Act II of the Restoration drama
The second act, or season, of the Marcos Restoration was itself a kind of restoration—of the State of the Nation Address (Sona) as an extravaganza. Since the President formally abolished the state of emergency imposed when the pandemic began, the old-time hoopla of Left and Right was on full display once more. A convenient typhoon justified the suspension of classes and the sending home of bureaucracy, clearing the streets and thinning the already thin ranks of radicals who raised clenched fists, waved red banners, and burned papier-mâché effigies even as the House of Representatives literally rolled out the red carpet for this annual fashion and freak show of our legislators, their spouses, and guests.
And yet, much as there was a lot of the familiar, what seemed much-reduced was the spotlight: Media itself, much diminished in vigor, reach, and resources, went through the motions. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if the audience has ended up much reduced. The session hall of the House of Representatives was once again full, sporting its revamped interiors and rearranged seating, complete with the elimination of one of the public galleries to give more space to legislators and VIPs.
The ceremonial has been trimmed down and generally haphazardly run that even the traditional presidential anthem remained discarded: The entrance of the President, instead, was to the accompaniment of “Ako ay Pilipino,” a departure from the practice of his father and his predecessors. When the President proceeded to greet dignitaries, the RTVM camera caught Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Vice President Sara Z. Duterte exchanging cheeky grimaces at each other at the mention of the First Lady’s name (it was a grimace-filled day, starting with the President’s own startled look when apprehended by his elder sister, whose own clothing semiotics was in keeping with that of the Vice President).
Conspicuous by his absence was, of course, the President’s immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who thus proved his surprise Beijing visit was, indeed, unexpected and unauthorized—something confirmed when the President didn’t mention the visit, which he would have if, as some Pollyanna’s insisted, it had been a secret back-channel all along.
Act II of the Marcos Restoration can, with justification, be subtitled “reality bites.” The President suggested, bantering with mixed relief and wryness, with reporters. But if you were to read his second Sona without knowing who he is, you could be forgiven for thinking it was one by any of his reform-minded predecessors. A data-filled speech, after all, is what the late Mon Jimenez used to call a “rabbit patch”—a place where friend and foe end up munching happily on the facts you’ve provided. What matters is less what the President said, but how he said it: the right words were there, for most of the constituencies that matter to him, though I’d venture to say the one part of the speech where the President’s body language matched the content of his words, was the section on the environment, where he said all the right of-the-moment words multilateral institutions and foreign government want to hear—which is what he also did, referring to human rights.
Congress now has to deliver on the long list of legislation the President proposed, since in its first session, it only enacted one of his 21-item urgent agenda. He is unencumbered by any meaningful opposition, he is buoyed by continuing healthy popularity, he has achieved wide acceptance and even support, from old and new allies, and seemingly confounded China. His purge of the police, as he reiterated in his speech, is reaching its climax, while he seems confident he’s found a way to keep the military if not happy, then untriggered.
One bemused comment I heard after the second Sona was that “the President is very eloquent, except he doesn’t seem to have anything to say.” But then the whole point is saying things with confidence. The philosophy at the heart of the Restoration is to return things to a time when those in power were left alone to exercise it. When the President said, in his inaugural address, “I will not predicate my promise to you on your cooperation. You have your own lives to live, your work to do—and there, too, I will help. Government will get as much done alone without requiring more from you. That is what government and public officials are for. No excuses; just deliver. It was like that, once upon a time.”
And the people cheered. Both chambers of Congress, the Cabinet, and various VIPs cheered last Monday. Whether the public paid enough attention to cheer, is now beside the point. The online audio and video snippets can drown the pros and antis who feel like debating in data and declarations, but for now, the spectacle is its own reward. It is the banality of Restoration.