The unity thing

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Unity’s the theme of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo inauguration, and its companion, reconciliation, the mantra of the new-old administration.

Although these are buzzwords rarely meant, the call for both is nevertheless meaningful. It implies recognition of a state of division serious enough to worry the Arroyo administration, and which it hopes it can paper over to prevent the destabilization that’s widely predicted could happen in the aftermath of the May 10 elections.

An election anywhere is a process usually divisive enough for resentments to linger after the winners have been proclaimed. If those resentments are the consequences of no more than the political passions of the moment, they eventually fade. That is why, in the normal course of post-election events, the victors don’t usually call for unity or reconciliation. Both are bound to come anyway, as the country returns to normal, and loser and victor confront the consequences of being in power and being out of it.

Except in the Philippines–and except in the last elections.

No Philippine election has ever led as a matter of course to some kind of unity among the protagonists, the usual reason being the misuse of government funds, the fraud, and the violence that since 1947 have accompanied every election in this country.

This was true in 1947, in 1949 and 1953, 1957 and 1961. It was certainly true in 1965, and truer still in 1969, the last presidential elections the country had before the declaration of martial law in 1972.

In every instance the contention among the elite, then represented by the Nacionalista and Liberal parties, was characterized by fierce confrontations that at the local level often erupted in violence.

Fraud was at the same time a constant factor, its commission varying only in the degree and the forms it took. Access to government funds by incumbents was also a critical factor that gave sitting officials a tremendous advantage over their rivals.

The declaration of martial law in 1972 was itself an attempt by Ferdinand Marcos to decisively gain the advantage over his rivals by directly monopolizing political power.

Fraud, his monopoly over government resources, and both the threat and reality of violence, were among the means that in 1978 assured Marcos control of the so-called parliament via the bogus elections for the Interim Batasang Pambansa that year.

The same factors as well as a weak, ceremonial opponent he picked himself �reelected� Marcos in 1984. In 1986, when Marcos was forced by his US patrons to call a snap election, fraud and terrorism enabled him to steal it in full view of foreign observers.

Although never quite substantiated, fraud was similarly alleged in the presidential contest of 1992�which to this day some insist was not won by Fidel Ramos but by Miriam Defensor Santiago (a possibility whose consequences would have been dire, even her supporters then now say).

The sole exception to charges of fraud was Joseph Estrada�s 1998 victory.
It�s troubling to think that Estrada, ironically ousted from power by People Power 2 in 2001, might be one of the handful of Philippine presidents after Magsaysay to win the position honestly. But even more troubling is the possibility that unless there is a recount, whether Mrs. Arroyo did win or Poe did this year will always remain in doubt.

That many who�re not partial to the opposition�who in fact dreaded a Poe victory– are not convinced that Mrs. Arroyo won is not critical to the survival of her administration. It is Mrs. Arroyo�s good luck that the opposition fielded someone the middle classes, business, the Church hierarchy and civil society could not abide, which means that whatever threat to her government arises is not likely to come from those sources.

The prevalent view among these groups (including the Makati Business Club and the National Movement for Free Elections, apparently) is that any fraud Mrs. Arroyo may have committed is outweighed by the perils of a Poe presidency�meaning it�s okay to cheat and to subvert the people�s will so long as it�s for a good cause.

Mrs. Arroyo may be lucky, but not supremely lucky. While the worthies that supported and continue to support her no matter how spurious her victory could be do command more than the �one person one vote� democracy is supposed to guarantee, they�re not in the majority. The majority in this country are the poor and the unlettered, among whom, even the Arroyo Congress count admitted, over 11 million voted for Poe compared to her alleged 12 million plus.

Eleven million may be less than 12 million, but they nevertheless make for a lot of warm bodies and fodder for any adventurist or other attempt to cut short Mrs. Arroyo�s hard-earned six-year term. The fear of those bodies� materializing at EDSA or anywhere else equally symbolic one of these days explains why Mrs. Arroyo and company are currently into unity and reconciliation.

The people they�d like to unite and reconcile with, however, are not the eleven million plus who voted for Poe, but the handful of politicians emboldened by the vastness of Poe�s constituency.

Arroyo and company think they should unite and reconcile with these politicians, who go by the illustrious names Tatad, Enrile, Maceda, etc. These politicians agree with the assumption that Arroyo should be wooing them. Unlike in the aftermath of past elections, when the losers at least made a pretence at civility, this time Tatad et.al. have rejected her importuning.

But both administration and opposition forget�or have failed to notice�that it�s the millions who feel they were cheated, and who believe that their will has been thwarted, with whom Mrs. Arroyo and company have to reconcile, and even apologize to. But it�s indicative of how close Arroyo and the opposition are, despite their differences, that they�re too busy with each other to think about the majority that�s supposed to decide matters in a democracy.

The bad news is that the majority, just like Arroyo�s politician-rivals in the opposition, may not be predisposed to unity, much less to reconciliation. Unity has to be based on something, and so far the only basis Mrs. Arroyo has proposed for it is her six-point agenda, about which no one can disagree without being opposed to God and motherhood.

Her call for reconciliation, on the other hand, presumes that the groups being reconciled were once together. That may be true of the various elite factions. But despite the seeming ease with which elite politicians float from one party to another, the fact is that elite contention has steadily grown fiercer and less civil if not violent since Philippine independence was restored. On the other hand, the vast legions of the poor have never really felt part of the political games the elite play except when they cast their votes during elections.

Unfortunately, these are the givens Mrs. Arroyo will have to deal with in a situation that�s at least partly her own making.

What we have in this country at this point is a level of elite contention that�s in many ways unprecedented. Mrs. Arroyo helped make it possible by resorting to the use of all those advantages of the incumbent the 1987 Constitution had sought, but failed, to prevent. Her allies in Congress made it worse during the canvassing, but may not have had any choice unless it was to allow a Poe victory.

But the mainstream opposition shared part of the responsibility to begin with when it forced the electorate into either voting for Mrs. Arroyo despite her administration�s sorry record of non-achievement and corruption, or for the obviously unqualified Fernando Poe Jr. In the process, both have created a situation in which unity, whether between them or between the administration and the long-suffering people of the Philippines, has become well-nigh impossible.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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