Did she think President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sincere about not running in 2004? Former President Corazon Aquino replied with what she thought was a rhetorical question: What could Mrs. Arroyo gain by being otherwise?

Mrs. Aquino’s response was typical. Most of the public, the Church and most of the media have focused on what Mrs. Arroyo has lost, not on what she has gained—which might very well be, at this moment, 15 percentage points or more in her low + six approval rating. The boost to her popularity—Mrs. Arroyo was roundly cheered—was evident at the EDSA shrine where she and Mrs. Aquino attended a unity Mass.

Mrs. Arroyo has gained not only the acclaim of the politically aware public that before December 30 had grown increasingly cynical of her motives and her capacity to govern. The opposition has also had to take Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement at face value. To do otherwise would be to look like unrepentant cynics.

In announcing her noncandidacy in 2004, Mrs. Arroyo had said that partisan politics has divided the country and prevented effective governance. Every opposition member henceforth risks not only being partisan and indulging in the politics that Mrs. Arroyo said she has had enough of. He or she is also likely to look like a despoiler of Mrs. Arroyo’s martyrdom to the nation’s cause and a fault-finding cynic sneering at the living saint of Philippine politics.

Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement was the political equivalent of shooting several birds with one round. By keeping a tight lid on her plan (she did not discuss her announcement with even her closest allies), she has at least gained the benefit of the doubt and at most has become a candidate for beatification among the very people who, before December 30, were calling her all sorts of unflattering names. Instead there’s a lot of talk about sacrifice and selflessness nowadays, much of it to describe Mrs. Arroyo.

There’s a danger in all of this, and it is that of being lulled into the belief that having renounced her candidacy in 2004, Mrs. Arroyo could henceforth do no wrong, and that the policies that she has adopted and implemented will now automatically address the vast range of problems the country faces. The analogy that comes to mind is from the United States, where in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, any criticism of George W. Bush tended to be regarded as unpatriotic.

The surveys should tell within a few weeks, but it is safe to assume that Mrs. Arroyo’s December 30 announcement has given her almost the same credibility. However, the erosion of the criticalness essential to democratic dialogue and participation, already at dangerous levels, has become more pronounced whether Mrs. Arroyo meant what she said or was merely buying time between now and 2004, when she could very well declare that she’s changed her mind—or whether she’s planning something more drastic with her allies in the House and Senate.

If she’s indeed sincere, however, Mrs. Arroyo would be that rarity in Philippine politics: the politician who knows when to quit. Every politician who’s ever tasted power in this country doesn’t want it to end, which explains why they run as often as the law requires, and after that field their wives, sons and daughters.

The quintessential nonquitter was Ferdinand Marcos, who wanted his presidency to go on forever, and for that he had to declare martial law. Fidel V. Ramos, who a year ago was saying that he could run again for the presidency despite the Constitution’s one-term limit, and who this year is being mentioned as a possible Lakas candidate in 2004, is turning into Marcos’s close second.

As for Mrs. Arroyo, she is now head and shoulders taller than any politician. Her sincerity is assumed, because it will take 2004 to prove otherwise. But sincere or not, whatever Mrs. Arroyo does between now and 2004 will be regarded as nonpartisan and driven only by the best interests of the country. By declaring her noncandidacy, Mrs. Arroyo could be the ideal candidate, having gained the upper hand among the field of candidates in 2004.

A declaration that she’s changed her mind and that she would run in May 2004 would be the quickest way to capitalize on whatever she’s gained in popularity a year and four months from now.

But this is to assume that elections will take place that year. They very well might not, if—as House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. has been advocating—the House as constituent assembly were to amend the Constitution in that year toward a shift to the parliamentary system, with district elections to parliament to take place in 2007. Mrs. Arroyo’s term would thus be extended, after which she could very easily win a seat in the new parliament as an MP from a Pampanga district.

De Venecia’s repeated advocacy of a “government of national unity” for the sake of “national reconciliation” is a major indication Mrs. Arroyo might very well be sincere in saying that she will not run in 2004—in the sense that no one else can.

The “unity government” de Venecia is relentlessly working for has in fact assumed new meaning in the context of Mrs. Arroyo’s declaration. De Venecia’s proposal would put members not only of the elite opposition groups, but also representatives of armed movements like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the National Democratic Front, as well as of civil society in the Cabinet.

The de Venecia proposal has so far met with positive responses, at least among the elite opposition groups, who know that under such an arrangement they’re likely to be at least on equal footing with administration representatives. Neither the MILF nor the NDF has so far responded, their possible reluctance being based on reservations about exactly how much of a voice they will have in a government where the elite groups are likely to remain dominant.

The institutionalization of such an arrangement will need a constitutional amendment or amendments, just as the installation of governments of national unity elsewhere—from Macedonia to South Africa—required charter amendments and even entirely new constitutions. The implementation of the de Venecia proposal thus adds another justification for constitutional amendments. A case can always be made for the urgency of the need for putting such a government in place by 2004.

Conveniently for its advocates, the urgency of doing something about the vast resentment that fuels conflict in this country is clear to everyone except those sectors that have made it their philosophy to keep the poor, the marginalized and the voiceless out of government. Those sectors include, among others as powerful, the police and military Establishments. Any attempt to install a government that guarantees the authentic representation of the most demonized sectors of Philippine society—the Left and the Moro movement—is thus likely to meet military and police resistance, resulting in political instability.

To appease the police and the military, a “unity government” in name, but in fact dominated still by the traditional political and economic groups (the elite parties, the Church hierarchy, the business and landlord communities) could be installed, with only token representation from the poor and dispossessed.

Given the current context (remember that, courtesy of the Arroyo administration, the NPA and Jose Maria Sison have been declared terrorists), this is the path a unity government could take. Such a government could therefore amount to nothing more radical than constitutional amendments, the extension of Mrs. Arroyo’s term until 2007, and her standing for parliament by then.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS, January 4, 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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