If President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s December 30 announcement of her noncandidacy in 2004 provoked any enthusiasm, it was because of the hope that she would henceforth craft the policies and make the decisions that would address the country’s galaxy of problems unhindered by her political ambitions.

Apparently the belief was widespread that her previous decisions, policies and actions had been primarily colored by her assumed candidacy. Everywhere Mrs. Arroyo goes nowadays she is enthusiastically cheered by a public that had earlier been either indifferent or hostile to her. Her November 2002 plus six approval rating was a result of the equally widespread perception that the conditions of life in this archipelago had become progressively worse under her administration. Today, however, the same public applauds her for saying that she won’t run in 2004, in apparent relief over that decision.

Together with this relief, however, are expectations that between now and June 2004, when her term (actually Joseph Estrada’s) ends, she will be able to pull off some kind of minor miracle to turn the country around. The public that so clearly approves of her non-candidacy also expects relief from such worries as unemployment, inflation, low incomes, crime and terrorist threats. Naturally the public expected the changes in the Arroyo Cabinet post-December 30 to depart in some way from the changes that had taken place before that date.

No such departure has taken place, however. The changes in the Arroyo cabinet announced with the advent of the New Year have not departed from the pattern of previous changes. Before December 30 the pattern had consisted of moving those Cabinet secretaries with political backing to other posts, firing those without, and using appointments to the Cabinet to woo and undermine the opposition.

The one post-December 30 change in the Cabinet that has not been true to this pattern was the relief of former Justice Secretary Hernando Perez, whose closeness to Mrs. Arroyo is widely known. His replacement by Public Works Secretary Simeon Datumanong, however, defies reason if not the principles of trapo politics.

A Muslim, Datumanong’s presence in the Cabinet as DPWH secretary was already symbolic enough. His transfer to Justice will not add any further to the message that this administration is supposedly committed to Muslim interests as much as it is to Christian ones.

The other changes have been equally uninspired. Agrarian Reform Secretary Hernani Braganza has been named press secretary to replace Ignacio Bunye. Braganza, however, has no track record in press agentry or any other communication profession. Public relations skills, or some experience in the media and in dealing with its practitioners, are the essential qualifications for that post. Except for experience in dealing with the media, which every politician eventually acquires, Bunye himself did not have ample qualifications in that department, which at least Rigoberto Tiglao had.

And yet Tiglao was moved from that post and made presidential spokesman, a task Bunye will now assume, since Tiglao will now be Mrs. Arroyo’s full time chief of staff. Tiglao has limited administrative qualifications at best, having been a journalist much of his life.

On the other hand, the post of public works secretary has been offered to Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, who previous to his election to the Senate had spent all of his adult life in the military. There is sound basis for the reported offer of the post of National Security Adviser to Renato de Villa, but little else except politics in the offer to Biazon. (Biazon is part of the Senate opposition and his appointment to DPWH and resignation from the Senate would stabilize the administration’s hold on that chamber.)

The offer to de Villa, however, could indicate a possible shift in the Arroyo government’s position towards negotiations with the National Democratic Front. Roilo Golez, whom de Villa would replace, is known to be opposed to the resumption of negotiations, together with such hawks as Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes.

De Villa, on the other hand, is said to be open to the resumption of peace talks. As the defense secretary of Fidel Ramos, de Villa was instrumental in the talks’ achieving substantial progress during the former’s term.

The possible appointment of de Villa could be the sole indication of any policy shift, however. The other changes that have taken place and which are being contemplated do not suggest any others, since they consist mostly of moving people around, and of, in the case of the offer to Biazon, wooing the opposition and strengthening the administration hold on the Senate.

The absence of the bold initiatives the public had hoped for as a result of the December 30 announcement has been attributed to Mrs. Arroyo’s “style,” which could probably be summed up as the tendency to take well-worn paths. It is a style fashioned by political exigency, which demands that one tread carefully so as not to antagonize friends and allies, and, as John F. Kennedy put it in another context, “to make no enemies where one can make no friends.”

Mrs. Arroyo has taken the latter principle one step further: she has also used her appointing power to make friends out of enemies, as indeed happened when she appointed Blas Ople foreign affairs secretary.

What is worrisome is that Mrs. Arroyo seems unable to transcend the demands of political exigency—the very demands the public had assumed she could now ignore because she would no longer run in 2004.

The skeptical could suspect that her reluctance to part from the ways of traditional politics could indicate that she has not entirely abandoned her ambitions for 2004, and that she just might announce before May of that year that she is still available. On the other hand, in the absence of any other indication that that is indeed the case, perhaps we can charitably assume that she has just not had the time to make the paradigm shift necessary, the habits of nearly an entire lifetime being difficult to change.

But time, if she indeed wants to accomplish something within the 17 months left her, is not something she has the luxury of. Unless she shows within the next few weeks that she is indeed now willing to strike out on new paths and to abandon those traditional politicians have worn thin over the decades, the public’s high expectations will lead to the usual lows that in this country seem to inevitably follow hopes that anything can ever be done to even begin to address its problems.

(abs-cbnNEWS.com, January 7, 2002)

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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