Arroyo’s ‘SONA’: Ramos at the podium

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Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was, as planned, the center of attention during her fifth State of the Nation Address last July 25. She was applauded 32 times by administration congressmen and senators and their wives, in most cases for no apparent reason, but exactly on cue. It was to demonstrate, of course, that she remains popular, except that it was town mayors, governors, and the members of the majority in Congress–most of them Jose de Venecia loyalists expecting to reap the political benefits of the shift to a parliamentary system and to a federal form of government–who were jumping up from their seats and clapping.

She was in fact most applauded when (1) she argued for a supposed “change in the political system”; (2) she said this should be through constitutional amendments; and (3), in a turn-around from her often-announced position that charter change should be through a constitutional convention, she announced that she preferred that a constituent assembly should do the deed.

Everything else she said was either irrelevant or untrue. She claimed to have created four million jobs over the last four years–but did not say how she came to this number, as well as what jobs were created, and whether these jobs were temporary, seasonal or permanent, quite possibly because she was referring to, among others, those temporary low –paying street sweeper jobs she created with government funds in aid of her election campaign in 2004.

To a people among whose majority hunger has become a fact of life, whose children cannot go to school, who die from preventable and curable diseases, and many of whom sleep in carts and under bridges, she claimed to have provided “shelter, security for the urban poor and indigenous peoples,” as well as some vague achievement she called “rice productivity”. She also claimed that 69 million Filipinos are “beneficiaries of health care insurance”—alluding, no doubt, to those PhilHealth cards she distributed during the May 2004 elections.

Mrs. Arroyo also claimed credit for the country’s supposedly being at the forefront of the war on terrorism, and cited US President George Bush’s saying so–not so much to prove that claim, but to subtly suggest that she still has US support.

When she began her speech it seemed she was about to say something true. There are two Philippines, she said, and she would have been right to say that one is the Philippines of the poor and powerless and the other the Philippines of the powerful and wealthy–one the country of those who have nothing, the other the country of those who have everything. But instead she said that one Philippines is the country that’s supposedly “on the verge of take off” economically, while the other is that country “whose political system, after equally long years of degeneration, has become a hindrance to progress.”

It was all predictable and downhill from there. About what’s in most people’s minds–the “Hello Garci” tapes–her SONA was silent. She went on to argue that the political system has failed us–a seemingly radical and absolutely correct proposition, until she said that it has nevertheless succeeded in introducing–nay, achieving–“great reforms”. Of course she had to say so because the reforms she claims to have achieved were as president under the very system she said has failed the Filipino people.

“Over the years,” said Mrs. Arroyo, “our political system has degenerated to the extent that it is difficult for anyone to make any headway yet keep his hands clean”–a reference, certainly, to the fact that a the money-based political system is fraud-ridden, and who best knows this but Mrs. Arroyo, the May 2004 elections being the most fraudulent since 1947. But, Mrs. Arroyo went on, “to be sure, the system is still capable of achieving great reforms. But, by and large, our political system has betrayed its promise to each new generation of Filipinos, not a few of whom are voting with their feet, going abroad and leaving that system behind.”

The political system has indeed failed the Filipino people, but for reasons Mrs. Arroyo failed to mention. It has failed the Filipino people because it is based on money, violence, influence, and fraud, and because it has been run by the same political dynasties that have monopolized political power in this country for six decades. That means that it is not so much the system as the political class that dominates it that has led to the country’s perpetual economic backwardness and political turmoil.

But leave it to Mrs. Arroyo to draw the wrong conclusion from a valid premise. She said the country can’t go forward under this system, which makes the shift to a parliamentary system critical–and which, presumably, would make the “two countries under the same name” she mentioned one.

Only Mrs. Arroyo’s commitment to the shift to a parliamentary system and to a federal form of government was of any relevance–or for that matter, had the ring of truth in it– given the deepening political crisis of her damaged and universally despised administration. That crisis is of course based on the widespread perception that she cheated in 2004, as a result of which, among those who really matter–the Filipino people–she is totally lacking in credibility, and has lost the trust of an estimated 60 to 80 percent of the population.

Although she didn’t announce it, Mrs. Arroyo was apparently following a schedule in her head: that schedule, proposed by former President Fidel Ramos in exchange for his support last July 8, which says Constitutional amendments would be in place by the end of the year, that ratification of the amendments would take place by February, and parliamentary elections by May 2006.

Thus the paucity of her legislative proposals to Congress, which she limited to asking it to “pass the Pre-Need Code to rehabilitate, reform and regulate the pre-need educational programs that worked so well in the past as a major vehicle for youth education entitlement,” legislation “encouraging renewable and indigenous energy,” and, “in the area of national security…an anti-terrorism law.”

The thinness of Mrs.Arroyo’s legislative agenda was understandable. If the Ramos proposal were to be implemented, Congress as a Constituent Assembly would have only ten months to do much of anything, and would be more focused on assuring that (1) the nationalist provisions of the 1987 Constitution are removed for the benefit of US and other foreign investors–who, incidentally, are even now applauding the Ramos plan that is now Mrs. Arroyo’s; and (2) that the Constitution is so amended as to allow its members to run and win handily during the elections for parliament in 2006.

While Mrs. Arroyo was thus the focus of attention in this, her last SONA as president (under the Ramos plan she will have to step down by May 2006 even if she isn’t forced out of office or resigns earlier), it was actually Fidel Ramos who was pulling the strings at the podium. Mrs. Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address was thus no more than words, words, words confirming the Ramos agenda, and was but one more stage in its carefully-calibrated implementation.

Ramos himself was not saying much, except to say he doesn’t want to be prime minister–which is probably true, because what he wants to be is president all over again in a system that would make the president as powerful as the prime minister. Meanwhile, the usual pundits were declaring to one an all that the Ramos agenda won’t take off, because most of the senators are opposed to it. What they forget, however, is that this is the country of miracles, where those opposed to something today can be its most fervent advocate tomorrow in exchange for the usual millions of “reasons”–and where, if the US wants anything to happen, it will.

(Unpublished commentary)

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