Although seemingly a response to a Communist Party call for a tactical alliance with disgruntled police and military elements, Malacanang’s Christmas Day statement sounded as if it was primarily directed at former President Fidel Ramos.

The statement said Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was politically stronger than ever, after having survived the “Hello Garci” tapes scandal. It also claimed that Mrs. Arroyo has “restored the fiscal health of the country” and “turned the economy around.” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye attributed Mrs. Arroyo’s alleged success to the passage of the expanded value added tax (E-VAT) bill, describing the effort to convince Filipinos to support the additional taxes it would impose on a vast range of commodities and services as equivalent to “selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo.”

Bunye’s statement assumes that Filipinos are now sold to E-VAT, despite the surveys that show widespread opposition to it. Meanwhile, his Eskimo metaphor can only be charitably described as unfortunate, because it implies that E-VAT is as unnecessary as a refrigerator in the North Pole.

But Bunye also said the Arroyo regime remains committed to amending the 1987 Constitution, and that the Malacanang-created Consultative Commission had already submitted its report to Mrs. Arroyo. Among the Commission’s proposals is the cancellation of elections in 2007, and Mrs. Arroyo’s staying on as head of state and president until 2010.

Two days before Christmas, Ramos, who knows full well who’s pulling the Commission’s strings, had described the proposal to cancel the 2007 elections as “a monumental blunder” and threatened to withdraw his support for Mrs. Arroyo unless she declared her opposition to the proposal by January 1, 2006.

It was the first time Ramos had been so explicitly threatening, although he’s been critical of the Arroyo regime on a number of issues, despite his expression of support for Mrs. Arroyo last July 8 when she most needed it.

In a speech before businessmen last October, Ramos asked Mrs. Arroyo to cut her term short and to reform herself. In the same speech he also described his support for Mrs. Arroyo as “secondary and incidental” to achieving charter change, and as having been given “in the absence of a better alternative.”

In November, Ramos was said to be under military surveillance in the wake of persistent coup rumors, and the apparent involvement of some of his close associates in anti-Arroyo plots. Only two weeks ago, Fortunato Abat, who had served as Ramos defense secretary, had declared himself head of a provisional government in apparent anticipation of a military mutiny.

Ramos has distanced himself from these efforts—not out of conviction that Mrs. Arroyo’s remaining in Malacanang is best for the country, but simply because he doesn’t think they can succeed. Ramos is supporting Mrs. Arroyo in pursuit of goals more ambitious than Abat’s or that of other groups rumored to be plotting a coup. That goal is to effect the shift to the parliamentary form of government as the key to achieving several other goals all at once.

While a beneficiary of People Power, Ramos has declared the alleged need to prevent its recurrence, and sees a parliamentary system as allowing changes in government without such mass actions as those of February 1986 and January 2001. A prime architect of the country’s rush to globalization, Ramos also wants the nationalist provisions of the 1987 Constitution repealed, among these the ban on foreign ownership of the mass media, and on 100 percent ownership of public utilities and land.

Not incidentally would the amendments Ramos favors also mean the pre-eminence of Ramos’ ally de Venecia, perhaps as prime minister, and of himself either as president or, following the footsteps of his hero, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, as senior minister or something similarly influential.

These plans can only prosper with Mrs. Arroyo’s remaining true to her July 8 bargain with Ramos. Ramos’ demand that Mrs. Arroyo support constitutional amendments in exchange for his support last July was premised on her “graceful exit”. When she would go would depend on how soon Congress, sitting as a Constituent Assembly, completed amendments— on the assumption that the 2007 elections would be held as scheduled.

Ramos of course knew that Mrs. Arroyo’s word is as worthless as a three-peso bill, and that she would try to weasel out of it once she regroups her forces and re-consolidates her hold on power. In the past few months Mrs. Arroyo and company have been making noises suggesting that she now believes herself firmly in control. The Consultative Commission recommendation to cancel elections– apparently an eleventh decision that Ramos correctly said “smacks of a pre-cooked scenario”– was the clearest sign of all that she’s turning her back on the “graceful exit” premise of Ramos’ July 8 support. Thus the emphatic “stronger than ever” Palace assertion, which implies that it no longer needs Ramos..

But can Mrs. Arroyo survive a Ramos withdrawal of support by the first week of January?

Ramos’ demand that Mrs. Arroyo reject the no-election proposal of her rubber- stamp Commission by January 1 was not made lightly. Mrs. Arroyo’s supposed strength could prove illusory by the first quarter of 2006, when OFW remittances slow to a trickle and the peso value drops to pre-holiday levels; the factories driven by holiday demands begin to lay off workers; the additional two percent taxes mandated by E-VAT kick in; and Filipinos awake from their holiday sleep to the worsening uncertainties, misery and desperation over which Arroyo has been presiding since 2001. Ramos’ support then would be as crucial to Mrs. Arroyo’s survival as it had been on July 8, 2005.

(Business Mirror)

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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