That the Philippine State is weak has long been noted, discussed, dissected, and recognized, and not only in political science classrooms and studies. Ordinary citizens who have had to deal with government but who end up relying on fixers know it firsthand, though they may not have a name for it. What is obvious is that in many cases parallel structures exist alongside those of the State, undermining them and doing what they’re supposed to do outside the rules.

The most glaring expression of State weakness, however, occurs at the highest levels of government, where even the most crucial decisions are not made on the basis of sound policies and principles but on that of personal, familial and class interests.

We have only recently witnessed prime demonstrations of that practice–from the very official from whom we heard Monday a pledge to create “a strong republic.”

Despite past denials that she .intervened in the resolution of the Senate deadlock, President Arroyo admitted last week that she indeed had a hand in it, as everyone with a double-digit IQ had presumed all along.

Mrs. Arroyo after all offered the post of secretary of foreign affairs to Blas Ople after her emissaries softened him up first and she prevailed on Franklin Drilon to negotiate with Robert Jaworski to defect to the administration bloc.

All these happened outside the party system, and in fact further undermined that system. No principle of governance or issues of policy drove the campaign either. Mrs. Arroyo’s statement that she and Ople agreed on foreign policy was the closest she came to the latter, which in any case was incidental. The point was indeed not so much to achieve unanimity on the Arroyo foreign policy (what ever that may be), but to restore and stabilize administration control on the Senate for the sake of the 2004 election.

From her better–or worse–half Mike Arroyo, on the other hand, came the initiative to hire his golf cronies former Estrada interior secretary Ronaldo Puno as an intelligence consultant, and Estrada media operator Jimmy Policarpio in some other as yet undisclosed capacity. These of course do not strengthen the Republic; they undermine it.

The same tendencies are rampant in the lower ranks of the civilian and military bureaucracy. There may be a policy against illegal logging and a loudly proclaimed commitment to destroy the Abu Sayyaf. That doesn’t prevent forest rangers from looking the other way as truckloads of timber illegally logged make their way to the sawing mills, as it didn’t prevent field officers and men of the AFP from allowing cornered Abu Sayyaf bandits to slip through their Lamitan cordon.

Policies can always be developed, announced and discussed in workshops. It’s in the implementation where the capacity of the State to achieve anything is tested, and in the Philippines, where it fails.

Arroyo, in any case, claims that a strong republic can be achieved through the State’s independence from sectoral and class interests “so that it stands for the interests of the people rather than of a. powerful minority,” and “the capacity, represented by strong institutions and a strong bureaucracy, to execute good policy and deliver essential services.”

One can only wish Mrs. Arroyo success in weaning the State away from the dominance of class and sectoral interests and its transformation into a State “for the interests of the people.” That is what the State should be, and that is exactly what the Philippine State is not.

It is extremely doubtful, however, if such a transformation can be achieved without a radical restructuring of the Philippine State, its instrumentalities, and the mechanisms through which it bestows political power. It would require elections, in the first place, in which not only the moneyed are assured of any chance of winning an elective post to begin with. It would also require a police and military committed, not to the defense of elite interests but of the majority’s.

On the other hand, strengthening the bureaucracy will require its reorientation as well as the inculcation into it not only of the values of public service but of meritocracy. The weakness of the Philippine bureaucracy lies most fundamentally in its serving as the instrument of those in power and its inevitable consequences, among them the dominance of the patronage system, which allows the unqualified but connected to assume responsible posts even in the career services. It would seem then that a strong bureaucracy would be one in which merit decides appointments and promotions in which as a result the commitment to public service is a living daily reality. It would most especially mean getting the politicians out of the bureaucracy and ridding it of their influence and patronage.

However, the Arroyo State of the Nation Address mentions what a strong republic needs, but not the paths to their achievement. Mrs. Arroyo is completely silent on how the first objective can be reached. On the other hand, she only implies how the second can be realized by describing a strong bureaucracy as “empowered.”

Mrs. Arroyo does not explain what she means by the latter term, but one can see between the lines of her SONA that it means precisely what some human-rights groups fear it means–a bureaucracy with enhanced powers. In the case of the police and the military this would mean the capacity to deal with crime, disturbances, demonstrations and rebellion rigorously, and presumably without being overly concerned with such trifles as human rights.

That is of course what is already happening in the country’s police stations and areas of military operation all over the countryside, the Bill of Rights notwithstanding. An “empowered” bureaucracy, among others, means official sanctions for the police shortcuts to the “solution” of crimes and the draconian military measures against rebellion already in place within the police and military institutions.

Is Mrs. Arroyo’s “strong republic” thus only another name for a law and order regime, and/or a national security state?

The emerging law and order orientation of the Arroyo government was in fact evident in the rest of the Arroyo SONA, as well as in her subsequent lifting of the maximum tolerance policy toward demonstrations.

It was evident in Mrs. Arroyo’s emphasis on the use of executive powers not only against the crime and terror syndicates, but also, she implied, against groups with proclaimed political agendas. It was evident in Mrs. Arroyo’s going out of her way to several times laud the police and the military. It was no less evident in her statement that from “puffing out small fires and soothing hurt feelings,” she will now “devote ourselves entirely to taking more of those giant steps toward the achievement of the strong republic.” This amounts to a statement that she will henceforth no longer heed the clamor of various sectors but will instead listen to–whom? Her own impulses? Her family’s? Her party mates’?

Mrs. Arroyo doesn’t say, but her orientation was even more evident in lifting of the maximum tolerance policy toward demonstrations, despite the right to peaceable assembly’s being constitutionally protected. The orientation was evident even earlier–in her appointment of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as her crime consul consultant for example, and her enthusiasm for his un-republican methods.

What is disturbingly apparent here is that Mrs. Arroyo interprets the making of a strong republican State as being premised not only on the executive’s governing with a mailed fist, but also on a powerful bureaucracy’s capacity to compel obedience to the wishes of government

Not being prepared to adopt the solutions necessary to address the fundamental weaknesses of the Philippine state, she is apparently on the path easily traveled: that of putting in place authoritarian options that in the end can in only undermine what remains of Philippine democracy. Judging from her SONA her “strong republic” is as oxymoronic as the statement of Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 that he declared martial law “to save the Republic.”


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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