Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Newsbreak Analysis

Survival options
By Glenda M. Gloria
Newsbreak Managing Editor

HER apology notwithstanding, it is clear to President Arroyo's opponents as well as some of her supporters in and out of government that she should go -- in due time. She intends to stay for the long haul, though.

The President's June 27 televised address on her controversial telephone conversations with "a Comelec official" was forced on her by people and circumstances. Three weeks before this, the administration took a two-pronged strategy: to cover up the scandal and accuse the opposition of a conspiracy to oust her. When this failed to placate the President's big allies (big business and civil society), a public apology became inevitable.

Now, the Palace is in what an ally, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, has described as an "affirmative mode." The President has committed to her Cabinet that she would banish her husband, her son Mikey, and her brother-in-law Iggy Arroyo from the power corridors. Some of her advisers have asked her to push this further: the forced resignation of some officials closely associated with the First Gentleman and the fast-tracking of the process toward a parliamentary form of government.

It's a survival tack. Before June 27, cracks were already showing in the ruling coalition. Both chambers of Congress were divided between those who favored her silence on the tapped conversations and those who wanted her to break it. Some of her Cabinet secretaries were planning to quit if she continued to stonewall, according to one Cabinet secretary interviewed by NEWSBREAK.

At the House of Representatives, Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, the President's former national security adviser, sought the playing of the CD at the ongoing House inquiry. On the TV talk show "Strictly Politics" on June 24, Golez said: "Of course, it's damned if you do, damned if you don't. But my feeling is that it's better to be damned telling the truth." A "moral issue" such as the recording, he said, "will certainly divide the House, I'm very sure of that." After the President's apology, he called for her resignation.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, head of the Liberal Party (LP) that is allied with the administration, also wanted the President to speak up. While he has displayed fierce loyalty to the President, his partymates are not exactly shooting down any post-Arroyo scenario, LP insiders say. Incidentally, Drilon is second in the line of succession, after the Vice President, in case the presidency is vacated.

Palace Alibis

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye is now saying that the President had wanted to talk about the recording from Day One but that her legal advisers had dissuaded her against it.

Bunye is not exactly being honest. In the first week of June, when the Palace got wind of reports that the opposition was going to present the CD, a small crisis group led by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita met to design a way out for the President. They decided to preempt the opposition by raising a specter of an anti-Arroyo conspiracy related to the recording. On June 6, Bunye presented two versions of the CD, and described as "altered" the version that the President now appears to have authenticated with her June 27 address to the nation.

Bunye pointed to an "original" version that he said could be the genuine one, and this contained the President's voice and the voice of another man -- not Election Commissioner Virglio Garcillano. The man who later came out to say that he thought it was his voice on it was Edgar Ruado, chief of staff of the President's brother-in-law, Negros Occidental Rep. Iggy Arroyo. National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Director Reynaldo Wycoco joined the fray, declaring that based on the NBI initial findings, both had been tampered with (in reality, they were because both were mere portions of a bigger recording).

Air Force T/Sgt. Vidal Doble Jr. reinforced the administration line that the opposition was behind a campaign to oust the President. Now in police custody, the former agent of the intelligence service of the Armed Forces (ISAFP) gave a statement hewing to the government's conspiracy line: that he was paid a handsome fee to appear on video and admit to having wiretapped Garcillano. He said that he was kidnapped by anti-Arroyo personalities like former NBI deputy director Samuel Ong, thus his (Doble's) presence in the San Carlos seminary where Ong was holed out for a time. What Doble did not say was that he was in San Carlos ahead of Ong.

All this time, the government barely lifted a finger to look into who did the wiretap and who leaked it. The technical group of ISAFP (MIG 21) is being investigated, but it's not clear if this probe is going anywhere.

In any case, to some of her Cabinet officials, the President's two-week stonewalling had become untenable. What added pressure on them were calls from former Arroyo executives, Raul Roco and Renato de Villa, for the President to break her silence. Civil society groups that backed Arroyo in Edsa People Power II met with De Villa and asked him to support calls for the creation of a truth commission, which he did.

Crucial Meetings

On June 23, civil society representatives met with Social Welfare Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman, who has the President's ears. They told Soliman that former President Corazon Aquino and Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales had "informally" declared their support for the commission. Soliman relayed this to the President.

On the night of June 24, Soliman led a small group of Cabinet officials in a meeting with the President. Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr. facilitated the meeting. NEWSBREAK learned that after the scandal broke, Cruz met several times with his colleagues from the Villaraza Angcangco law office, otherwise known as The Firm. The law office has been counseling the President since she was a senator.

A Cabinet secretary present at the meeting told NEWSBREAK that they conveyed three messages to the President: that she speak on the scandal, that she apologize to the nation if it was her voice on the CD, and that she remove from the power scene the three controversial men in her life: her husband, her son Mikey, and Iggy Arroyo.

A bigger group of Cabinet officials, including members of her economic team, met separately with the President the following day, June 25. At the end of the day, a dozen Cabinet officials were in favor of the President speaking up while nine were against it. Among those who supported her speaking up were Cruz, Soliman, Education Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad, and key members of the President's economic team. Those who expressed their misgivings included National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales and Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza.

On Sunday, June 26, the President's wordsmiths made the first draft of her speech. The original plan was for her to deliver it Sunday night, according to one of Malacañang's PR consultants. For some reason, it was rescheduled the following day, June 27. By that time, a second draft had been made. The speech was focused on her admission, according to the PR consultant, to debunk speculation that she had intended to talk about her husband in the same speech.

