Despite her basement-level approval and trust ratings–and calls for her resignation from the opposition, business groups, academia, her erstwhile cabinet members, former political allies, Corazon Aquino, and a broad range of militant, religious, people’s and non-governmental organizations–President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has so far defied predictions that she would be forced out of office by the hemorrhage of her support last July 8.
The Catholic bishops’ decision not to ask her to resign came later, on Sunday, July 10, and was not as crucial to stopping the bleeding as former President Fidel Ramos’ declaration of support for Ms. Arroyo on condition that she preside over charter change and the shift to the parliamentary system.
Like Ramos, de Venecia too has been focused on changing the present presidential system to a parliamentary one, as have all third-termers in both houses of Congress been. Barred from seeking fourth terms under the present system, these third-termers can see to it, as members of the Constituent Assembly Ms. Arroyo has agreed to convene, that they can run for parliament in 2006.
But the far juicier prospect is that a parliament under Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrat control can hand failed presidential aspirant de Venecia the post of prime minister. Ramos is himself not very popular among Filipinos, according to the polling firm Pulse Asia. But he would share in the spoils once a parliament is in place, perhaps as a president with powers equal to those of the prime minister, or in some other equally pivotal capacity.
While Ramos pretends to speak only for himself in supporting Ms. Arroyo, he has a political and military network behind him. In the process of expressing support for Ms. Arroyo and Charter Change, he and his network also assured the United States–never a disinterested observer of Philippine politics–that the nationalist provisions of the Constitution foreign investors detest will soon be things of the past. Ramos’ proposal for Ms. Arroyo to stay on until 2006 also appealed to the middle class concern for order, and its cynicism over what another political upheaval can accomplish.
As a result of Ramos’ intervention and later, the Catholic bishops’ support, there is now more than an equal chance that Ms. Arroyo will remain in office long enough to deliver her fifth State of the Nation Address on the 25th. Despite her vast unpopularity across the country and across socio-economic groups, her putrid record of governance, and the general perception that she cheated in the May 2004 elections, Ms. Arroyo may not be forced out of office in the immediate future.
But she will eventually have to go, four years before her putative six-year term ends. Under Ramos’ proposal, Constitutional amendments would be completed by the end of this year, followed by their ratification in January and by parliamentary elections in May 2006. It is silent on whether Ms. Arroyo can run for member of parliament (MP) in those elections. If the new Constitution Ramos wants allows it, and she does run in an election with a modicum of integrity, she will risk being trounced so severely it will validate the widespread view that she “won” in 2004 only by cheating.
Between now and that moment when she makes her supposedly dignified exit, Ms. Arroyo will have only Ramos, de Venecia, the Lakas-CMD, and the Ramos wing of the military to lean on. All the rest–including that Luneta rally of 50,000 last Saturday–are illusions. She has lost the support of those civil society leaders she put in her Cabinet and those NGOs that made billions out of her generosity. She has also lost the confidence and approval of much of the business community, the middle class, and academia. And she is right now the most unpopular president the country has ever had since 1986.
The rank-and-file nuns and priests and their leaders in the religious orders who do not share the Catholic bishops’ moral ambiguity demand her resignation, while millions of Filipinos would prefer that someone else ran the country. Given these conditions, Ms. Arroyo is likely to end up a painted Malacanang figurehead while Ramos and company rule. And they will make sure that she remains as vulnerable for the next 10 months as she is currently.
With Ms. Arroyo’s hands thus tied, the truly honorable and genuinely dignified way out would be to resign now. This is to assume that Ms. Arroyo will choose dignity over expediency, and will reject being diminished personally and politically. Assuming Ms. Arroyo is not removed from office via People Power, and Ramos has his way, she will hang on to implement the Ramos agenda no matter what the conditions.
That agenda, without the clichés and the pretty words, is for Ramos, de Venecia, and their cohorts to stay in power via the shift to a parliamentary system. Beyond that is the more strategic intent of completing the country’s integration into the global order. Ramos et.al. claim that a parliament will solve the problems of the political and electoral system, including its non-representative character, corruption and lack of integrity. But unless the Filipino millions are empowered, elite dominance, misgovernment and corruption will continue in a parliamentary system as it has prevailed in the presidential one. A parliamentary system will thus make reforms even more difficult, if not impossible.
The prospect for the disempowered and marginalized majority is continuing exclusion from the political process. But the Ramos “solution” to the present crisis will also intensify intra-elite contention. The business-landlord-Catholic Church faction of the elite will not look kindly at a second Ramos presidency, for example. Neither will other military factions. Indeed, unless Ms. Arroyo resigns now and denies them the pleasure of being their flunky, Ramos and company and their partners will end up benefiting from a crisis that has divided and debased the country, exposed the bankruptcy of its political and electoral system, and bared the rot at the heart of Philippine “democracy”.
(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer / INQ7 on August 1, 2005)