President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says that the opposition “must never make terrorism a political issue,” and she is absolutely correct—if by this statement she means that the opposition groups should not be making political capital out of terrorism.

If the opposition is to be believed, however, it is Mrs. Arroyo who’s making political capital out of it.

Presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson, for example, says darkly that Mrs. Arroyo could reap unexpected consequences by playing the anti-terrorist card. The usually reticent Fernando Poe Jr. has suggested that the government’s claim that it had prevented a “Madrid-level” terrorist attack on metro Manila malls, train stations, oil depots, etc. by the Abu Sayyaf (all these using 35 kilos of explosives?) could be part of an administration plan to declare emergency rule and cancel the elections.

There is nothing in Mrs. Arroyo’s past or present to suggest that she would stop at anything to assure her remaining in power. But the Poe scenario sounds more like the product of an over-active imagination on the part of his advisers than anything. It is also based on the unfounded assumption that Poe will walk away with the presidency come May 10.

If that were true, the subtext of this conspiracy theory suggests, a desperate Mrs. Arroyo would either cancel or postpone the elections to a distant future, and for that she would need an excuse. Terrorist threats would be the most convincing.

But no one in the opposition including Poe is about to walk away with anything, at least not yet. There is also a distinct possibility that Mrs. Arroyo’s determined effort no matter what the cost (to the taxpayers principally) to win may yet pay off.

This doesn’t mean that Mrs. Arroyo’s scruples, such as they are, would prevent her from using the specter of terrorism to help assure her election this May. The police and other agencies at her beck and call could indeed have concocted the story of the terrorist plot she claims her government had foiled. But it is unlikely that it would have been for the mad aim of preventing the holding of elections she could very well win.

Mrs. Arroyo could have had a far more modest goal in playing the terrorist card. This is a card she was bound to play eventually. She had after all worked hard during the last two years of her incumbency at giving the public the impression that she’s prepared to do anything including compromise the country’s sovereignty to meet the terrorist, principally the Abu Sayyaf, threat.

To this end she vowed unconditional support for any US initiative in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. She allowed US troops into the country despite the Constitution. She had her government sign the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and a bilateral agreement exempting US personnel in the Philippines from prosecution before the International Criminal Court. She challenged the United Nations, echoing Bush’s own contempt for it. She then paid her respects to George W. Bush in Washington, and hosted him in Manila, both in 2003.
That was hard work. But the heat of the current campaign, her media and other handlers could have concluded, has clouded public attention on something she had worked so hard on, and it’s time to make that effort pay dividends. The solution is a media-grabbing event, such as the arrest of terrorists in Manila, which hosts a sizeable Muslim community from which one can always pick up a few choice suspects.

The goal would be to call attention to her government’s alleged success in dealing with terrorist and other threats to public safety. That way one can revive receding public fears, and at the same time lead that same public to voting for the right person come May. It would also provide Mrs. Arroyo’s US patrons the opportunity, so far absent in this campaign, to publicly express their approval of what she’s been doing.

This is exactly what has happened. The public has been reminded that the Abu Sayyaf—once described by the very same government as “a spent force”—is still out there. The kidnap for ransom group has shifted its focus from its favored cottage industry to the non-lucrative one of bombing, says the administration, and only the forces of good represented by Mrs. Arroyo and company can stop it. The local US pro-consul, to erase whatever misgivings the suspicious may have, immediately weighed in by saying that the administration has “very likely prevented a major tragedy” on the same scale as the Madrid bombings.

Mrs. Arroyo was in short probably guilty of the very offense she warned the opposition against. We can all assume the latter to be as unscrupulous, and in this vicious campaign season, as prepared to make the administration look as bad as they can paint it, in exactly the same way the administration has taken the greatest pains to depict the opposition as equally vile. Unfortunately for them Mrs. Arroyo has all the aces—at least she thinks so, and it would seem so.

And yet terrorism and how it can be effectively addressed is nevertheless an issue of governance, and deserves the attention of all those running for office this May. That means those running for President, Vice President, Senators and Congressmen, Governors, Vice Governors, Provincial Board members, mayors, vice mayors and municipal councilors. It is a policy issue involving all levels of government.

The reasons are obvious. Terrorism is a real threat to the lives and fortunes of Filipinos, and will continue to be such a threat until the inequities that help sustain it—which make young Muslims, for example, so vulnerable to recruitment by the Abu Sayyaf—are addressed.

Because she is the incumbent, the wisdom and effectiveness of Mrs. Arroyo’s anti-terrorism policy and how it has so far been implemented deserve serious discussion. If it has not been as rational, as wise and as effective as it should have been, then alternatives will have to be proposed, and other options considered by any future government.

If the alleged Abu Sayyaf plot was indeed real, for example, it would suggest that Mrs. Arroyo’s policies have not been effective at all, because it would mean that the Abu Sayyaf has not only survived, but also continues to attract recruits. This time, we are being led to believe, those recruits are not being lured by the prospect of making the money the lack of livelihood opportunities in the Muslim communities denies them. This time they would be lured by the prospect of martyrdom a la the Palestinian and Iraqi suicide bombers.

If indeed the Abu Sayyaf has fielded suicide bombers or just plain bombers to attack Manila targets, it suggests an Abu Sayyaf ideologically revitalized, and weaning itself away from the purely mercenary activities for which it had achieved international notoriety. It also indicts the Arroyo policy for its shortsighted focus on police work and military “cooperation” with the US, instead of on the tough but necessary tasks of addressing Muslim grievances and poverty.

A comparison with the failure of Mrs. Arroyo’s US patron George W. Bush to make Americans any safer, as some have suggested, may not be inappropriate. Bush failed primarily because he was focused on invading Iraq rather than on pursuing Al Qaeda. Mrs. Arroyo has been focused on getting herself elected, to the neglect of the Muslim communities from which the Abui Sayyaf draws its recruits. Her playing the terrorist card could be in the same category of evasion and credit- grabbing for a press release success, while masking the existence of a continuing threat that, her government itself suggests, has only changed tactics.

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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