Forbes Magazine explains its first-ever ranking of the world’s 100 most powerful women somewhat awkwardly. It describes its choices as women who’re “changing not only the societies where they work, but also the role of women in power,” and then says that it can no longer be said today that “women can gain power only by studiously working behind the scenes to forge consensus.”
Judging from the first ten women in its list, “changing…the societies where they work” doesn’t necessarily mean changing them for the better. Heading its list, after all, is US National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, who’s not your grandma’s token black, and who has indeed helped change the way her society works—but for the worse, say her critics.
Then there’s Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who’s ranked ninth in the world and fourth in Asia (behind China’s Vice Premier Wu Yi, Congress Party of India’s President Sonia Gandhi, and Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri.) If Mrs. Arroyo has changed the society where she works, it can only be in the way it is now more focused than ever on class and familial aggrandizement at the expense of the nation. It’s a task she achieved by demonstrating that adroit manipulation of the political and electoral system for the narrowest of interests pays.
Forbes is the Bible of world capitalism, and must reading for CEOs as well as lesser mortals in the lower rungs of the capitalist ladder. But it is not known for either the felicity of its prose or even the accuracy of its research. Its one-paragraph summary of what put Gloria Macapagal Arroyo among the first ten of Forbes’ list of 100 says she was sworn in “as the 14th president of the Philippines in 2001, only the second woman to be voted president of her country.”
There’s no mention of the events that put her in Malacanang in 2001, and not even a note saying that she was (supposedly) victorious in the May 10 elections. The uninformed about the Philippines—and there are billions of them out there—could get the impression that Mrs. Arroyo was elected in 2001, and that she did not only recently stand for an election that’s still being contested.
Malacanang was pleased with Mrs. Arroyo’s inclusion in the Forbes list, regardless. Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said “we consider this a big honor because we all know Forbes is a very prestigious magazine which is read by decision makers in the entire world.”
Beyond that Bunye did not say why Malacanang should be so effusive. The one-paragraph paean to Mrs. Arroyo only said she was firmly ensconced in the power elite even before 2001, and didn’t say exactly what it is she’s done, only that she’s in power.
And yet the critical thing about one’s possession of power is not the possession itself, but for whom it is used—and therefore how it’s used. This has put the question of who wields power at issue in many societies including the Philippines, because to correctly answer the question of who wields power helps answer the next question of “for whom?”
In the Philippines suspicion has been rife even among some of the country’s leaders that a politico-economic elite that traces its roots to the principalia, who collaborated with the Spaniards, later the Americans, and during World War II, with the Japanese, have monopolized power in this country since 1946.
Before 1946, the Philippine elite shared power with the country’s colonizers as a junior partner. From 1946 onwards, except for the briefest of moments, it has steadfastly clung to the coat-tails of the United States to protect and enhance its interests. That elite, say numerous local and foreign studies on Philippine politics and governance, has tenaciously pursued policies beneficial, not to the vast majority of Philippine society, but to the handful that control it.
The now fashionable critique that points out that no difference exists among the country’s political parties is only another way of putting it. Only various factions of the elite contend for power, said critics as early as in the 1950s, although the contention can be violent. In the end, however, these factions are united by a common commitment: that of preserving things as they are, the status quo of inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth.
After all, that state of affairs makes the Philippine state no more than an immovable feast for those lucky enough to have been born, or to have wormed their way into, the ranks of the wealthy and powerful.
If anyone’s looking for a reason for the poverty and social instability of this country, they need look no further than the Stock Exchange, Malacanang and Congress. Only the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and certain imbeciles in conspiratorial organizations, actually think that rebellion’s the cause of poverty, instead of the other way around. The poverty that everyone decries resists elimination quite simply because those in a position to do so won’t take the steps necessary, such as abolishing tenancy without any ifs and buts, through appropriate policies.
Bunye nevertheless did hint that Malacanang wasn’t totally clueless about what power’s for.
“The President knows her role in our country. We are in a very critical period in our history, so she is using all her powers very humbly, with responsibility and with great regard for national interest,” said he.
Only with “great regard”, not total regard? No matter. To expect national interest at any level of commitment to guide Mrs. Arroyo would be naivete of the highest order, anyway. But just how humbly Mrs. Arroyo has been using her powers she demonstrated last week, when she announced her most recent appointments to the Cabinet and other government posts.
Reacting to criticism—not only from the opposition, but also from non-governmental organizations, the media, and the academic community as well—Mrs. Arroyo told the media that her leading criterion in choosing her appointments was that the individuals so chosen should agree with her. Sure they must be suited for the job, but “I can’t have a Cabinet member whom I will be arguing with all the time,” said Mrs. Arroyo.
The subtext of that statement—later elaborated on by Bunye—was Mrs. Arroyo’s experience with Teofisto Guingona, who was her vice president from 2001 to 2004. Guingona differed from Mrs. Arroyo on the Philippine armed forces’ holding of joint military exercises with US troops which began in 2002, on the Mutual Logistics and Security Agreement, and generally, on Mrs. Arroyo’s foreign policy, which basically consisted of supporting United States policy, whatever it may be.
During that period the need for “team players” (read: yes-men) was a virtual mantra from Malacanang. Last week Bunye was saying essentially the same thing, decrying the problem of having “individual players” (read: dissenters) in the Cabinet. Mrs. Arroyo’s appointments by now have been found for what they are. But aside from payback to those she owes political favors, she has also assured that no one is likely to have the courage to question her decisions, or even to suggest policies contrary to her own, whatever those are, or will be.
The certainty that her appointees will conform rather than dissent is the inevitable result of Mrs. Arroyo’s measure. It assumes, of course, that Mrs. Arroyo’s way will be the correct one all the time, and shuts off the possibility that another viewpoint could conceivably be better for the country.
When Guingona was secretary of foreign affairs the country at least had the benefit of that alternative viewpoint that the rule of the elite has only sporadically allowed in the councils of government. In the Arroyo II administration Filipinos should abandon all hope: that no one may, should and will dissent is the firm basis of Mrs. Arroyo’s appointments. We know who has the power. That should tell us for whom it has been and will be wielded.