Arab News Newspaper: Opportunity to Change the Ship’s Direction Is Being Lost in Manila

Opportunity to Change the Ship’s Direction Is Being Lost in Manila
Manuel L. Quezon III

From time to time, I’m asked to present what’s called a “national situationer,” for groups interested in the political situation. The difficulty is avoiding excessive partisanship in order to paint a rosy picture for my own political views, or pander to the audience. They are a welcome exercise in objectivity. Yesterday I had to undertake the process for a gathering of NGOs.

The country’s political battle lines have remained remarkably consistent since last year. When a survey asked people what the best political option for the country should be, 59 percent said the president should go, but divided among five options, with each option roughly equal to any other. The 35 percent preferred the president to remain in office were only divided between two options, with those who said they’d rather that Mrs. Arroyo stay in office until 2010 outnumbering the other, two to one (24 percent and 11 percent respectively). Those who preferred an extreme solution, either a coup or foreign intervention, numbered only 6 percent.

This month’s survey of public opinion concerning the president’s economic performance basically said something similar, and suggests the three broad divisions of the public at present. Twenty-six percent approved of the president’s economic performance. Forty-eight percent said they disapproved. And 25 percent said they were unsure. I’ve mentioned in my columns that this indicates the country is basically divided: The administration’s base of support is 1 out of 4 Filipinos and nothing will make them change their minds about supporting the president. An additional 1 in 4 Filipinos consistently express themselves as unsure on nearly all major political issues, and so long as they don’t make up their minds, or claim they’re undecided, they serve to keep the administration in power. This means a fluctuating half, to slightly half, of the population has a negative opinion of the administration, but translating their general opposition to a particular advocacy hasn’t taken place, and most likely, will not take place though it can have a cumulative effect soon enough.

The Great Undecided are, indeed, not exactly the Silent Majority the government claims supports it, but the Crucial Minority without whom neither administration nor opposition can claim victory. Victory has eluded both sides since July 2005. The momentum against the president was broken by Fidel Ramos, whom civil society and its allies failed to consult. The president neutralized Ramos by December of last year, but the efforts of her allies - which includes the 11 percent supporting her only because they view it as enabling the birth of a parliamentary regime - to engineer a change in the system has failed thus far.

Not that the efforts of the president’s opponents have prospered, either. People Power has been renounced by a middle class ravaged by overseas migration and depressed by two decades of extra constitutional regime change that only solidified warlord and upper class irresponsibility and lack of accountability - with a populist backlash getting more pronounced each time. The signs were there between January and May 2001. Joseph Estrada confused the 40 percent that elected him with an overwhelming national mandate, which it was not; and laziness and greed led him to fall without anyone so much as bothering to catch him. But what followed was more of the same, and even worse. No one is surprised when a gangster steals; but society hasn’t quite lost its capacity to be outraged by the cupidity of its self-proclaimed betters.

Just as the stealing after 1986 and selective reforms such as land reform that took the lands of retired professionals while exempting large estates, so did the swarming into office of civil society result in civil society being discredited. Cory Aquino failed in land reform and the PCGG squandered its chances. Ramos had the Centennial Expo scam, the disappearance of AFP modernization funds; Estrada had the BW stock market manipulation and the midnight Cabinet. Edsa Tres’s immediate legacy was the CODE-NGO bond float and the Impsa deal. To the public they were all part of the same, more of the same, and only accomplished widening the circle of usual suspects to include the former movers, shakers, and heroes, of two people power revolutions.

I mention these scams because they demonstrate how every formerly crucial sector for reform has been tainted by greed: Edsa I and II veterans, the military, civil society, the churches, academe, civic organizations and the media. They’ve all gambled, lost, and meanwhile, a hefty portion of our productive population has left, is planning to leave, and will leave. They’ve discovered, in the process, they can do it despite anyone objecting, and furthermore seen enough overseas to know what we’ve done wrong, could do better, though the critical mass that means they can demand for things to improve hasn’t been achieved, not least because the nearly universal Filipino means for changing things, elections, has been put beyond the reach of overseas Filipinos and even their families. The Palace is good at a few things. It firmly controls the top brass of the police, which was enough to protect it even when the military’s loyalties were unclear. It has firmed up its hold on crucial officers in the armed forces. It has figured out how to starve and fatten, as the case may be, politicians through denying and approving pork barrel and other funds. It hasn’t hesitated to make scapegoats of its critics or even the independent-minded. And it remains marginally more competent, ruthless, focused, and lavishly funded compared to any portion of the opposition.

