an entire country is opposed to those ruling it — as the surveys solidly show — resistance can only be postponed. So who is really two or three steps ahead? Ms. Arroyo may be confusing a series of victories over her opponents with victory in a larger struggle: that of a country that tolerates, her, for now, having to rethink its options come the expiration of her formal term in 2010 — and what it will do when it sees she’s still in office past that point, which she will.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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