Former President Fidel V. Ramos’ speech before the Makati Business Club last Thursday (October 20) was three things all at once. It was a call as well as a reminder. But it was also a warning.

Ramos urged Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to cut her term short and “reform herself”. He also described the support he gave her last July as “secondary and incidental” in that it was given “in the absence of a better alternative.” Translation: it could also be temporary.

Mrs. Arroyo, Ramos also said, “should subsume her personal goals” to the demands of national interest. Translation: Mrs. Arroyo’s continued stay in power may be to her benefit, but not to the country’s.

The statement that he gave her his support last July because there was no one better speaks for itself. His urging that she reform herself was on the other hand only a round-about way of saying that she’s committed some offense or offenses and has to do better.

Everyone is free to speculate on what those offenses are. Most people would probably say “cheating in 2004” could be on Ramos’ mind. But some would probably add “reneging on her July 8 agreement with Ramos.”

Jointly expressed that day with House Speaker Jose de Venecia and the House majority’s, Ramos’ support was crucial to Mrs. Arroyo’s survival, but was not without a trade-off. The trade-off was her agreeing to amend the Constitution post-haste, and cutting her term short.

“When” was then assumed to be by the middle of 2006, given Ramos’ and de Venecia’s timetable, in which charter amendments would be up for ratification by February 2006, and parliamentary elections held by May.

In instances too numerous to mention, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and other Palace officials, as well as Mrs. Arroyo herself, said outright that Mrs. Arroyo was amenable to the Ramos plan—which of course included cutting her term short. In her July 2005 State of the Nation Address Mrs. Arroyo also made it a point to commit herself to Constitutional amendments. She didn’t say outright that she was cutting her term short then. But she did say so in later statements to the media.

Having practically no one else to lean on last July 8 as her support dwindled, Mrs. Arroyo had no choice but to go along with Ramos and de Venecia. But few doubted that once the situation stabilized she would go back on her word.

Mrs. Arroyo has after all done it before. Her 2002 pledge not to run in 2004, which she took back in 2003, is usually what comes to mind whenever the value of her word is mentioned.

Mrs. Arroyo has since proven that you can’t lose money assuming the worst of her, or underestimating the depths of her capacity for dirty pool. Nowadays the line from Malacanang and from her House allies is that she should finish her term, which means having her around till 2010 as either president or prime Minister, which is no choice at all, given her putrid record of governance.

Because of her vast unpopularity and zero credibility, her staying on till 2010 even if it be in a parliamentary system will prolong the present crisis and make effective governance as impossible for the next five years as it currently is.

The suspicious—and Ramos is perennially suspected of concocting some devious plot or another—also think that Ramos is eying the posts of either prime minister or president for himself or his anointed. That suspicion may be justified. But it doesn’t detract from Ramos’ argument that basically says that Mrs. Arroyo has to go because she’s not only unpopular. She’s also made such a bigger mess of this country in such a short time it’s almost unbelievable.

All of which explains why Ramos has reiterated the call for Mrs. Arroyo to cut her term short by the time a new Constitution is in place, which could be by 2007. The call was also a not too gentle reminder that when she needed Ramos most last July, Mrs. Arroyo did agree to do so.

But the Ramos call is also a warning that’s especially significant given the results of recent surveys which say that Mrs. Arroyo has a negative 75 percent approval rating—the lowest of any other president’s including Marcos’. Ramos’ speech was thus fraught with implied “or elses.”

Leading the “or elses” between the lines of that speech and his other statements is that Mrs. Arroyo should cut her term short– or else risk Ramos’ withdrawal of support. She should cut her term short—or else risk making a less than graceful exit.

Most of all should she cut her term short– or else risk making that exit not only less than graceful but even violent. While Ramos was delivering his speech, and as various reports including one from the LA Times tell us, junior and middle level officers of the Armed Forces are plotting a coup attempt that could only lead to bloodshed.

Ramos is not exactly Mr. Popularity in these parts. But his warning will almost certainly endear him to the 80 percent of Filipinos who want Mrs. Arroyo out of office. Malacanang, however, isn’t likely to heed it, given its present occupant’s and her subalterns’ determination to cling to the presidency whatever the cost in human rights and life, economic ruin, political uncertainty, and the country’s institutions.

Ramos’ call for Mrs. Arroyo to reform herself is on the other hand even less likely to be heeded. He could end up withdrawing his support for Mrs. Arroyo one of these days on the realization that she’s as likely to reform as a leopard is to shed its spots. If that happens, it would signal another hemorrhage of support similar to June 8’s that could, this time, lead Mrs. Arroyo to a well-deserved fate.

(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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