Antidote to despair

The basic ingredients are there: rising prices, worsening unemployment, protests in the streets, impatience and demoralization, the spread of smut as social anesthesia, corruption in high places, cronies without accountability, a Cabinet without power, a President without insight.  To top it all, a sense of helplessness born of the awareness that presidential elections are more than four years away.

Rumors of a coup typically flourish in such a setting.  Coup whisperers are motivated by two intentions: first, they want to scare the leadership into shaping up; and second, they want to induce urgent public debates about alternatives.  Some of them may actually be seriously inviting a military intervention.  But coup rumors are ultimately selfdefeating; they frighten investors and drive the public into a state of panic and agitation.  Over the long term, they promote despair in democratic institutions while sustaining the illusion of drastic surgical solutions.

The response of an uncomprehending President to such public uneasiness may be to persist in his delusion that he remains the idol of the masses.  He laughs off coup rumors, saying he is not intimidated; then he launches a series of populist gestures that he cannot sustain.  In public, he talks tough.  In private, he panics.  He blames everyone but himself.  In this state of utter blamelessness, he is comforted by his own whisperers who, like him, will never accept responsibility for any blunder.

The main problem of the President is that he has stopped listening to his own Cabinet, preferring instead the counsel of the barkada who feeds him the fantasy that because of his affinity with the masa, he alone truly knows what is good for them.  Thus he begins to believe that being a real president means being able to dispense with the opinion of those whose duty is precisely to provide him with a comprehensive picture of the country’s situation.  Having been elected on the crest of a popular vote, he now takes up the mandate to lead as a mandate to rely wholly on his bare political instincts.

But perhaps more serious than this, the President has brought into the office a style of leadership that is premised on a systematic distrust for his own officials.  That is why he leans on so-called advisers and consultants to tell him the “other” side of the story, and why, very often, he would pit one official against another, to the distress of his Cabinet who, having been sworn to serve at his pleasure, cannot decide whether they still enjoy his confidence.  This may be the tested way of the “godfather”, who relies not on trust but on cunning, who values not competence but servility, and who cannot distinguish between the government and himself.  It may work in a gang, but this style of work has no place in a modern government.

One would have thought that a society like ours that has just emerged from a scarring experience with one-man rule would have built enough safeguards against the dangers of a personalistic leadership.  But it appears that our institutions have remained brittle despite the presence of a professional and competent middle-echelon civil service.  They are no match against the power of a presidency that has no respect for procedures, policies, and common courtesy.

In a truly institutionalized society, social norms would be so stable and public offices so established in their functions that citizens may risk electing even the most outrageous leaders.  Here, politicians can never be powerful enough to overturn the system of professional governance.  But in a young nation impatient for heroic leaders, where the masses yearn not so much for stability but for redemptive change, great is the temptation for presidents to play god.  They rush into simplistic solutions for very complex problems.  They demand results overnight, and are haunted by a desperate need to project instant wisdom and decisiveness.

How does one deal with a problem like this?  The first lesson, I believe, is not to give in to despair or resentment, which are both useless emotions.  The second is for us to learn to sort out our problems in a clear and dispassionate manner, seeking out policy solutions rather than anyone’s resignation.

The President, in any case, will never resign.  He may be tempted to change his Cabinet if only to satisfy the clamor for change.  But everyone knows the problem is not his Cabinet.  The problem is the president himself and the small circle of advisers he keeps around him through the dying hours of the night.  If he can no longer trust his present Cabinet, he must immediately replace them with the people who until now have counseled him from the shadows.  It is time the public knew who they are.

But, whoever they are, the President must rely on his whole Cabinet, and not just on a few favored ones and anonymous whisperers.  He must get rid of these unaccountable advisers before they cause further damage to the civil service.  He must let government do its work without the interference of influence-peddlers and powerful friends. Best of all, he must call regular Cabinet meetings, not just to pass on information but to actually debate policy and agree on a common direction.

Finally, the President must stop equating his advocacy of globalization and constitutional change with economic wisdom and selflessness. The surveys show that the Filipino people do not want a constitutional change at this time; they are wary of losing the last defenses they have against total alien domination.  In any case, let this question be debated openly by its protagonists.  And let the president listen.


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