Arroyo’s gamble

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Her perception that the threat of a People Power uprising or of a military coup had waned seemed to have emboldened President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo into admitting last June 27 that it is her voice in the “tapes” of the allegedly wiretapped conversations between her and “a Comelec official.”

Mrs. Arroyo’s confession can still backfire, however. The more perceptive realized even as she was broadcasting it live that she was also thus validating the tapes authenticity, and admitting to the accuracy of their contents. Despite Mrs. Arroyo’s claim that she did not cheat, the phone conversations between her and former Commission on Elections Commissioner Virigilio Garcillano suggest that there was indeed a conspiracy to manipulate the results of the May 2004 vote.

It was immediately apparent that this and other implications did not escape the public, and certainly not the opposition. Susan Roces’ joining the chorus demanding that Mrs. Arroyo resign was one of the immediate consequences of the Arroyo confession. Fernando Poe Jr.’s widow is now threatening to be the voice and face of an opposition whose seeming disarray had been to Mrs. Arroyo’s advantage.

Mrs. Arroyo apparently risked her confession’s backfiring because she could no longer deny it was she on the tapes (that question is easily resolved by voice analysis experts). But she was also hoping that her show of contrition would prevent middle class apathy from developing into the kind of outrage and unity with other disgruntled sectors that have removed two presidents.

Mrs. Arroyo had appeared confident over live TV despite the risks she took. And there had been earlier signs that recent events had made her confident—perhaps too confident. Her administration had lasted way beyond the 72- hour June 12 weekend its own spokespersons said were critical to its survival. A National Day of Protest called June 24 by anti-Arroyo political forces came and went without incident. Former Defense Secretary Fortunato Abat called off a March to Malacanang last June 25.

Mrs. Arroyo had previously refused to engage her opponents. But during the launch of the Philippine Report on the UN Millennium Development Goals the previous week, she declared that her “detractors” had gone too far, and said that she would not be moved from pursuing her economic reforms—or, to put it in another way, that she will cling to the presidency no matter what the cost.

“No one,” Mrs. Arroyo declared, “shall block the path of the presidency, not even my irresponsible detractors who wish to set back our gains and reverse our engine of growth and development.”

While Mrs. Arroyo was entangled in that convoluted metaphor, a number of her provincial governor allies including Ilocos Sur Governor Luis Chavit Singson warned they would establish autonomous regional governments if Mrs. Arroyo is ousted.

The governors justified this plan in terms of the usual “welfare of our constituents.” But the intent was obvious: to frighten the entire country into either passively or actively supporting Mrs. Arroyo, the alternative to the country’s losing her being its Balkanization into feudal fiefdoms.

The Arroyo administration, however, has been responding in other ways to the threats to it. Long before her June 27 declaration, Mrs. Arroyo had set into motion responses meant to prevent her ouster—or, as she would perhaps put it, steps to assure that no one would “block the path of the presidency.”

Primarily she’s used the letter of the law, especially the laws on sedition and inciting to sedition. Meanwhile, the National Telecommunications Commission warned broadcast media that they could lose their permits to operate if they aired tapes or CDs of the supposedly wire-tapped phone conversations. . And there was also the earlier threat from Justice to investigate the media organizations that aired the tapes or uploaded them into their websites

These efforts were hardly surprising. They occurred in the context of a policy decision for the administration to use the law, despite the Bill of Rights, to diminish the exercise of free expression including press freedom, and to threaten critics into silence via the country’s ample supply of national security laws.

In the days before June 27 Malacanang had also been taking the verbal offensive. Mrs. Arroyo likened herself to the late, assassinated Ninoy Aquino during the launch in Malacanang last June 24 of awards named after the late senator in an effort to paint herself as the victim of character assassination. Speaking on the same day at another function, Mrs. Arroyo described those demanding her resignation and/or removal as “enemies” seeking to reverse EDSA II and the results of the May 2004 elections which she insists she had won fairly.

In the same busy day for the administration, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye impugned the character of Archbishop Oscar Cruz, and suggested that the Archbishop could be an “unwitting pawn” of Mrs. Arroyo’s detractors. Archbishop Cruz had alleged that Mrs. Arroyo had received help from jueteng operators when she ran for vice president in 1998, and again last May, 2004.

Far from falling apart as her more optimistic foes have predicted, Mrs. Arroyo had become more and more confident past June 12. She had since made herself visible to the media via visits to the provinces and other activities meant to suggest “business as usual” for the presidency.

Despite the contrition in her words in the evening of June 27, at some moments there was more than a hint of the arrogance that together with the growing impoverishment of more and more Filipinos during her watch has helped drive her approval ratings to sub-zero.

Mrs. Arroyo apparently thought that her July 27 confession—and her sending her husband off to (comfortable) “exile” in the United States– could buy her enough time as well as middle-class indifference to the calls for her resignation or removal. The price is her holding on to power– while she virtually admitted not only to an “impropriety” but, in effect, also to the manipulation of the last elections as her critics have charged.

Whether her gamble will indeed pay off should indicate if indeed the country, especially the middle class whose members were so much in evidence in EDSA I and II, have grown so cynical over the electoral process that they are prepared to tolerate the rule of a President many believe to be illegitimate.

(Philippine Daily Inquirer/INQ7)

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