The Long View: The destruction of the presidency

The Long View
The destruction of the presidency

By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:24:00 04/03/2008

The few friendly discussions I’ve had with supporters of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo usually revolve around their assertion that the President has actually strengthened the institution of the presidency. My counter-assertion is that she has accomplished the opposite. She has embarked on destroying the effectiveness of the presidency, institutionally, not for herself but for her successors.

They believe that the presidency has been held captive by special interests in the past, and it is only under her that its latent powers have been effectively wielded. They argue that by harnessing the vast powers of the office, a kind of normalcy has been restored. She has, in their view, used the presidency’s powers as it ought to be used: with determination, creativity, and craftiness.

I don’t doubt that she has, indeed, demonstrated determination, creativity and craftiness. She has used every means available to wield power. Several questions arise, though. Are they even powers that are the President’s to claim, for whatever purpose, in the first place? Have those powers been asserted for reasons that are justified? And however zestfully used, are those powers exercised in the legitimate defense of the institution, or for the partisan defense of the one holding office? And finally, has the President really demonstrated strength in handling her powers?

Let’s look, very briefly, at three examples. It’s said that the President wanted to proclaim martial law in late 2005, but backed down when Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr. and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (to its credit) opposed the plan. The Bush administration, represented by John Negroponte who flew in to Manila to deliver the message, opposed it, too. Martial law was contemplated less to save the Republic than to save the President.

In February 2006, the President, with the assistance of her lawyers, copied Ferdinand Marcos’ Proclamation 1081 to impose a state of emergency, with the intention of wielding powers on par with those asserted by Marcos in 1972 to round up opponents and muzzle the media. Same dog, different collar. It took a rebellion, of sorts, by a faction of her Cabinet, who publicly stated that the proclamation did not confer the powers the President intended to use to foil the hawkish faction of the Cabinet, and the President had to back down.

Those were positive interventions by the President’s own people. More recently, I’m convinced that a faction of the Cabinet composed of Secretaries Eduardo Ermita, Peter Favila and Leandro Mendoza held a live press conference to preempt what the media had been alerted to, by the Palace itself, that the President, in Mindanao, would announce that she had revoked Executive Order 464. Indeed, the Palace might have further dragged its feet if media hadn’t sniffed out that the President was meeting with her loyalists in the Mindanao hierarchy – and when this was revealed, she announced she was revoking the order. Recall that prior to that, the President tried to pin the blame for the national broadband network deal with ZTE Corp. on her subordinates. In preempting her planned announcement, they sent the signal that no one would take the fall for their chief.

Two other examples point to how the President has provoked constitutional crisis after crisis, as she has sought to use every means – whether traditionally allowed her, or invented by her lawyers – to clamp down on her critics. These examples involve her foreign policy.

We forget that the Arroyo presidency at the start was fixated on reviving Philippine-US ties as the lodestar of our foreign policy. The highlight of her pre-2004 term was the visit of George W. Bush where her Cabinet waved little American flags with as much enthusiasm as their predecessors two generations before had waved little Japanese flags on the same grounds. But then a Filipino was kidnapped in Iraq, and a relationship cultivated at great expense, and praised for the plenitude of its promises, was suddenly scrapped, leaving America in the lurch.

Something had to replace it, and that was China. Yet, one does not treat a superpower (whether past its prime) and an emerging power (its future status still in its infancy) with a policy that combines panic with clumsy opportunism. It leaves not just the head of state and chief bungler a pariah; it reduces the country to being a pariah, too.

Why did the President have to lurch from toadying to Uncle Sam, to abandoning America, only to pursue China with equal zeal but immoderate greed? She has ended up imperiling our country’s relationship with both powers. She bungled our relationship with both countries because she lacked the basic requirement a president needs for dealing with other nations: legitimacy. By possessing office, other nations assume she’s legitimate. But mere possession of office doesn’t necessarily translate into public approval, much less trust, of the undertakings of a president.

What’s missing is that the bedrock of the presidency – the thing that enables the holder of the office to wield the awesome formal and informal powers of that office – is not only a mandate, which allows for a fixed term, but the periodic refreshing of that mandate, something all our presidents have been keenly (sometimes too keenly) aware of since we began electing people to the position nationally in 1935. She has avoided every means to refresh her questionable 2004 mandate because she knows that in a fair fight, she’d lose.

I am a believer in the presidency as an institution, and in a strong presidency at that, because it is suited to our national temperament, and is the product of our political evolution as a people. Having a popularly-elected chief executive replaced at regular intervals is one of the few things that can be said to represent a widespread consensus in this country.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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