The Long View: Diminished leaders

Diminished leaders

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 01:49am (Mla time) 03/26/2007

MANILA, Philippines — In his autobiography, Diosdado Macapagal wrote, “The greatness of a ruler lies in his ability to exercise restraint in the use of tremendous power. The essence of a democrat consists of the patience to secure his wishes through the complex machinery of the system of checks and balances which is the indispensable life-blood of the democratic system, and not through the expediency of crushing all opposition. The essential trait of a democracy is not power but responsibility, not authority but duty.”

It would be easy to say that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as chief executive, has not lived up to the standard of leadership set by her father. But Sen. Joker Arroyo, for one, says she has. He has pointed out (to defend, of course, his decision to run under GMA’s Team Unity) that much as he had been a pain in the neck when it came to her executive issuances, the President never used her position to put pressure on him; and, anyway, what she has done, he essentially has agreed with – that is, to make life difficult for those clamoring for people power and for the fall of her presidency; or for those who support ideologies traditionally opposed to anything and everything our Fifth Republic stands for.

As far as that goes, it’s a fair statement. The President, by instinct, belongs to the old political culture that keeps its hands off its enemies who also hold office. Meting out reward and punishment was –  is – straightforward, involving the pork barrel. Any harassment would strictly be small potatoes -say, arresting someone for crossing the street, without detaining him for very long, but never really letting a case reach the point of being filed.

In contrast, the Estrada era began with the disappearance of the man said to have video-taped Erap gambling, and ended with the disappearance of a political public relations fixer at odds with him. Not to mention the use of the BIR against his enemies and advertising boycotts.

In contrast, President Arroyo, even when business was being critical of her, never hit the businessmen where they’d hurt: their pocketbooks; and except for the Left, she has avoided many opportunities to hit her enemies really hard.

She has had no compunctions, of course, about using the police and armed forces against the poor, the obscure, or those who don’t belong to her social and political circles. But then, again, it can be argued that few presidents have ever had such scruples. What sets her administration apart is that it lacks two fundamental things that a president needs to get away with such acts: a large mandate; and the ability to present herself as the personification of the country’s destiny.

During a break at Media Nation 4.1, someone (a partisan of the President) observed that the presidency as an institution is much diminished, meaning, that our historical expectations of the presidency, as well as our traditional assumptions of the President’s influence, no longer apply. To me, that view suggested something notable – sad, but perhaps quite true: the era of the great leader is past, and it might be unrealistic for us – that is, we, the people – to expect greatness in our leaders. To that extent, the President was on to something when she said, at the beginning of her presidency, that she aspired to being a “good,” never mind “great,” President.

The person who made this observation made another one in a different forum we both attended: In many ways, because of the trauma of the martial law years, our present system is designed to prevent an overly strong leader from emerging. In the process, this guarantees that practically no president will be able to lead effectively.

The traditional strengths of the presidency haven’t been there for some time: a majority and not plurality mandate, and a party machinery solid enough to last at least as long as an administration’s term. The last time a president achieved an unquestionable majority was in 1965; the last real landslide was in 1969. Since then, the best percentage a post-Edsa president has managed was 39.6 percent (Estrada in 1998). But this only put him on a par with the most underwhelming presidency of the Third Republic, that of Carlos P. Garcia, lone plurality president of his time, who obtained 41.3 percent (over time, it’s the percentage, not the number of votes that matters, since our population is always increasing).

As for party machinery, the one Ramos built didn’t survive his presidency, and neither did Estrada’s coalition; the current one is devouring its own children in the Lakas-Kampi conflict.

In retrospect, it’s even more understandable now why the President was so insistent on a million-vote margin of victory instead of, simply, a victory. Since 2001, she had realized how wide the gulf between the mythic place of the presidency and its diminished reality has become. It is a lesson those jockeying to succeed her may be coming to realize, now. Try as anyone might, on both sides of the aisle, public participation in our politics may have already peaked.

In the Senate race, fellow Inquirer Current blogger John Nery points out something interesting. A survey score in the low to mid 30s got Honasan in the 13th place in 2004; today, rating lower, the mid to high 20s, it’s enough to put Honasan in 11th place. A candidate can therefore do more, with less; but the relevant fact here is that this means all the candidates will have to do more with less – public support, that is.

Diminished expectations, diminishing returns: the fight can only get more vicious as fewer people get involved and – whichever side they may be swayed to – get smaller in number but more crucial.

Debased and degenerate? As far as describing the system, the President was correct; but so far, so have been the solutions – except the tried and tested and true way of elections.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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