In countries riven by armed conflict, the reasons for creating a government of national unity are urgent enough. The most compelling is the need to end political violence so the country involved can go on to the business of reconstruction. The fundamental aim is to have a basis for a new beginning. Such a beginning, however, can only be meaningful if there is a real effort to wipe the slate clean, and if antagonists work together as equals.
The need to address the causes of conflict so that it may not break out again is far more important, however, than that immediate aim. A government of national unity thus enlists major protagonists in the effort to forge the policies that would root out the bases for the disaffection of those groups that have taken up the gun.
An authentic government of national unity is thus founded on, among other assumptions, the understanding that the causes of armed rebellion are rooted in an unjust social order and a political structure that excludes certain classes, ethnic groups and even races.
But governments of national unity are also usually crafted by those groups that, after a long struggle against oppression, exclusion and persecution, have seized power and are willing to share it. This was the case in South Africa, for example, where after decades of armed struggle the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela and its allied groups managed to create the critical mass to dismantle apartheid.
The resulting realignment of forces led to the creation of a unity government meant to reconcile warring groups on the basis of a common program. Not one group, however, unilaterally put this program together. All the groups involved contributed to it, thus strengthening their unity further.
None of these two conditions exist in the Philippines. Although it pays customary lip service to it, recognizing the legitimacy of the social, political, economic and cultural grievances of the groups that have taken up arms against the Philippine government is repugnant to the political elite.
Accepting into the government the representatives of those groups as equals (and therefore sharing power with their constituencies among the poor and powerless) is absolutely unthinkable not only to the political elite. It is equally unacceptable to the other power centers in the Philippines, among them big business and the military.
On the other hand, the would-be sponsors of a government of national unity, mostly those in Congress, do not represent a revolutionary government. They are indeed part of a government that did come to power in 2001 through a people’s uprising. But that government represented a change only in some (not even all) of the persons in government, and not of systems, orientation or policies.
To expect this same elite to share political power is to expect the impossible. That is why the proposal of House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. was almost immediately reinterpreted, redefined, diluted and eventually shot down by his fellow legislators and by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Although it does urge the inclusion of the traditional opposition, what distinguishes the de Venecia proposal is its recognition that a government of national unity can only be so described if representatives from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines are part of it.
Though not the only groups engaged in armed struggle against the Philippine government, the MILD and the CPP represent constituencies that have historically had little or no voice at all in government (i.e., the Moro people, and the workers and poor peasantry).
It was this part of the proposal which predictably elicited the most violent opposition. The de Venecia proposal has been described as a recipe for chaos by those in the media victimized by their own efforts to demonize insurgent groups. Opposition senators and congressmen also opposed representation by those groups that in other countries are regarded as crucial to any government of national unity.
Most opposition people naturally agreed to their right to be in such a government, despite their already being in Congress and even in the Cabinet. Only one opposition senator, Sergio Osme