After she announced in December 2002 that she would not run in 2004, understanding President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s policies as well as subsequent moves became increasingly difficult, because while she did emphasize that supposed decision, within weeks of 2003 she was speaking and acting like a candidate.

In early February, or four months ago, and only two months after she had announced her non-candidacy, for example, she suddenly took bag and baggage for Kuwait supposedly to reassure Overseas Filipino Workers there of their safety should the US attack Iraq–but right at the point when the final version of the Absentee Voting Bill was about to pass Congress.

In that context that trip could only have looked like an attempt to ingratiate herself with the OFW millions whose votes, if delivered and counted, could henceforth decide the outcome of any elections.

The consistency of her support for US war policy was equally suspect. The same Mrs. Arroyo who in 2002 welcomed US soldiers into the Philippines despite a possible violation of the Constitutional ban on foreign troops, early this year committed the Philippines to the so-called Coalition of the Willing, despite the possibility that a war in Iraq could spread throughout the Middle East and put in harm’s way the very same OFWs for whose welfare Mrs. Arroyo had taken the greatest pains to demonstrate concern.

In support of the US drive for war, last February she also chided the UN and urged it to use force against Saddam Hussein despite the demonstrated effectiveness of UN arms inspections. Her government followed that commitment to the use of force in Iraq by expelling an Iraqi diplomat for his alleged links to the Abu Sayyaf, in what looked like an attempt to validate US claims of links between Al Qaida and the Iraqi government.

Also in February, the Philippine military launched its now infamous Pikit offensive, which created tens of thousands of refugees, escalated the shooting war in Mindanao between the Armed Forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and made the peace talks more problematic than it has ever been in years.

While Mrs. Arroyo did attempt at one point to rein in Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, she almost immediately after gave the military carte blanche in continuing with the offensive, justifying it variously as defensive, and, on the eve of her departure for her May state visit to the United States, as a campaign to seek out the terrorists “embedded” in MILF ranks. Mrs. Arroyo indeed timed an order for a new offensive against the MILF with her departure for the US, as if to further convince her US patrons of her toughness against terrorism.

The offensive in Mindanao as well as the US visit were popular among the majority of Filipinos, according to the surveys, and Mrs. Arroyo seems to have been driven by that sense in adopting a get-tough policy with the MILF together with an unconditionally supportive one when it came to the United States.

Her frequent demonstrations of total support for the US also bore fruit not only in terms of US President George W. Bush’s declaring the Philippines a non-NATO ally, and his pledge of US military and economic aid, but also in the lavishness of her reception at the US capital. Mrs. Arroyo thus returned triumphant from her US visit–which for a non-candidate was distinguished by the political windfall of US support.

That visit now appears to have been a turning point in deciding whether Mrs. Arroyo will run in 2004 despite what she said last December. Its impact on her approval ratings is likely to be positive in a country where pro-Americanism is part and parcel of the political culture. It is thus no coincidence that the enthusiasm among her partisans in Malacanang and Congress in pushing for an Arroyo candidacy in 2004 reached fever pitch immediately after her US visit.

The result has been her almost certain candidacy in 2004. The year 2003 had begun with none of the “groundswell” that her supporters now say justifies her candidacy. There was none of the endorsements she has received from US President George W. Bush, as well as, allegedly, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhamad Mahathir, and none–this also from her partisans–of the improvement in her approval ratings in the public opinion surveys.

She now has all that in her pocket–plus a political landscape equally favorable, among them the disunity within the opposition, and the threat of a split within the administration coalition. Mrs. Arroyo thus has every reason to “change her mind.”

That very possibility has been assailed as well as defended, although it could be argued that it might not be a case of her changing her mind, but of proceeding to the next phase of a crafty strategy meant to silence critics, buy enough time to boost her approval ratings, and then run anyway.

Whether she would be indeed changing her mind, or merely proceeding as planned, Mrs. Arroyo’s detractors say nevertheless that she would be violating her word of honor if she runs in 2004–as if words of honor have ever mattered in Philippine politics, in the practice of which more pledges than the stars in the sky–pledges based on honor, country, God and motherhood–have been violated since the Commonwealth period.

Mrs. Arroyo could indeed “change her mind”. She would have every right to do so. Perhaps it would be just as well that she did.

The outcome of an Arroyo candidacy in 2004 would be the survey to end all surveys on the Arroyo administration’s performance since it came to power in 2001. It would finally lay to rest the question of whether on balance it has been, as its partisans claim, a real alternative to the mismanagement and corruption of the Estrada years, or whether it has brought the country to far greater ruin than Joseph Estrada and his cohorts would have ever been capable of.

It would be a test, finally, of whether what matters to this country’s electorate is not food on the table, its safety at home and in the streets, and a predictable future, but total commitment to the interests of a foreign power, and to the use of force as an instrument of policy not only in Mindanao but in other areas of conflict.

The results could be as expected and not pretty. Mrs. Arroyo could yet win in 2004. In such an event the country would have clear evidence not only how easily an uninformed electorate can be manipulated into approving even those policies contrary to its interests; it would also once more demonstrate the persistence and triumph of traditional politics.

Lest we forget, it was that very politics Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo vowed to eradicate when she took power in January 2001–and the very same politics she then proceeded to champion with fierce devotion.


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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