The center cannot hold

IN A piece that won’t win any Pulitzer Prize, one of those individuals on whom the media have conferred the title of “political analyst”– Ramon Casiple– asked if Benigno Aquino III was committing political suicide. It was a question more rhetorical than literal. Casiple’s answer is yes, the country’s President, with three more years to go before he leaves office, has been killing himself politically.

He cited as proof Mr. Aquino’s statements and actions in the last six months or so of this particularly problematic year. On the pork barrel issue, for example, Casiple noted that Mr. Aquino chose to defend the Disbursement Allocation Program (DAP) which those Filipinos still capable of any kind of thought regard as a license for Presidential patronage politics.

During the Zamboanga crisis, Mr. Aquino chose the totally feckless military solution to dislodge the followers of Nur Misuari rather than the path of dialogue. In the process of “liberating” Zamboanga, the country’s masters of mayhem destroyed much of the city while attributing that economic and humanitarian catastrophe to Misuari’s men. To support that fiction, Mr. Aquino decorated the military officers and men responsible, but couldn’t dupe local residents enough into accepting that revisionist version of events, and has in fact earned their disaffection if not hostility.

When typhoon Yolanda made landfall, it took Mr. Aquino several days to even decide whether he would grace the stricken places with his presence, while taking the time to blame the local government of Tacloban for the devastation of that city–and insisting without an iota of proof during an interview with CNN’s chief of international correspondents Christiane Amanpour, that the number of dead was likely to be “only” 2,000 or so rather than the 10,000 or more that it’s now likely to be.

Mr. Aquino has in fact been putting his foot in his mouth so often, and acting like a spoiled brat this year, that his hitherto sky-high approval ratings are dropping slowly but surely. What’s more, despite the killing of journalists’ having reached epidemic proportions during his watch–21 journalists have been killed for their work so far since 2010, with 10 killed only this year–and the continuing concern of human rights groups as well as the United Nations, Mr. Aquino has also shrugged them off as “not serious.”

One of his spokespersons went so far as to declare the end of impunity–state failure to punish the killers of journalists and other victims of violence–a scant week before another journalist was killed, in stark demonstration of how impunity has emboldened the killers.

And has anyone forgotten how Mr. Aquino takes advantage of every opportunity to proclaim his hostility to the press, in the process sending a message to the killers of journalists and the masterminds behind them, and the would-be killers of journalists, that they can literally get away with murder because of the administration’s lack of concern and even antipathy for the press?

The result of all of this is the growing suspicion that the Aquino administration is either incompetent, insensitive, uncaring, or just plain clueless not only about what to do in the face of crisis, but also about the state of the country. Is Mr. Aquino then committing political suicide?

If he is, he won’t be doing it to himself but to the Liberal Party and its chances in 2016 when it has to field a candidate for President other than Manuel “Mar” Roxas II–meaning someone who has at least a ghost of a chance of winning the post in a free election. That means he’s this early killing the chances of that candidate, whoever he or she may be, with full awareness of what he’s doing.

The more likely explanation doesn’t lie in any conscious determination to do himself, his administration and his party in, but in Mr. Aquino’s cluelessness about what ails this country and therefore the solution to it; his genius for choosing the wrong people for the wrong job; his reliance on friendships rather than ability in choosing his officials; his absolute belief in his own views and biases, and his enduring capacity for taking bad advice from bad advisers on the basis of his own limited understanding of events and issues.

The latter is particularly evident in this lemon of an administration, which in 2010 was catapulted to power by no more than a widespread–and now obviously mistaken–belief that Ninoy Aquino’s political savvy and Corazon Aquino’s determination to contribute to the dismantling of the Marcos dictatorship and her presumed commitment to human rights had somehow rubbed off on their offspring.

Because the Presidency of this country is central to the conduct of governance, with all its attendant consequences on the lives of the people, whoever sits in Malacanang has the capacity to either ignore, and even add to, the country’s decades long problems with poverty, inequality, human rights violations, elusive justice, and foreign dependency, or to at least begin the process of putting an end to them.

It was widely thought that in a field of bad choices in 2010, Mr. Aquino would somehow fit the bill, but he has proven to be a disappointment, within months indicating in so many ways that even on that most basic of presumed Aquino legacies, human rights, he wasn’t going to be any different from his predecessors.

But the reason for this doesn’t primarily lie in the person, but in the type. Mr. Aquino can no more escape the limits of his origins as a child of privilege than can a Macapagal-Arroyo escape hers. The human rights issue, for example, is in this country rooted in the political elite’s commitment to preventing the kind of change that would alter the social relations that for centuries have dictated who gets what and how much–which decides that the few appropriate everything while the many get nothing. To defend and enhance human rights observance is at the same time to allow their exercise towards changing things, and as clueless as Mr. Aquino may be about the intricacies of the link between the press and democracy, or the consequences of the country’s foreign dependency on its people, he is, by the instincts of his class, fully aware of it.

Mr. Aquino is neither committing political suicide nor being stupid, but being true to those instincts. In the process he’s proving that the center that is the Presidency that’s at the same time the heart of the rule of privileged can no more hold this country together than can the military on which, like his predecessors, he has pinned so much of his hopes.

(BusinessWorld)

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