On guard, nevertheless

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President Gloria Macapagal’s announcement that she will not run in 2004 has met, it seems, with universal approval and even admiration.

Both opposition and administration senators, for example, praised the announcement as, in so many words, an act of statesmanship and selfless sacrifice.

What is particularly striking is that none of her closest allies has so far urged her to reconsider. Mostly one senses relief among those allies for her decision, perhaps because, currently running a poor fourth among the likely candidates in 2004, Mrs. Arroyo has become in recent months the administration coalition’s reluctant choice for the critical elections of that year.

Of course there were the usual skeptics, among them Senator Aquilino Pimentel, who said that Mrs. Arroyo will have to prove her sincerity, even as, on the other hand, Bayan Muna representative Satur Ocampo said he hoped that Mrs. Arroyo meant what she said, and will in fact not run in 2004. These reactions were only to be expected, however, given the history of Philippine politics, an arena where sincerity is as rare as rubies.

Among the skeptics the name of Ilocos Representative Imee Marcos stood out. It was not only because she is the daughter of her father (whose likeness in concrete in Benguet province had incidentally just been demolished the other day by unknown persons). Alone among those reacting to the Arroyo announcement, only Representative Marcos seemed to have remembered some history, particularly Mrs. Arroyo’s father Diosdado Macapagal’s announcement in the mid-1960s that he would not run for a second term.

The late Macapagal did run in 1965, however, citing “public clamor” as his justification for going back on his public pledge. Macapagal’s decision split the Liberal Party, and forced one Ferdinand Marcos into the waiting arms of the Nacionalistas, under whose banner he won the elections by a landslide.

Having been told about this while presumably still a child, Representative Marcos thus expressed the wish that “maybe she (Mrs. Arroyo) isn’t like her father.”

What Representative Marcos forgot to mention, however, is that her own father made an announcement—more or less similar, but far more ingenious—sometime before 1972. Having won a second term in 1969, and being banned from a third by the 1936 Constitution, Ferdinand Marcos said that of course he would bow out of office by 1973.

Except that at that time he was busy trying to get a new Constitution adopted, under the provisions of which he could arguably run again. Except that he didn’t even wait for that to happen, and declared martial law in 1972, and made himself President for life.

All of which makes one wonder whether indeed Mrs. Arroyo won’t be running in 2004 anyway—if she won’t do a Macapagal by then, citing “public clamor” as her justification. Mrs. Arroyo is after all an assiduous student of her father’s political career and could very well be heeding a posthumous lesson from him. She might, who knows, end up announcing in 2004 that she’s changed her mind and would run just the same.

If she does do that, it would not necessarily destroy her politically, as Senate President Franklin Drilon claims it would. Her popularity and approval ratings, no doubt boosted by several percentage points by her December 30 announcement alone, could very well he high enough to defeat all comers by the time the campaign period comes around.

Unburdened of the need to constantly defend herself, assumed to have no political agenda, and focused on making those hard decisions that could enable her to address the country’s most urgent problems, she could end up in 2004 as everyone’s candidate anyway.

Mrs. Arroyo’s particular burden had been her obvious focus on the 2004 elections. Ironically, the perception that she was shaping policies and decisions with the goal of winning the presidency through the vote in mind, had eroded her popularity. On the other hand, if she had concentrated on achieving her stated goals—mitigating poverty, encouraging new politics, strengthening state capacity to enforce those policies—her popularity would have soared enough by this time to make her winning a six-year mandate in 2004 a certainty.

This primary lesson Mrs. Arroyo might have very well taken to heart. Her announcement could thus constitute an attempt to dispel the political cloud under which her administration has labored almost as soon as it assumed power in 2001. It could also cause the opposition to back off, and to stop digging for dirt to throw at Mrs. Arroyo and her most vulnerable allies, officials, associates and relatives, chief among the latter being Mike Arroyo.

Although the nation can receive the Arroyo announcement on its face value, as Senator Panfilo Lacson has suggested, some caution is thus in order. The policies and decisions she will henceforth be making require greater public scrutiny now, not less. Whether she will indeed not be running again, or whether she changes her mind later, Mrs. Arroyo’s policies and official acts from now until the end of her term in 2004 will not necessarily be either correct, wise, or beneficial to the nation. Her announcement and the realignment of forces that it could signal should not mean an end to the necessary criticalness with which the citizenry has to regard government action. Both suggestions are evident between the lines of the mostly favorable reactions from the politicians. Both are false assumptions.

Political ambition is after all not the only interest of those in or out of power. They have personal, familial, sectoral, class and economic interests as well. For example, the country can anticipate that—convinced that their patron will indeed not run in 2004—at least some of her current officials, allies, associates and relatives will use the next year and half to assure themselves of a comfortable retirement by the time she bows out of office. That is one possibility from which the public should not be lulled by the seeming selflessness of Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement.

If Mrs. Arroyo does proceed to craft the policies and to make the decisions that can pull this country out of the rut of poverty, misery and chaos that it is in, everyone of course should applaud her. Those policies and those actions, however, should remain fair game for criticism if needed, as well as praise if deserving.

A moratorium on politicking on the part of the President should not mean a moratorium on legitimate comment, criticism, and protest. The entire nation can at the moment give her the benefit of the doubt and should support her decision. But it should remain on guard, not so much against the possibility that she will change her mind, but against the possibility that, for all her seeming determination to address the country’s problems, the solutions to them may continue to nevertheless elude her and her government.

(abs-cbnNEWS.com, January 1, 2003)

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