When events seemed to have spun out of control and President Gloria Arroyo looked a goner, guess which hombre rode up to her rescue?
It is more than likely it was Fidel Ramos' surprise visit to the President last Friday that stopped the administration from falling to pieces then and there. It had just had a very bad day, starting in the morning when eight Cabinet secretaries had resigned and said publicly that their boss should do the same. In the afternoon, the Makati Business Club urged the president to step down. Finally Cory Aquino herself called on President Arroyo to give up.
So when late afternoon, Ramos showed up to offer his services as an honest broker, he gave the shocked and dazed administration a sorely needed bucking up. It was a politically astute move that accomplished several things. It stabilized a situation that was spinning out of control and headed for unknown directions. If Mrs. Arroyo had stepped down then, what would have happened next was unclear. Already, successors were gearing up for a dogfight over the scraps.
Ramos' appearance made the administration's foes pause as they tried to puzzle out the new development. To begin with, the opposition to Mrs. Arroyo is not as united as the opposition to Joseph Estrada had been five years ago. This time, the opponents are a mixture of Estrada loyalists, leftist organizations, uneasy businessmen and sluggish civil society groups. The Church has chosen to stay passive, effectively removing itself for the moment. The military has been simmering ominously. To some who wanted to see Mrs. Arroyo shooed out, Mr. Ramos' intervention seemed to offer a more palatable prospect than a Noli de Castro presidency or a military junta.
What Ramos brought to the table was a graceful out - or at least the best possible deal the President can get under the circumstances: a transition to a parliamentary form of government with Mrs. Arroyo staying on until next year and then stepping down when the change was accomplished. Significantly, the change is to be accomplished not by a constitutional convention but through
Congress morphing into a "constituent assembly" and then drafting a new constitution. It is not impossible that in the new setup, Ramos will be the prime minister. It is, in effect, a constitutional hijacking, as radical as a coup d'etat only with no bloodshed. Mrs. Arroyo has said she is "thinking" about it.
Ramos' political timing was exquisite. Where almost everyone else saw imminent collapse, he spotted a strategic opportunity. His move has put him in a strategic position in any post-Arroyo scenario. Prior to his approaching Mrs. Arroyo, his name had often been brought up as a possible part of a caretaker government. But in that outcome, he would have been a mere member, beholden to various squabbling groups and hated by the ousted administration. With his stroke, he has partnered himself with the strongest group in the struggle - the incumbent government, with a nation-wide bureaucracy and vast resources at its disposal. One which former president Ramos knows how to use. It's a brilliant method of achieving what had eluded him when he was in power - a change in the constitution.
Central to his calculation is President Arroyo's pride - her fear of the unspeakable humiliation of ending up like Joseph Estrada. To avoid that fate she will do anything, even combine with an ex-president who she should distrust.
For his part, Mr. Ramos showed what a real politician can do - act shrewdly instead of yammering shrewishly. The other contestants were hornswoggled: archenemy Miriam Santiago could only splutter in disbelief. But she and others such as Franciso Tatad had been unable to present a cogent plan, or were incapable of acting.
Of course, the crisis is far from over. The patient might have been dragged back from the brink, but its condition is still critical. The weekend was a mere pause as the nation and the various contenders in the ongoing power play rested and digested the significance of what had just happened. Now it promises to be a tense week.
As a former military official, Ramos probably knows that every decision is fraught with risks, and the ones he faces are evident. His new ally, stoked by jealous Palace cabals and camarillas and resentful of his ascendancy, could turn against him. And while the seemingly unstoppable rush to kick out Mrs. Arroyo has stalled, it is far from unclear that it can be contained.
The ultimate question, though, is whether a change to a parliamentary form is really the solution to this unhappy country's problems. The nation's leaders don't seem to be aware, or are ignoring, that what Filipinos want isn't a change in the system, but a change in its leaders. What they need to see is villainous leaders, the untouchable rich and powerful being held accountable and punished. Then they'll know they have a system that truly is working.