In his last televised special address to the nation before leaving for Russia and the Middle East, President Ramos showed that, when he wants to, he can be categorical and emphatic about a lot of things. There will be elections in May 1998, as scheduled, he said categorically. And, he will oppose any move to extend the terms of elected officials. He will not declare martial law, he said emphatically.
But he remained emphatically silent on the single question that now divides the nation. Would he seek re-election if constitutional term limits were lifted? The question is on everyone’s lips, but FVR chose to ignore it. That omission is calculated, not a product of absentmindedness. Sometimes, it is the things we leave unsaid that most define our core message. In speech analysis, it is called “gloss” – words that are omitted, and written on the margin by interpreters to spell out the meanings of lines of text.
Listening to repeated replays of that speech, I was convinced that FVR’s gloss is his clear wish for a second term. Thus, when he talks of graduating in 1998, he only means finishing his present term without any extension. He is not saying he will not graduate to a second term. He definitely wants a proper second term, and the only way to do this is by amending the constitution, which limits the incumbent president to only one term.
It is natural for anyone who thinks he is doing a good job to express a wish that he had more time to complete his job. I believe there is nothing indecent about that. And if there is a spontaneous, uncoerced, and unbought groundswell of popular opinion seeking to make a second term legally possible, why should that be taken against the president? For the same reason, we cannot attack the concept of Pirma itself; we can only object to its origins and the manner in which it collects the signatures.
It is not wrong for FVR to want a second term; but one wishes he had been more candid about it. The lack of candor is compounded by the fact that he also keeps saying he would step down from office upon the completion of his term in 1998. Almost like a signal, the more he says this publicly, the busier his close associates get trying to maneuver a constitutional amendment. It is also irritating that the call for constitutional amendments, which is manifestly driven by the main intent of lifting term limits, is dressed up in the fabric of supposedly other urgent constitutional issues. Again, lack of candor. At the end of the day, what emerges before the public is the spectacle of sinister double-talk.
This is all unfortunate for a president who has worked very hard and has done reasonably well in office. Whatever one might think of the origins of our present economic troubles, FVR deserves credit for stabilizing and restoring confidence in an economy severely ravaged by coups, calamities, and incompetence. It is not easy to be president in a fairly open society like ours, where governance is easily compromised by perceptions made volatile by a free and often reckless media.
I think however that the president’s men badly miscalculated in their efforts to secure a second term for him. They thought they could capitalize on the gains of an energized economy under FVR, and the threat of a sudden reversal under an untested successor, to justify lifting term limits. They did not expect to find a strong lingering distaste for perpetual rulers among our people, which became sharper as the activities of the president’s men became brazen.
In the face of the peso depreciation and the sudden slowing down of the economy, it is now possible to take a more realistic view of the FVR economic miracle. The events of the last 2 months have alerted us to the dangers of relying too much on short-term foreign capital. For a long time we watched enviously as Thailand embarked on a frenzied journey to tigerhood on the wings of the foreign money it had lured into its shores with high-interest rates and pegged exchange rates. We were in the middle of trying this model for ourselves when the currency crisis hit us. Fortunately, we are not yet as sunk in debt as Thailand is today.
FVR has 8 months left on his term, enough time to consolidate the gains of his presidency, to reduce the vulnerability of the economy or change course if necessary, and to complete the economic reforms by which he wishes to be remembered as president. There would be no time for all of these if he continues to be defensive about his political future. The future already has a secure place for him. He will be remembered as the working head of state who started out as the minority president and graduated to become the popular architect of his country’s economic recovery. He spits on these accomplishments when he allows his people to do undertake those shameless moves that have alienated a large section of the public.
Those against changing the charter may likely be a minority. And indeed, if a plebiscite were held today on whether FVR should be permitted to stand for a second term, the vote may well vindicate him. But FVR now knows also that if he causes the rules to be changed to keep himself in office, an articulate minority will never make him forget how, at a crucial moment of his presidency, he chose to be exactly like the man he helped overthrow in 1986. I do not think that FVR, given a second term under these circumstances, would be able to govern well.
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