Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s net satisfaction rating has dropped from its previous negative 46.7 percent in January, says Ibon databank; it is now negative 62 percent. A July Ibon survey showed that only 10 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with Mrs. Arroyo’s performance, while a huge 72 percent were not.
The Ibon findings confirm the results of other surveys. Alone of all Philippine presidents since surveys were ever taken, Mrs. Arroyo’s satisfaction rating has stayed in the negative column for some four years. Popular Mrs. Arroyo certainly isn’t. But she’s tried to make a good thing out of a bad thing by declaring that she would “rather be right than popular”.
This basic antipathy to one of democracy’s core principles was boosted by the election of clueless actors (some do have a clue) and other celebrities since 1986. In their minds way above the hoi-polloi, the middle class brought down Joseph Estrada in 2001 despite his 11 million votes—most of which, they secretly reasoned, anyway came from the great unwashed. The country’s experience with Estrada made “popularity” a curse word, with most Filipinos assuming that what it meant was the seemingly mindless adulation the legions of the poor reserve for actors, singers, and other entertainers.
That’s the sense in which Mrs. Arroyo and her speech writers have been using “popularity” since they found out that it would take a million years, possibly longer, for Mrs. Arroyo to even approach the level of worship Estrada enjoys even today.
But “popularity” has meanings other than hero worship or idolatry. In governance, it’s in the sense of approval of how an administration governs, what policies it’s implementing, and whether the governed think it’s doing its job. Popularity is in this sense at the core of democratic governance, and decides whether an administration, having been tried and tested, deserves the sovereign power that’s been delegated to it, or should be thrown out.
Over the last six years the particularities of the above issues of governance have become critical in terms of, for example, whether the economic progress for which the regime claims credit has made a difference among the majority. (The answer is apparently “no”. Despite last year’s growth, 77 percent of Filipinos, up from 67.6 percent in 2006, today consider themselves poor.)
By now well-known not only in this country but also in those countries interested in what goes on in this part of the woods, Mrs. Arroyo’s watch has also raised disturbing questions over the future of Philippine democracy, the extra-judicial killings, political abductions, attacks on the press and free expression that have characterized her watch being the critical factors over a growing consensus that she has dismantled the libertarian legacies of EDSA 1.
The elections of May 2004 were an opportunity, if there ever was one, for the electorate to express its sentiments on the Arroyo administration and its march to authoritarian rule. Those elections were surprising. Despite the Commission on Elections, and the use of government facilities, treasure and manpower, the citizenry nevertheless elected “oppositionists” to the Senate. The usual regime cohorts retained control of the House. But what was unexpected was that, despite the advantages in the regime’s favor, some candidates identified with such anti-Arroyo groups as the Liberal Party and the party list groups the regime loves to hate still managed to make it despite the harassments, threats and murders that up to election day were being thrown at them.
Now it seems that it didn’t matter. The millions who thought they voted “opposition” in the senatorial elections are finding out that they didn’t, the majority in that body now being composed of, among others, precisely the people they thought would call the regime to account over a broad range of issues from extra-judicial killings to the recently emboldened move of the Marcos family to recover those assets it used to deny belonged to it.
In the House, meanwhile, the majority has become so brazen it’s put one of Mrs. Arroyo’s sons (Juan Miguel) as chair of the Committee on Energy and her brother-in-law (Ignacio) as chair of the Committee on Natural Resources.
Malacanang declared that it had nothing to do with the two’s designations, and the House majority at first petulantly dismissed minority criticism over the choice of both Arroyos. However, two of the majority’s leading members—Majority leader Arthur Defensor and his Deputy, Neptali Gonzalez II– later justified their choice of both Arroyos in terms of the need to develop “a very fine relationship between the executive and the legislative (branches) to make both branches of government effectively implement programs.”
It makes for an interesting theory of government. For the executive and legislative branches to function well, you need to have close relatives in both, working hand in glove and cheek by jowl. It doesn’t take a PhD degree in public administration or political science to see the bankruptcy of this argument, which in the first place makes a virtue out of the vice of dynastic rule in both branches, and in the second place undermines through kinship ties the checks and balance principle at the core of the presidential system.
Alas, however, Defensor and company are merely describing what’s already happening, and which the designation of the Arroyos to the chairmanship of the two committees only legalizes. The only question now is what other surprises the majority will pull, whether in the Senate or the House, in furtherance of subverting the results of the elections which loudly proclaimed public antipathy towards the rule of the one president they’ve consistently disapproved of over the last four years. But as Mrs. Arroyo and company would probably proclaim, it’s not about popularity. And it’s not about democracy either.