As NEWSBREAK went to press on June 28, we were told that the President would make an announcement regarding the First Gentleman on June 30 and that probably a few heads in the Cabinet would roll in the days ahead.

As early as June 24, on "Strictly Politics," Rep. Salceda laid down what looked like the "moving on" strategy of the administration. He said that with the First Gentleman most likely "removed from the scene," the President could now call for a constitutional convention and declare herself a transition president who would facilitate the change to a parliamentary form of government. What's important, said Salceda, is that "you minimize [the impact of the scandal], you distract attention."

Many of the President's advisers, like Salceda, think that her apology would be accepted by a public already tired of two Edsa People Power revolts. "The people would rather go for such orderly and systematic mode of change wherein there could be some element of self-sacrifice on the part of the government."

Three scenarios

The apology could work both ways, however. It could, for instance, open fresh revelations about fraud in the last elections.

The anti-Arroyo groups are looking at three ways to break the impasse:

• Tap respectable people to persuade her to step down.

• Force her out through massive protests and eventually a withdrawal of support by the military.

• Impeach her.

Now that she has authenticated her voice on the recording by apologizing for it, some of her supporters are inclined to eventually ask her to step down. If she doesn't, we can expect at least a couple of Cabinet resignations by those who see this as fundamentally a "moral" issue.

The second scenario is being pushed by the mass-based anti-Arroyo movement: the Left, the Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe groups, officials of former President Fidel Ramos' government led by Salvador Enriquez Jr., some Catholic bishops and priests, and others.

None from the Estrada and Poe groups is actively pushing the third option, which is impeachment.

There are three reasons for this. One, it's still debatable to some if the CD's contents could be construed as an impeachable offense. Second, the President has the numbers in both chambers of Congress and also the wherewithal to make lawmakers toe the line. Third is the bias against Vice President Noli de Castro: "Noli is not prepared for the presidency and this constitutional succession will merely perpetuate elite politics," said Ronald Llamas, president of the left-wing Akbayan party.

To the mass-based anti-Arroyo groups, even if De Castro becomes president, old problems of poor governance and corruption will persist. They're saying that there has to be change in the system, which breeds those problems.

In the political spectrum, therefore, three scenarios are considered likely if the President is forced to quit:

De Castro takes over. We will witness a repeat of Edsa People Power II whereby the President is ousted and the Vice President takes over. This appeals most to businessmen and current power holders. It doesn't shake the system much, and because De Castro is an ally of the President, he is not expected to radically change policies and the people already appointed to implement them. However, this does not appeal to the Left, some Church groups, and the Enriquez-led groups that are advocating a revolutionary transition government instead.

Drilon takes over as caretaker president. Both the President and De Castro are forced to resign. The Constitution puts the Senate President, who is Drilon, at the helm of government until a special presidential election is held not more than 60 days after Congress enacts the election law. This appeals to presidential wannabes like Sen. Panfilo Lacson. Under this scenario, even De Castro is not banned from running. But some groups don't want a "snap" election. They prefer instead the election of delegates to a Constitutional Commission, which would draft a new Charter and facilitate key changes, including a shift to a parliamentary government. Bayan Muna Party-List Rep. Teodoro Casiño says that "a purely constitutional option will not cure the problem, because the problem is not GMA [Arroyo] per se but the system."

Revolutionary transition government. This is supported by the Left, some Church personalities and groups, some academics, Enriquez, and even some military officers. It hews closely to the 1986 revolutionary government of Corazon Aquino, after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos. For one year, Aquino presided over a revolutionary government and formed a Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution. Those favoring this scenario, however, are divided on the type of revolutionary government to be set up. Some, such as the groups of retired general Fortunato Abat and Enriquez, are amenable to a civilian-military council, while others, such as Akbayan, want a purely civilian transition government.

All these assume, of course, that the President will step down. But both her critics and her supporters are convinced that she won't. "She won't resign," says Llamas. "She would rather resort to extreme measures to stay in power."

This stalemate could drag on, to the detriment of the economy. A prolonged standoff, however, could benefit either side.

The President can buy time, go on a campaign mode by funding projects in the provinces, and show that she's still the best choice. On the other hand, her mass-based opponents also see this as an advantage for them; they can use this period to organize and expand. Even then, a forced takeover of government needs to have the support of a key command section in the military. The President commands the loyalty of her senior generals, but not the junior officers.

Susan Says no!

And at this point, the anti-Arroyo movement still lacks a face that it could sell to the people. Estrada has offered to head the transition government, to the consternation of leftist groups that have agreed to tactically ally themselves with him against Arroyo. He has not repeated the offer.

This uneasy alliance between the Left and the Estrada-Poe camp was one reason for the delay in the presentation of Ong to the media on June 10. It took a while for the Estrada-Poe and leftist groups to agree on who would present Ong.

Things would probably have turned out better for them had Susan Roces, widow of Poe, agreed to join their campaign. But she would hear none of it, according to an anti-Arroyo activist who sat down with Roces to discuss the current situation. "She has made it clear to us that she does not want to be used by anyone," the source told NEWSBREAK. The most that she's willing to do now is to join a campaign to educate the people on electoral reforms. "I am not a Cory Aquino. The situation before and now is very different," the source quoted Roces as saying.

It certainly is.

With reports from Miriam Grace A. Go and Isagani de Castro Jr.

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