The life and death of coup rumors

Rumors of impending coups and major crimes usually go together in our country.  They surface when the euphoria that greeted the entry of a new government begins to dissipate.

This period is full of danger.  Where they have not been totally stripped of power, remnants of the old regime will threaten trouble from their followers and use this threat to negotiate favorable terms for peaceful co-existence within the new order. Allies of the new administration will demand that they be consulted on every vital appointment and every aspect of government policy, and warn about withdrawing mandate when decisions don’t go their way.  Criminals and racketeers of various stripes exploit this moment of adjustment by working within the cracks of an authority system not yet fully in place.

Five coup attempts and the chaos in the brittle coalition that brought Cory Aquino to the presidency kept the government unfocused for most of its term.  The chronic problems of our society, which worsened under Marcos, took a back seat as the first Edsa government used all its energies fighting to survive.  The government did survive, but the recurrent threats of a coup or of another people power explosion became a permanent fixture of our political life. Today, Filipinos talk about coups and people power so loosely one would think these are things you could just grab and hurl at anyone.

Coup d’etat, for example, means a strike or a sudden blow against the state. Successful coups in history were carried out with stealth and speed.  Serious coup plotters do not broadcast their plans.  That is why we can be sure that those who spread rumors of an impending coup have no intention of seizing power.  But it is likely that they are laying the premise for negotiated favors or enhanced prerogatives from the political leadership.  Of course, coup talk may also be the government’s way of pre-empting the recruitment for a serious coup.

Whatever it is, it is clear that we are not talking of the objective reality of a coup so much as the thinly veiled threat of a coup.  But perhaps the best way to dispel these threats is by examining the conditions that make them possible.  Do the conditions favoring a coup presently exist?  Who stands to benefit from coup rumors?

Coups are launched by people already enjoying some measure of authority within the state.  They may be a section of the armed forces or a combination of civilians and military officers.  A coup usually projects itself as a temporary and extraordinary arrangement aimed at addressing a situation threatening the survival of the state itself. There has not been a successful coup in the Philippines.  The closest we’ve had to a successful coup would be the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.  Some analysts think of that event as an incumbent president’s coup against his own government.

Coups tend to be preceded by a period of de-legitimation, disorder, and confusion.  People lose their faith in their leaders and/or in the system of government itself.  Incumbent leaders are portrayed as incompetent, irresponsible, weak, corrupt, or oppressive.  In theory, coups do not require public support in order for them to be successful.  But for a coup to succeed, the public’s attitude toward the incumbent leadership must be such that no group in the military or in civil society would be inclined and prepared to actively defend the existing government.

Can we say that Filipinos have reached this point of disillusionment with the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?  While her administration has been buffeted by serious allegations of corruption, abuse of power, and incompetence in some key departments and agencies – none of these refer directly to the president’s person.  In contrast, almost all her detractors in the opposition have a hard time ridding themselves of the stench of previous associations.

In a time of grave crisis in the global community, we look to a leader we can be proud of, who can speak intelligently and confidently about the problems besetting nations like ours and the world as a whole. Would we rather we had an Erap or a Ping Lacson speaking for us in these times?  We may not always agree with her pronouncements on vital issues, and some may be put off by the way she says them, but it would be very difficult for anyone to say that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has not been a hard-working, disciplined, and responsible president.

Political adventurers who spread rumors about unseating the president by a coup or by people power are therefore either hallucinating or they are coupling coup threats with sinister interests. Is it possible that these rumors are coming from the palace itself as a means to divert public attention from the investigation of the president’s husband?  Considering the injury that these rumors inflict on the economy, I find this view absurd.

What I find plausible, however, is the explanation that some groups within the military are seeking to recover or enhance their influence in the government by fanning coup rumors.  They have seen how in the past the president would resort to hasty appeasement when she is told that some officers in the military are feeling left out.  It is plain opportunism.

Rumors like these can have multiple beneficiaries, none of whom may be the principal author.  They assume a life of their own, coupling with a medley of needs, until they die.  Sometimes from out of the blue, on a slow evening when nothing much is happening, some enterprising media person, quoting an unnamed source, decides to give these rumors a second breath of life.  And so begins another cycle.


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