And it maintains what’s necessary to keep that 25 percent in the undecided from making up their minds: It has all the appearances of respectability, education, competence and even class, that its opponents lack. This factor has been consistently underestimated by those eager to harness the masses, while the masses have learned three painful lessons in the past six years: First, its adulation is not enough to keep those it elects in power; two, the middle and upper class, the church, and so forth, can always veto its choices and will ruthlessly do so, if required; third, dissent will be crushed, violently, and no one outside the corridors of power can do anything about it - or seriously wants to.

However, the opposition authentically represents majority opinion in one broad sense: More are united in dislike for the government, than are united in support for it. The president is now faced with the prospects of having to pay the piper for the support provincial bigwigs, warlords, and the political class that fed from the presidential trough over the past year. She has been unable to deliver on Charter change. The attempts to engineer it have been so clumsy and heavy-handed, they have alienated part of her base and antagonized even the undecided. Furthermore, the failure to win completely means her allies are now feuding among themselves, backbiting and even openly campaigning to finish the other faction off.

The 11 percent that supports her only because her troubles provide a means to establish a government system in which provincial bosses and not national ones, hold sway, ironically composes a majority of the president’s political allies. That 11 percent is over-represented in government by the Lakas-CMD. The president has her core of loyalists, the Kampi. And Kampi is sick of playing second fiddle to Lakas. When a mass defection of Pampanga mayors from Lakas to Kampi was announced last week, it was the opening salvo in what the president’s needed to do since last year: Kill Lakas, or weaken it so that whatever happens, she has enough Kampi representatives to keep her politically safe.

Since every key national player has been compromised or weakened, the president’s core of provincial political support has kept her safe. But if it was enough to save her last year, it may not be enough to protect her in the coming one. Ironically, a national sense of dislike, even contempt, for the methods used by the president and her allies to stay in power, as well as for those against her, may end up inspiring people to express their feelings at the polls - and not just nationally, as is traditionally the case, but locally, which doesn’t often happen. An anybody-but-the-Palace candidate victory in the Senate, next year, isn’t surprising. What would be surprising is if the dislike translates to administration candidates losing in congressional races. Scuttlebutt says this might just happen. Hence the final push, so-called, for Charter change, and widespread expectations of heavy spending by the government in next year’s polls.

You see, you could subdivide the pie another way: Both the president and the traditional opposition claim a constituency of 40 percent. But that leaves 20 percent who could swing to one side or another - and fragments of that 20 percent already have; but were the whole 20 percent to budge, one side would definitely lose.

Government knows this more than anyone else; and the expertise of the government is in applying its muscle, the military, where cash and relentless propaganda fails. The national situation is that of people on a raft. Our economy is resilient and even independent enough to keep itself afloat, regardless of whether the political players squabble on it fall off or not. But no one, on either side, has shown the path to dry land. No one has an incentive to row harder, or endure hunger or thirst. Cannibalism has, instead, broken out between the officers and the crew, and among the company union and the rival union. The passengers are at a loss at what to do.

The situation requires an idea that will inspire the political players to overcome their differences, and inspire a hostile and tired electorate to rise above itself, too. The president cannot do it, but until someone else can, better the captain you know to the dangers of being rudderless in the wide-open sea. My only fear is that a tremendous opportunity to change not only the captain, but the ship’s direction, is being lost.

One thing is sure: The majority opinion is that the only solution is through elections. All other options have failed and won’t be attractive for a long time to come. So for all concerned, if 2007 doesn’t result in the tie being broken, the next opportunity will only come in 2010, unless a plebiscite takes place earlier.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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