Once hopefully thought to be part of the solution, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has beaten all records including Joseph Estrada’s in demonstrating–within less than two years–that she’s part of the Philippine problem.

That problem is bad government and its consequences: mass poverty, injustice and mass misery. The symptoms of that problem are many: inefficient, secretive governance; runaway corruption; rank political opportunism and money politics; failed but nevertheless persistently implemented economic and social policies; foreign dependence.

In 2001 Mrs. Arroyo might have had the unconditional support of Alberto Romulo and the rest of the Makati business elite, perhaps in their awareness even then that Mrs. Arroyo would favor them above others–or at least on the same level as the country’s police and soldiery.

At the very least, however, the organizations that provided the warm bodies in the Estrada Resign movement and at EDSA 2001–the teachers and students, the clerks and the secretaries, the doctors and nurses, the employees and workers, the fisherfolk and small traders–had their doubts about Mrs. Arroyo’s capacity, willingness and moral commitment to weed out corruption, provide honest government and, overall, encourage through example the growth of new politics.

In these doubts they were more than justified. Nothing in Mrs. Arroyo’s record suggested that she could deviate by so much as an inch from the well-worn paths of Philippine politics, let alone take the least-traveled roads of creative, mass-based leadership. Instead there was every sign that she was more likely to take the paths that lead not only to the wheeling and dealing for which Philippine politics is notorious, but also to the routes to such predictable acts as legislation to rush the country into precipitate globalization, and an agreement providing the legal basis for the return of foreign troops.

If Mrs. Arroyo traveled these accustomed paths as senator, as Vice President her determination to remain silent even when the Estrada government’s administrative and moral bankruptcy was being demonstrated–a determined tightlippedness that ended only in November of 2000–was moved not so much by loyalty to the government of which she was Vice President as by the cynical calculation that to criticize Estrada would mean losing the support of Estrada’s constituencies among the very poor.

This record was redolent not with new but with the old traditional politics in which Mrs. Arroyo’s political life had flourished. Mrs. Arroyo did pay lip service to new politics during her inaugural speech at EDSA on January 20, but was soon demonstrating that she wouldn’t have recognized new politics if it stood up on its hind legs and bit her. Nowadays she doesn’t even mention it, and indeed recoils visibly whenever any one else does, as if it were an unpleasant memory, or a lie too often told.

And yet it was new politics, after all, that had driven millions of Filipinos to EDSA and other sites all over the country after Estrada’s impeachment failed in January 16, 2001.

These millions were at EDSA to express their disgust at the way the traditional politics of money, opportunism and patronage had crushed their hopes for the constitutional removal from office of a President they perceived to be incompetent as well as corrupt.

This much was evident in their outrage over the actions of the Estrada Eleven, and their demand for a government that would be as transparent as it would be efficient.

Yet once in Malacanang and ensconced among her most favored men and women, Mrs. Arroyo dismissed outright the mass movement of which she had been a beneficiary. Instead she made it clear that it was the traditional centers of power in Philippine society–the political and economic elite, the Church, the police and the military–which she regarded as the main instruments in her ascendancy.

Within a few months she was demonstrating her allegiance to another traditional power in Philippine society, from which it had begun to declare its independence in 1991.

The attack on the United States of September 11, 2001, became Mrs. Arroyo’s excuse to demonstrate in policy terms her unquestioning and absolute commitment to US interests, including that which demanded the return of US troops to the Philippines and some form of supply and refueling rights only an arm’s length short of restoring their military bases.

Officially the benefit to the Philippines was supposed to be in the form of military assistance and training.

Unofficially it soon became crystal-clear that the more substantive benefit would be the stabilizing impact on the Arroyo government of implicit US support, as well as the US’s help in assuring her election in 2004.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teofisto Guingona Jr.’s disagreement with the re-engagement suggested by the return of US troops became one more occasion for Mrs. Arroyo to demonstrate the extent to which she will go for the sake of the narrowest political ends.

The offer to Blas Ople of the post of secretary of foreign affairs–an offer she had denied making, but which was apparently made both informally as well as through emissaries–was unprecedented even in the putrid annals of Philippine traditional politics. To this offer has been added other attempts to paper over the issues that had made EDSA 2 inevitable. Those initiatives include Mrs. Arroyo’s luring into her camp the likes of Ernesto Maceda, the Puno brothers and Estrada’s principal media operator, Jimmy Policarpio.

None of these makes the Philippine problem any closer to solution. Indeed the Philippines will continue to have a problem because Mrs. Arroyo has a problem. She is after all the President of the Philippines, and whether, unlike Estrada, she will be any better at it will depend on her capacity to look at the truth in the eye and to transcend the narrow personal interests traditional politics has taught her outweighs country and people.

She is seriously challenged in that respect, her principal problem being her having remained, despite EDSA 2, as traditional a politician as most of her predecessors have been.

In the worst traditions of old politics she claims to listen to the people, but doesn’t really hear them. Her first and principal response to criticism and disagreement is name-calling (“Abu Sayyaf lover,” “traitors,” “termite”), which while repugnant to the thoughtful, appeals to the worst instincts of the many.

She mistakes for resolve her unwillingness to consider other options except the most traditional. She has confused her personal interests with those of the nation by allowing foreign troops a foothold which could grow into a semipermanent presence in the Philippine South.

Constantly reminding the nation and the world of her credentials as an economist, she has driven the economy to record levels of unachievement, and pushed 20 percent of the people into the pit of black despair. Rumored to be brighter than Estrada, she is demonstrating daily the dumbing down effect of Philippine traditional politics on even the highest IQs.

Some of the militant groups were warning as early as mid-2001 that an Arroyo administration could end up worse than Estrada’s in the extent to which it could compromise Philippine independence, accommodate corruption and further reduce the government into an exclusive elite preserve. That did not seem possible then. It seems more than likely–that is exactly what is happening–now.

(abs-cbnNEWS.com/Today, July 13, 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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