State of the administration

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Monday is SONA or State of the Nation Address day. As in the past, the occasion of the President’s report to the nation as Congress convenes will be the lightning rod for protests.

Last year thousands of protesters massed on Quezon City’s Commonwealth Avenue to demand, among others, wage increases across the board for the country’s workers, but were prevented from coming within earshot of the President and legislators as they gathered at the Batasang Pambansa, prompting questions like how committed really was the new government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (it had come to power only six months earlier) to listening to popular grievances, even if those grievances were being expressed under Left leadership.

In the months that followed, the answer seemed to be not much, as Mrs. Arroyo began to show that her universe was divided into Red and non-Red, calling certain critics communists while trying to appease others with, as she admitted recently, appointments to minor government posts.

But that was last year, and Mrs. Arroyo had not yet committed the political mistakes that she admits to have made “left and right.”

Since then Mrs. Arroyo, for starters, has demonstrated what could be a fatal underestimation of the political constituencies of the militant groups, and on the opposite end, an overestimation of the power of individual political figures like Blas Ople.

Ople’s reportedly certain appointment as foreign secretary in fact leads the pack of the mistakes she has committed since 2001. That act has been variously described as unprincipled and demeaning of the premier Cabinet post.

Worse, it has become a major focus of protest from both civil society and militant groups, seriously strained the unity of the Lakas Party, and confirmed the thesis that Mrs. Arroyo is no more than a traditional politician who masqueraded as a partisan of new politics in January 2001.

Even as a traditional politician Mrs. Arroyo has not been especially adept, however. She has rapidly dissipated the critical support of the militant groups by unnecessarily emphasizing the ideological divide. Her expression of blanket support for whatever initiative the United States may launch in its “war on terror” in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, which among others led to the involvement of US troops in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, not only deepened that divide. It also provoked Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. into taking issue with the latter policy option, to address which Arroyo moved to oust him from the Department of Foreign Affairs and to replace him with Ople.

While Mrs. Arroyo seems to have succeeded in buying Ople’s loyalty–he has overnight become protective of the President he used to disdain, and has referred to her in terms of endearment similar to a British subject’s description of the Queen–she does not appear to have won over the rest of the Estrada opposition. That much was in evidence on Thursday, when the likes of Gringo Honasan, Francisco Tatad and Juan Ponce Enrile gathered at the Club Filipino to, among other activities, listen to Joseph Estrada’s version of the SONA, while hundreds of Estrada’s constituencies from the urban poor massed outside.

On the other hand, certain leaders of civil-society groups–among them officials of the Arroyo government, and who therefore no longer qualify to lead what are, after all, supposed to be nongovernment organizations–have either expressed support for Mrs. Arroyo or announced their repentance for criticizing her. This demonstrates only the ease with which those leaders can be appeased, how little it takes to buy their silence.

Within the ranks, however, are ominous signs of disagreement over the policy of supporting the Arroyo administration, and, even in the very statements of support certain Arroyo officials with civil-society pasts managed to wangle from those still active in NGOs, reservations about Mrs. Arroyo’s capacity for moral judgment, and veiled warnings that at least some civil-society groups will not brook the blurring of the moral line that supposedly separates the Arroyo administration from the Estrada group through the former’s recruitment of former Estrada officials.

A year after the last Arroyo SONA, in short, the political landscape appears to have become qualitatively more volatile. The threat of coups evident last year and in the succeeding months may have receded, but there is a perceptible growth in the depth and range of political opposition, as a result of Mrs. Arroyo’s admitted mistakes.

This year those mistakes will be at Commonwealth Avenue and vicinity in the form of tens of thousands of demonstrators in what could well be a public demonstration of how far the Arroyo administration has lost support among the vast range of militant and civil-society groups that provided the hundreds of thousands of warm bodies that were the muscle of EDSA 2.

The militant groups have promised at least 30,000 in attendance to mark their final break with the Arroyo administration, which they accuse of having so departed from the intent and spirit of EDSA 2 that it has launched a punitive campaign against legal Left groups. Bayan Muna, for example, claims that nearly two dozen of its leaders have been murdered by military and paramilitary groups since 2001, for which it blames Arroyo’s tolerance, if not encouragement. The women’s group Gabriela says several of its activists have also been killed or harassed by the military in the Philippine countryside since Mrs. Arroyo became President.

These are disturbing developments, a repeat of the months after EDSA 1, during which repression resumed with a vengeance, suggesting that Mrs. Arroyo is at the least unwilling to rein in a military used to salvaging and arbitrary detention, and at worst unofficial encouragement of the use of state violence against militant but legal groups.

Whether it be the first case or the second, they constitute nevertheless, sufficient basis for the militant groups to withdraw their support from a government only 18 months ago they had helped put in power.

Of course the focus of Mrs. Arroyo’s SONA will be on the government’s supposedly having met all the promises she made last year. The odd thing is that despite the statistics she’s likely to trot out, out here in the real world there are reports of families actually starving, of children unable to go to school, of unavailable medical care and, worse, of a galloping growth in despair.

The statistics are far short of impressive. There is none of the steady growth rate evident in the middle years of the Aquino and Ramos administrations, for example. Whatever the statistics are, however–and they are easily manipulated; any government statistician can make poverty decline by merely redefining the terms with which it is measured, for example–they will be released in the context of a rapidly deteriorating political landscape for the Arroyo administration. Every indication points to a continuing and rapid loss of political support, which, whatever the Catholic Church may say, will not be solely the opposition’s doing, but primarily Mrs. Arroyo’s.

And yet the Arroyo administration has not yet completed its first two years and still has a year and a half to go. Ironically, the major reason why it is becoming increasingly isolated is its focus on the election of 2004, in which Mrs. Arroyo’s prevailing, only a year ago seemed so certain, but has since become less and less likely. SONA 2002 is thus likely to be this year’s best indication of how badly Mrs. Arroyo’s mistakes have eroded her political support, as well as how she’s likely to fare in 2004.

(abs-cbnNEWS.com/Today, july 20, 2002)

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