The Long View: The Great Fear


The Great Fear

Three interesting pictures appeared online yesterday. The first featured masked police and other officials signing an agreement to implement the President’s pandemic-related threat to remove local officials who allow large gatherings. The second photo showed Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia kowtowing to the President in one of the Palace guest houses, signaling her pleading for mercy, after the Palace diverted all Cebu-bound flights to Manila, on a pandemic-related basis. The third photo showed the Speaker on a pilgrimage to Davao, to present Mayor Sara Duterte with a picture of herself, decorated with the Speaker’s name.

The first and second photos tell us that where administrations increasingly became lame ducks in the past, resulting in more and more political players being able to ignore them with impunity the closer election day came, this administration will retain a powerful and undebatable reason for compelling obedience: With all local governments, sooner or later, hamstrung by the pandemic, it will be easy for the President or his people to instantly punish LGUs that don’t play ball. The third photo reminds us that in Cebu, two days ago, a lynching took place. The victim of the lynching was Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who tried to stop a gathering that turned out to have two main purposes: to pass a resolution praising the President’s handling of the pandemic, and to beg the President to run for vice president — and to pick who should run for president.

To be sure, the Palace, which gave its go-ahead for the Cebu lynching presided over by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, says Pacquiao is still party president; but in Cebu, Cusi had called for the party to expel Pacquio for anti-Cusi behavior, while other party members pointed out a leadership election is scheduled for July 17. This, incidentally, brings us close to the date for the President’s last State of the Nation Address, traditional swan song time for presidents.

When does a president become a lame duck? In the past, all this meant was yet more proof of the endurance of what passes for the democratic cycle in our country: The ticks and parasites of today, grown fat, fall off, replaced by the aspiring ticks and parasites of tomorrow. But this was no ordinary infestation. It has left the body politic particularly weak; a Great Fear has set in.

The “Great Fear” was paranoia in rural areas, as a political crisis engulfed France in 1789, caused by rumors that the king, bandits, merchants, or what have you, were going to swoop down on farmers to take their grain. The farmers formed militias; urban residents panicked. The government panicked.

There, is, I think, a Great Fear of a kind stalking our land now: from policemen to members of the Cabinet, from political appointees who swarmed Metro Manila only to discover government doesn’t pay as well or provide as many perks as they’d hoped — and who are only now getting the hang of things — to the President, his family, and lieutenants: What if? What if the noose tightens with regard to the International Criminal Court? What if the adulation of today is like the adulation of yesterday: time-bound, and thus temporary? What if the intimidation of today gives way to a clamor for revenge tomorrow?

But this is a different presidency. First, as I mentioned above, the pandemic gives the President tremendous powers to wield against local blocs and groups—consider that aside from his recent pandemic-related threats, this most bloodthirsty of chief executives recently expressed how shocked—shocked!—he was over killings in the Visayas. Puzzling, until you realize these are killings in places where he is politically weak, and where he could be politically stronger if he pins it on local chief executives.

Second, not since 1986 has a president gone into the twilight of his term with so many accomplices wondering how they’d prosper under a change of management. There is an incentive, particularly on the part of the police, to prevent regime change. The same police mandated to implement a zero-tolerance policy against LGUs that commit pandemic-related lapses. There is a third reason: The administration, more than its potential replacements, understands what presidential elections have been about since 1992: obtaining a winning minority, and not a majority.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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