2006 in review

Thu, 03/15/2007 - 00:00
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reprinted from Prospects, the annual magazine of the Foreign Corespondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) Jan 19 2007

Crisis..Calamity. Murder. What phrase could possibly sum up 2006? How about, "So what else is new?"

Philippine year-end reviews are beginning to look alike. A quick look at the archives shows that 2006 resembled 2005, which was similar to 2004, which come to think of it, wasn't much different from 2003. Perhaps soon, all that a correspondent will have to do to produce a year end report is recycle the previous year's story, changing dates, names and casualty figures, substituting "landslide" for "mudslide" as necessary, adding a corruption scandal here, a bombing there. The writer could then round off the package with an appropriate title, like "The Philippines In Review: Same Old", or "The Philippines – What Did You Expect?"

Anyway, as expected, 2006 year was far from dull (actually for media in the Although the president lifted the state of emergency, political observers saw it as a flirtation with martial law and worried the flirting would lead into a hot and heavy romance and a long-term commitment Philippines, boredom is never a problem – assassination and libel suits from the president's husband are). A series of natural cataclysms – mudslides, floods and landslides -- which killed more than 2,000 affirmed the country's position as one of the world's capitals of grief. In August, a particularly powerful in typhoon blacked out Luzon for days, and toppled giant billboards illegally built along Manila's streets onto people below, giving new meaning to the term "in your face advertising."

In politics, the two biggest stories were the alleged coup attempt in February 24, and the government's unflagging efforts to replace the constitution. The reported putsch – a plan by some soldiers to "withdraw support" from the government – was nipped in the bud by the administration, which then declared a state of emergency. Apparently, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo needed the powers so that police could raid a critical newspaper so tiny, nobody even knew it existed. Although the president lifted the state of emergency, political observers saw it as a flirtation with martial law and worried the flirting would lead into a hot and heavy romance and a long-term commitment.

Few were reassured by the manner in which the Arroyo administration and its allies in Congress ran the campaign to change the constitution. Charter change, or "cha-cha", would switch the Philippines over to a parliamentary form of government, which proponents say the best medicine for the country's ills. What advocates forget to mention are the side-effects of the medication: by the most amazing coincidence, it would extend Mrs. Arroyo's term and grant her tremendous powers. It would also let incumbent congressmen hang on to office.

On October 25, the Supreme Court cut off charter change's legal legs, saying an alleged "citizen's drive" to hold a referendum was bogus. Though it seemed cha-cha was dead, its advocates decided to go for broke: on December they used a majority in the House of Representatives to break rules and invent new ones to make cha-cha possible. This provoked a backlash from citizen's groups and the church, along with the possibility of civil unrest, which sent the congressmen scurrying and President Arroyo announcing that charter change was off.

The Catholic church then made the mistake of announcing a rally in Manila against charter change, giving the impression a million would attend. When less than 50,000 did, President Arroyo promptly delivered a speech that said cha-cha was on. At that point it was clear that charter change was like a movie zombie monster that could never die..No matter how many stakes were driven through its heart, or how often it was riddled with bullets, it would keep rising from the grave, dusting itself off and shambling forward.

All the political zigzagging would make anyone believe the government had two secret high-priority initiatives going: a "National Program To Irritate As Many People As Possible", and a "Comprehensive Presidential Popularity Reduction Program." The first would have peaked in December, when, faced by public unrest because of the attempt to railroad cha-cha, the government panicked and suddenly postponed the Asean Summit in Cebu, using a typhoon as a pretext. This left delegates, media and local businessmen gathered in Cebu high and dry. In that one week, the Arroyo government managed to offend civil society, the church, Asian diplomats, local government officials, Cebu's citizens and businessmen and the foreign media all in one stroke.

Understandably, none of these helped boost President Arroyo's popularity, which was clocked at minus 13. Considering government spokespersons have always maintained the President shuns popularity, then that could be seen as a good indicator. Actually, the number wasn't as low as in 2005, which was probably a relief to opinion pollsters, who were beginning to worry they'd run out of space to draw the line at the bottom of the graph.

President Arroyo's defenders maintain the unpopularity is the price she has to pay for making tough decisions.. One example of this might be the decision to go in and rescue a poor trapped serviceman in December. Of course, the serviceman happened to be a US Marine being held in a Manila jail after he was convicted of raping a Filipina. But this could be seen as a demonstration of a how a leader can be sensitive to the nuances of international diplomacy – in this instance an American threat to cancel all joint military exercises.

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