Low expectations

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Despite all hopes to the contrary, the country will probably find out within the next few days that the contest for president was indeed between Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Fernando Poe Jr.

Contrary to the Poe camp’s predictions, the country should also be discovering that Mrs. Arroyo will continue to be its president for six more years—unless the country shifts to a parliamentary system of government, in which case she’s likely to be in Malacanang until she’s 70.

Both would prove the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia surveys right. The victory preacher Eddie Villanueva predicted will be his, or a Panfilo Lacson or Raul Roco win, will destroy both SWS and Pulse Asia’s credibility, possibly forever. If the votes do not pan out as both firms predict, both would be out of business. That possibility, and the personal integrity of the heads of both firms, are among the reasons why all those claims of manipulation in behalf of Malacanang don’t wash.

A Poe victory is still possible, however, given how narrow Mrs. Arroyo’s lead over Poe has been, and how many (10 to 12 percent) were undecided until the eve of election day. Although Mrs. Arroyo should get a fair amount of the undecided votes, enough of them could go to Poe to bring him to Malacanang.

What to expect of a Poe presidency? The country has very little to go on, if it were to base its expectations on what Poe has been saying these last three months.

Poe has promised transparency, he’s promised an end to corruption, rebellion, crime and economic uncertainty. But these promises are not uniquely Poe’s. Mrs. Arroyo has promised the same things and so have Villanueva, Lacson and Roco. Though their promises have been worded differently, they have sought to address what are after all universal concerns, and problems so glaringly real they can’t be ignored.

The difference is in the means—the programs and plans– to achieve those goals. About those means Poe had been reticent, perhaps in the mistaken belief that platforms are no more than declarations of intentions.

Lacson thinks that the country’s woes are rooted in bad law enforcement, and that the first item in the government agenda should be to address the law and order problem. He promised a mailed-fist policy in dealing with crime, perhaps a la the PNP’s approach to the Kuratong Baleleng when he was police chief.

Roco promised more of a good thing: the free education that’s already free up to high school, but which he would make even freer by dispensing with such remaining costs as PTA and Boy Scout contributions.

Villanueva promised an upright officialdom at the top of which he would be the sterling leader by example as the primary means to address the country’s problems.

Poe had said when pressed that the plans would come later—a statement that said volumes about his readiness to govern. He does have a long list of advisers headed by economists of the pro-globalization variety—which only means that they’ll be giving him advice that won’t be any different from current policy.

Poe has other advisers who’re unlisted, but who have been visible during his campaign, and eager to push their respective interests and agendas. That’s where the problems could arise, in terms of a gaggle of advisers competing for the ear of a president who may not have the capacity to decide what’s best for the country.

Rather than heed the best advice, which in the first place he may not be able to recognize, a President Poe could end up relying on his worst instincts, and on those closest to him in terms of political ties and friendship—a dangerous possibility that would inevitably lead to policy incoherence.

That incoherence plagued Joseph Estrada, and proved to be his undoing. Consistency is the very minimum the many sectors of society affected by public policy expect. Every poll ever taken of businessmen, church people, professionals, the military and civil society identifies the need for rules and their impartial implementation at the head of their list of ideal conditions.

The existence of rules uniformly applied means exemption from the vagaries of individual whim. They assure predictability, they guarantee fairness and stability. They help keep corruption at a minimum. By putting limits on discretionary power they also strengthen democratic rule.

The policy incoherence and selective application of existing rules of the Estrada period—and the resulting chaos, corruption and abuse of power– led to Estrada’s ouster by uniting the middle-classes, the business community, the Church and civil society, and forcing the police and military leadership to withdraw its support from him.

The middle-classes, business, the Church and civil society are the very same forces skeptical of a Poe presidency. Appalled by a Poe victory, these forces could very well achieve the same unity they achieved in Estrada’s time once Poe travels down the same road as Estrada. Policy incoherence and political instability—and an unfinished term—could be Poe’s legacy as they were his kumpadre’s.

An Arroyo victory, despite the noises coming from the Estrada wing of the opposition and its allies in the police and the military, would be less destabilizing in the long-term. An Arroyo presidency would at least be distinguished by its predictability. While her victory will certainly provoke accusations of fraud and vote-buying and even rioting in the streets, a critical mass enough to put Poe in Malacanang via an uprising supported by the police and the military is unlikely.

A period of instability can indeed follow an Arroyo win. But a divided police and military, in which Mrs. Arroyo has considerable support, as well as Poe’s not being exactly the preferred alternative to Arroyo among the middle classes, the business community, civil society and the Church is not likely to prolong the instability enough to lead to her removal.

But that’s about as far as the good news goes. Once stabilized, an Arroyo presidency can be expected to continue the policies on which, after all, Mrs. Arroyo based her campaign. Among those policies are the country’s continuing integration into the global economic system and the encouragement of foreign investments; the emphasis on agriculture—logical enough, except that it’s been at the cost of industrialization; and in foreign policy, a continuation of the country’s political and military re-engagement with the United States, to the extent of the latter’s maintaining a semi-permanent presence in the Philippine south. Meanwhile, the rebellions north and south are likely to continue, as the government returns to its total war policies against rebel groups, and abandons the window-dressing peace talks it revived for the sake of the elections.

If only Mrs. Arroyo would surprise us once she’s won a full term! She is certainly capable. She is an excellent tactician who, in these elections, managed to cobble together all sorts of Franken-alliances, and whose concept of a united front is so broad it includes the enemy. By deftly using the black arts of traditional politics, Mrs. Arroyo thus went from third in the surveys last January to first this May.

Her mastery of the political system could be put to better use. Mrs. Arroyo could focus all that talent on the country’s most pressing problems, and produce results that for once would make all those government press releases on her achievements as accurate as they’re self-serving.

But that might be to expect the impossible. No one has ever lost money underestimating the patriotism of Philippine leaders. As every president has proven since 1946, the best way to avoid disappointment is to expect the least of them.

Should Mrs. Arroyo win a full term under the presidential system, she is more likely to be eying next a limitless term in the parliamentary system she says she now wants to put in place, while her government walks the well-worn path it’s been following since 2001, God help us all.

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