Despite a disappointing first year, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo still has a chance to be remembered as among our best presidents — but only if she can think of her present term as her last. She must reconcile herself to a future without Gloria, and work for a social vision that will make it easier for her successor to solve our country’s persistent problems. She need not proclaim it, but, if she truly wants to succeed, a disavowal of 2004 must be the unconditional premise of her remaining years as president.
This irony is the fruit of many contingencies. Unlike previous presidents, Gloria’s succession to the presidency did not confer upon her the instant popular approval normally given to a newly-installed leader. The acceptance of her presidency was, from the start, ambiguous. She began with very low ratings amid very high expectations for change. And those ratings have been progressively declining. The one thing going for her, the euphoria that greeted the fall of an unfit president, has all but vanished.
In the public mind, the 3 years entrusted to her from the unfinished term of the deposed president were meant for her to set things right, and not to give her lead time to plan a re-election. The politics of reform she announced at the beginning of her presidency captured the essence of Edsa II’s yearning to rebuild institutions and to establish a new benchmark for governance. But the subsequent behavior of her government reduced this goal to mere rhetoric.
Choosing political consolidation over daring political reform, Gloria started courting and appeasing power blocs that have historically obstructed all efforts at reform. She appointed individuals of doubtful capability to sensitive public positions out of political expediency. She offered cushy appointments to disgruntled military officers, and entered into electoral coalitions with groups that were known to be identified with feudal politics. The active role that her husband played in determining key appointments to cash-laden government agencies left no doubt that 2004 dominated her agenda.
Edsa II exploded because Filipinos were tired of corruption, opportunism, and incompetence in government. Today they are certain that nothing much has changed except the faces of the key players. They do not see any boldness of vision, no decisiveness in policy, no coherence in government programs, no sustained effort to produce any enduring change, and no clear plan to survive a looming global economic crisis. This sense of drift predisposes our people toward authoritarian solutions, that is why there has lately been much talk of military intervention.
In January this year, our people knew that Gloria was not the right person to take on the job of reforming our society. Steeped in the ways of traditional politics, she lacked the qualities of a visionary leader who would risk everything to move our society forward. But between a future that foretold prolonged turbulence and a present that assured the preservation of a constitutional order, our people chose the latter. In their perception, Gloria would be a transitional president, a legal bridge to a new social order. If she did well, a grateful nation might automatically reward her a new term without her asking for it.
Her political handlers saw it differently however. They thought that 3 years was too short to make any real difference. Their decision was to consolidate now to ensure a second term. They judged wrongly. It is the transitions that are crucial to a nation’s future. Their value lies not so much in the visible results they produce as in the new ethos they establish. The circumstances of Gloria’s rise to the presidency require an uncommon selflessness, a heroism, and a passion not demanded of politicians in normal times. She could have inaugurated a new mode of governance, but until now she has opted to be just an ordinary politician.
Is it too late to shift paradigms? There is time, but she must act now. While the more visible problems of our country today are in the realm of peace and order and urban management, the more central ones are still economic. The global recession will surely aggravate the poverty that has been the lot of half of our population. Gloria can begin by defining our present social and economic situation in very candid terms and by offering a feasible plan to address it. The composition of her Cabinet must reflect the boldness of this plan and the seriousness with which she means to pursue it. It is time she let go of the driftwood and opportunists in her official family. Most of all, it is time we all stopped thinking of the presidency beyond 2004.
Every nation today that calls itself modern has definite and coherent contingency plans for weathering the global crisis. We have none. We spend all our time in petty bickering and political posturing. We try to solve real problems by increasing media projection instead of seriously studying them. Our low tolerance for careful planning echoes our penchant for dramatic upheavals. This is why when we find ourselves in a rut, we can think of relief only in terms of people power, or martial law, or a coup. This mindset, as we know by now, does not help us grow into a stable and self-confident nation.
Some sectors of civil society are reported to be searching for an alternative to Gloria in 2004. Their frustration is understandable, but it is not the right response to a problem that is bigger than the presidency. The situation we face is grave enough to justify focusing on what we can do together now as one nation while maintaining a moratorium on political antagonism.
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