Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Arroyo Losing Grip

Can She Hold On?
Calls grow for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to resign from the Philippines' presidency

The Philippine President delivers a State of the Nation speech every summer. Last week Gloria Macapagal Arroyo jumped the gun on the speech scheduled for July 25 because, as she told her countrymen in a hurried radio address, the nation's state was so parlous it needed fixes that couldn't wait. "Let's confront the biggest, most painful political truth ... our political system has degenerated," the President said. Arroyo ordered her Cabinet to step down and announced a crusade to reform the government, reducing red tape and cleaning up the election process. Arroyo also said she couldn't resign in the wake of allegations that she fixed last year's presidential election because it would show the Philippines to be "hopelessly unstable."

Arroyo's address was the most eloquent of her career, and her points about the Philippines' hurly-burly political system might have hit home—if her own widely criticized presidency weren't hanging by the thinnest of threads. She insisted that her speech was not "a political ploy or gimmick," but that's how it came across. The following day, seven members of her Cabinet, including Arroyo's respected economic team, quit, saying they had been on the verge of resigning anyway, and that Arroyo had simply been trying to pre-empt their moves and show that she's still in charge. "The President can be part of the solution to this crisis by making the supreme sacrifice for God and country to voluntarily relinquish her office," said Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. "The longer the President stays in office under a cloud of doubt and mistrust ... the greater the damage [to] the economy and the more vulnerable the fragile political situation becomes." (Three additional Cabinet members resigned later that day.)

Purisima's remarks followed a week of calls for Arroyo's resignation from such high-profile organizations as the Catholic De La Salle University, the University of the Philippines College of Law, and the leaders of the country's 13 million Protestants. On Friday, the blue-chip Makati Business Club joined the chorus, as well as former President Corazon Aquino, the heroine of the 1986 People Power revolution, who said the present crisis was "crippling the government and endangering the nation."

Until recently, the business community was squarely behind Arroyo. Its defection is a major worry for her, given that Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada fell from power in 1986 and 2001 respectively after Big Business wrote them off. In June, Arroyo's administration pushed through Congress a fiscal restructuring package to help avoid an Argentine-style financial crisis. But the cornerstone of that package—an expanded value-added tax—has been suspended by the Supreme Court. Increasingly, Arroyo is no longer seen as an asset but a liability. "We were on the verge of a major boom," says Joey Salceda, a Congressman who helped devise the economic plan. "That's gone now."

The government is still hoping for growth of around 5% this year—if the Arroyo crisis doesn't drag on. But it may prove hard to hang on with so little support from businessmen and her former Cabinet members. The Philippines may avoid a nonconstitutional overthrow like a military coup or another People Power revolt if Arroyo chooses to surrender power to her Vice President, former news broadcaster Noli de Castro. But De Castro, who served as a Senator before becoming Vice President last year, is best known to the public for his television career, not for accomplishments in office. "If De Castro takes over," says Asiri Abubakar, a political-science professor at the University of the Philippines' Asian Center, "at best he'll be merely a transition President. He doesn't have a track record."

Meanwhile, Arroyo is hanging tough. "This must stop," she said Friday. "With due respect to former President Aquino and others, their actions cause deep and grievous harm to the nation because they undermine our democratic principles and the very foundation of our constitution." Another former President, Fidel Ramos, told the press that Arroyo should "stay the course" but also advised she start work on changing the constitution to a parliamentary system and calling a presidential election by June 2006—in effect, cutting short Arroyo's term by four years. "People ask, 'Can I govern?'" Arroyo admitted in her radio address. "Yes, I can govern, and I am governing." The problem is that fewer and fewer Filipinos either believe her or believe in her.

With reporting by Nelly Sindayen


The Perils of Pedestals
Filipinos must learn to place their faith in institutions, not individuals

Will another people power uprising in the Philippines topple beleaguered President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo? No. The political configuration just isn't right. There is anger but no infectious outrage. There is serious disappointment but no viable alternative leader. There is a lot of political heat but not enough to bring things to a boil.

The 1986 People Power revolt that ousted Ferdinand Marcos was different. Clustered around Manila's main artery EDSA, it was heroic, miraculous and magical, dismantling an entrenched dictatorship and restoring democracy. The January 2001 EDSA Dos that led to the fall of Joseph Estrada was a poor photocopy; it forced out a dysfunctional presidency and followed the constitutional line of succession by ushering in Arroyo, who was Estrada's Vice President. The riot of May 2001, dubbed EDSA Tres and instigated by Estrada's fanatical supporters, completely debased the notion of People Power.

Today, amid the allegations of vote rigging and corruption swirling around President Arroyo, the talk in Manila is about People Power fatigue. There's a palpable—and desperate—sense that the more we change things, the more they remain the same. Once again, it seems, we are trapped in a destructive political cycle: we elect Presidents and expect them to be superhuman—solving every conceivable problem and delivering the nation from misery and failure; when they fail to live up to such lofty demands, we seek to depose them.

Filipinos act this way because we have an unduly large expectation of what a government can and should do: create jobs, provide subsidies, desist from taxing the people. Over time, we have assembled a large state sector expected to deliver the goods. But the ordinary citizen is reluctant to pay for a large state burdened by a wide assembly of public enterprises that chronically lose money. The upshot is a system in constant fiscal difficulty, and disposed to heavy borrowing that mortgages the future.

Filipinos have a schizophrenic view of their political leaders, from town mayors to provincial governors to Presidents. They must be generous patrons, doling out to people in need—as if they were benevolent Sultans with bottomless purses. But they must not be corrupt. In our personality-driven culture, clans and ritual bonds are important; ideologies and government programs are not. When things go right, it's because leaders are heroes of epic proportion. When things go wrong, we replace personalities rather than reinforce institutions and processes.

In our culture, rules do not arbitrate the interaction of people; it's people who arbitrate the application of the rules so that interpersonal relations proceed smoothly, unimpeded by the law. It's a culture that has stunted the development of strong institutions. The legal system that we have, the voluminous regulations and procedures: all these form a thin veneer of a state that seems to resemble those in the West. But beneath lies a complex web of fixers and power brokers, go-betweens and patrons, geared to make things happen—whether negotiating a business deal or tax settlement, bringing government projects to a district, or, it would seem, adding up the votes. This complex web baffles outsiders, who often complain of the "high cost of doing business" in the Philippines.

But we Filipinos shudder at the thought of depersonalized institutions and processes, fearing the harshness of laws untamed by individuals. We have never understood that the more depersonalized systems are, the more efficiently things get done. We are quite comfortable with weak institutions and strong leaders. And when the corruption of formal rules and procedures becomes all too evident and therefore unsettling, we eject leaders for their lack of finesse. We replace them with others, hoping against the odds that they can make things work. We invest too much in the possibility that people of extraordinary capacities will save us from the tendency of the system to break down.

Deep in our guts, we know that a President phoning an election official when votes are being counted—as Arroyo has admitted doing—is most likely not unusual. The scandal generated over Arroyo's calls is both contrived and hypocritical: we are not supposed to know this happens, but because the conversations appear to have been caught on tape, our explicit code of proper civic behavior compels us to feign disgust. We have to go through the motions of being scandalized. One side of our schizophrenic political culture must be appeased. After we are done with the ceremonial self-flagellation (or, if I am mistaken, a more emphatic purging such as People Power or a coup), we will settle back to a comfortable regime of elastic rules and mediated processes. It is our culture—and our fate.

Alex Magno is a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines in Manila

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