Mrs. Arroyo herself can set an example of gritty endurance, surviving one crisis after another and coming out seemingly stronger. Part of the reason might be that her opponents, thinking of how swiftly the lazy, befuddled Erap Estrada was upended, believed President Arroyo would be as soft.
How wrong she's proven them. Aided by an amazingly motley crew of advisers (they include ex-leftists, pseudo-intellectual political theorists, traditional political operators, and ex-Marcos as well as ex-Estrada henchmen), she's not only hung tough but seized the initiative. In little more than a year, she saw off an impeachment attempt, thwarted a half-baked coup d'etat and went on the counteroffensive. She staged a trial run of martial law (a short-lived “state of emergency'). Then, using her creatures in Congress, she mounted a hamfisted constitutional hijack that came within an ace of succeeding.
The coming elections are the next key battle. Mrs. Arroyo has to consolidate and expand her hold on Congress, allowing her to smother any new impeachment attempt. More importantly, an Arroyo Congress can mount a fresh assault on the current, inconvenient Constitution with the goal of creating a charter more congenial to an authoritarian government that can't be dislodged.
This means the Arroyo party will have to sweep the polls -- assuming they push through. Nobody should expect these elections to be a model of cleanliness or moderation. Two things give a hint of what's in store: one is the recent fire which gutted the Commission on Elections building and destroyed records of previous contested polls. The other is the fact that Virgilio Garcilliano, aka “Garci”, the eleciton commissioner accused of helping Mrs. Arroyo allegedly fix the 2004 election – a man who fled the country – is now running for Congress.
Having gotten away with so much, Mrs. Arroyo has no reason to stop rolling the dice. She can count on four factors, the first of which is the continued support of the military. This means more rewards for generals, in terms of high rank, followed by sinecures when they retire, and giving the armed forces a free hand in dealing with the communists.
The second factor is the inflow of billions of dollars from overseas workers, a cash current which gives the illusion of economic stability under the Arroyo administration. As a matter of fact, the dollars are simply creating a consumer economy with no stable basis for growth.
The third factor is the incredible mediocrity and selfishness of our national leaders. Faced with a crisis, the traditional politicians -- trapos -- behave like it's business as usual. The crass opportunism is clear in the musical chairs being played out in these elections: people like Tessie-Aquino Oreta, Vic Sotto and Edgardo Angara, who gave the impression they were opposed to Mrs. Arroyo, are suddenly in her camp. Even the so-called "genuine opposition" in this year's elections is a dubious collection of warmed-over Estrada loyalists and opportunists.
Finally, there is the public's apathy. The current unstable, violent times recall the period in the late 1960s which led up to Ferdinad Marcos power grab through Martial Law. But publisher Vergel Santos recalls that back then, people were scared and worried. Now, he thinks, most people are just plain indifferent.
It's understandable. Everything has been a letdown from the high expectations of 2001, when an enraged public turfed Joseph Estrada out of office. Despite People Power ver. 2.0, corruption hasn't abated, political institutions (to say nothing of politicians) have stayed as untrustworthy as ever.
|"I have the moral high ground. Say, who turned the lights out?"|
While many Filipinos feel so tired and helpless that they don't bother reading the newspapers anymore, it's still bizarre to hear the apathy being extolled as a virtue. An email writer (was it a Palace hack?) circulated a letter famously declaring that anyone who ignored President Arroyo's misdeeds was “taking the moral high ground.”
It isn't. It's a refusal -- whether from disgust, disdain, tiredness or cynicism -- to acknowledge reality and dwell on where things could be headed.
The apathy has created a consequence-free environment congenial for the operations of Mrs. Arroyo and her minions. As long as the public shows no strong reaction, this administration will continue right ahead setting the agenda. Human rights will be violated, laws will be selectively observed.
The president's stance is pretty clear. Here is a leader who intends to stay as long as possible in office. No doubt she believes she can make a difference. She very likely doesn't realize that in her values, alliances, dynasty-building and tactics, Mrs. Arroyo is herself a super trapo.
Unfortunately, her actions create their own vicious dynamic: the more she resorts to questionable deeds to stay in power, the more she needs to hang on to power to avoid being held accountable for those deeds. After all, it doesn't take much imagination to foresee what would happen if her opponents got to power. They would use the very same dubious legal instruments and precedents she's created against her.
The worst of it is that, even if it is displaced, the Arroyo government will have already laid the groundwork and pushed the envelope in narrowing democratic space.The government that follows it would have to be positively saintly not to pick up the instruments Mrs. Arroyo has forged.
It took 14 years to prise Ferdinand Marcos off the country's back. And the country hasn't even finished recovering from the devastation his dictatorship did to the country's economy, political institutions and national psyche.
Now, once again the country faces a government that has little respect for institutions and law, except where they benefit the incumbents. As the lame duck hobbles on, she'll be leaving droppings which the next generation will be spending years cleaning up.