Two years ago, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was a political lame duck flapping around trying to survive. Today, she's still a political cripple, but with a dangerous difference. The lame duck has a machine gun.
To hang on to office, Mrs Arroyo has turned to the only true guarantor of power in the Philippines, the armed forces. Hesitantly at first, then with growing reassurance, this government has resorted to acts not normally associated with the term “healthy democracy.” Soldiers have been posted to city neighborhoods, political enemies have been arrested on the basis of photocopied warrants. Mrs. Arroyo has openly disdained constitutional checks and balances, encouraged her officials to ignore the senate and congress, made appointments as it pleases her.
The recent passage of the anti-terror law (the government straightfacedly calls it the “Human Security Act”) lays the legal basis for violating constitutional and human rights. Providing what the United Nations calls an “overly broad definition” of terrorist acts, it allows warrantless arrests of suspects, who can be locked up for three days without any charges filed against them. Law enforcers can eavesdrop on suspects, who if convicted face 40 years imprisonment. The question is, who defines what a “suspect” is?
The only thing that seems certain at this point is democratic space is narrowing in the Philippines. Filipinos are gradually losing rights and freedoms at the same time the government's power and unaccountability are increasing.
It might be an extremely faint consolation if the accumulation of government police powers were being used to address the country's ills: a politically bankrupt leadership class, poverty, massive corruption, a ramshackle educational system. But far from being a showcase for authoritarianism and progress, this government is a showcase for brutality and venality.
Clinging to the military, Mrs. Arroyo has allowed the generals to introduce an old familiar spin to the nation's problems -- namely that it's all the fault of the communists. President Arroyo has declared she will crush the communist insurgency in three years -- a feat even the Marcos dictatorship couldn't manage. Put in fashionista terms: this season, the new black is Red.
At any rate, the Arroyo government is already in the running to surpass the Marcos regime's murderousness and corruption. Under Martial Law, Marcos, his family and his cronies helped themselves freely to the country's wealth, and wrote the law as they thought fit. Dissenters were labelled "subversives", kept under surveillance, arrested, tortured, murdered. The military, justice system and and government institutions were bent out of shape, made to do the bidding of the kleptocrats.
Under Mrs. Arroyo's watch, an increasing number journalists and activists has been murdered, drawing international condemnation. Sleaze levels have grown to such proportions that the Philippines was recently ranked Asia's most corrupt country by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. Not only has the poverty rate not been reduced, but also up to 20 per cent of respondents in a survey said they suffered from hunger.
None of this seems to affect Mrs. Arroyo, who has gone out of her way to scold the poor for not appreciating how she's supposedly improved their lot. ("inconsiderate ingrates", you can almost hear her muttering). It's the sort of tone deafness that has become her trademark, an insensitivity that could account for why she's the most unpopular president the country has had since 1986.