The country is hemorrhaging brain as well as brawn as Filipinos leave the country in droves. Hunger is now the uninvited guest at most Filipino tables.

Journalists are being killed at a rate that would be understandable in US- ravaged Iraq, not in the one country in Asia where press freedom is protected by the Constitution.

Philippine streets are mean places of crime, chaos, and pollution. The jails are crammed with detention prisoners whose cases have not even been heard. Children are sold into prostitution, in too many cases by their own parents.

The Philippines’ international standing as an investment destination is falling by the week. By general agreement among corruption-monitoring organizations, its government service now also ranks among the most corrupt in the world, in the company of failed African states.

The country has never been in as bad a mess, and only the last years of the martial law period can equal its present state. But it is now conventional wisdom to blame its woes solely on factors beyond the control of the Arroyo administration.

The continuing increases in the price of oil are regularly cited as the cause of the 7.7 percent inflation rate last October (double the 3.5 percent rate in 2003), which is likely to rise even further before the year ends.

Corruption in the civilian bureaucracy is habitually attributed to the past, specifically to the Marcos period, as is military and police corruption, depredations and human rights violations.

In the aftermath of the shooting death of several workers at the picket lines of strike-bound Hacienda Luisita, the usual “infiltration” by agitators and communists is being blamed–as if, even if that were true, it justified killing anyone.

But the chorus of the government, its paid hacks in the media, and those editorial writers who’re lacking in the brains department exonerating Arroyo and company from any blame for the country’s ruin isn’t making a dent where it matters most: among the public.

This was true as of the first week of November– when, a Pulse Asia survey covering the period October 22 to November 6 found, Mrs. Arroyo’s approval rating had plummeted to a historic and well-deserved low of 7 percent. It’s likely to remain true unless and until the public sees something more from the Arroyo government than its shameless attempts to get back in the good graces of George W. Bush and his phony “war on terror”.

That is as likely as a snowball in hell’s surviving, given that the government is part of the problem rather than of the solution.

Although the same conventional wisdom that exonerates it admits that Mrs. Arroyo’s 7 percent approval rating is due to inflation, it neglects the context in which the country’s state has slid from worse to worst.

The May 10 elections are an inevitable part of that context, the key event that has led to Mrs. Arroyo’s diminishing credibility. Most Filipinos, the surveys found out a few months ago, believe that Mrs. Arroyo not only cheated in the May elections, but also used government resources and facilities, as well as her hold on the House of Representatives to assure herself a full six-year presidential term.

But it wasn’t just the elections that made Filipinos distrustful of Mrs. Arroyo. Already skeptical because of her government’s failure to deliver on its many promises since 2001 (where have those promised jobs gone, the “new politics”, the transparency in governance, and the improvement of people’s lives?), the majority of the citizenry eventually arrived at the conclusion that hers wasn’t going to be any different from past administrations, as one corruption scandal after another–some of them involving Mrs. Arroyo’s husband–erupted almost from Day 1 of her 2001-2004 presidency.

Mrs. Arroyo’s policies–from those on family planning to the protection of the millions of Filipino workers overseas–were not grounds for cheer either. It was only too evident that they had been designed with one thought in mind, and that was to assure Mrs. Arroyo a six-year term come 2004.

To assure herself of US support, she committed the country to whatever actions the Bush government would take in retaliation for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. In the run-up to the US attack on Iraq in March 2003, she materialized in Kuwait to assure OFWs in the Middle East that they would be safe, despite their being identified in the Islamic world with the impending attack on Iraq.

Previously she had allowed US troops into the country despite the Constitutional ban on foreign troops. Her government also signed the Mutual Logistics and Security Agreement with the US, as well as a bilateral agreement exempting US personnel from prosecution in the International Criminal Court.

On the domestic front, she waffled on two major issues: the family planning program and the death penalty. She supported Catholic Church opposition to artificial means of contraception, but upheld the death penalty despite Church opposition–apparently because the Church position on family planning was more popular than its opposition to the death penalty.

Her renouncing any further presidential ambitions in December 2002, and her reneging on it in October, 2003, didn’t help her credibility either. Neither did the overkill campaign she waged, much of it using the people’s money, from February to May this year.

Perceived to have been solely focused on being reelected in 2004, and as presiding over an inept government neck-deep in corruption, Mrs. Arroyo and company aggravated their credibility crisis almost immediately after an election most Filipinos believed to have been fraud-ridden.

Mrs. Arroyo achieved this by announcing a fiscal crisis, as a result of which her government’s role in its making, through its profligacy and foreign borrowing, was unmasked. Within two months Mrs. Arroyo announced the end of that crisis despite her own earlier warning that it would take time, effort and sacrifice to address, and in addition promised poor Filipinos a happy Christmas this year.

Even as she did so, the inflation rate last October turned out to be more than double that of the same month in 2003. As prices continue to rise, the inevitable consequence has social unrest and further disaffection with government, which the public perceives as either not doing anything to arrest mass misery, or as unwilling to do so.

To be sure “government” does not consist solely of Mrs. Arroyo. The House of Representatives as well as such government institutions as the military are also part of it,. But it is inevitable that in this country of centralized power, the inevitable conclusion is it must be the President’s doing, or lack of doing that’s deepening the pit of hunger and overall misery into which most Filipinos have fallen.

The irony is that, for all the emphasis on the “strong Republic” and the general perception that the Presidency is on top of everything, there are indications that it’s losing its grip on many institutions.

The military, for example, has been balking at the prospect of civilian court trials for its erring generals led by the fabulously wealthy General Carlos F. Garcia. The Secretary of Labor is being accused of usurpation of authority by ordering the police and the military to break up the Hacienda Luisita pickets.

The House of Representatives has refused to give up the pork barrel, and managed to pass only a watered-down version of the sin taxes Malacanang had hoped would narrow the gap between revenues and expenditures in 2005. Last week Malacanang even failed to get its appointees in the University of the Philippines Board of Regents to elect Rigoberto Tiglao’s and Mrs. Arroyo’s choice for UP President.

The conclusion is that even if it wants to, the Arroyo government may be too weak to address the many manifestations of the Philippine crisis, and powerless to arrest, much less reverse it, thus its insistence on blaming factors “beyond its control”. In a very disturbing sense, that is probably only too true. While it helped make the mess, it can’t undo it.


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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