Edsa II was the culmination of a movement to restore accountability and idealism in government. Its constituents were the young, the middle class, and the educated who refused to be led any further by an inept, corrupt, and archaic president. While its actions were political, it rode on the wave of a general contempt for traditional politicians.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was neither the icon nor the leader of this movement. She was its beneficiary. The presidency fell on her lap by virtue of a constitutional provision. She could have made the Edsa II constituency her own had she been more mindful of the big picture in which she was being made to play a role. But though her rhetoric implied an acceptance of the mandate that was thrust into her hands, she allowed herself to be pulled back into the familiar compromises of traditional politics. There is not a single issue on which one can say she drew the line and was willing to risk her presidency. As a result, we have a president without a clear constituency, and an amorphous reform movement without a visible leader.
Of presidents we tend to expect much. We want them to be the embodiment of our noblest traits and highest aspirations. We imagine them to be the incarnation of the best that we can be, magical beings with gifts of charisma rather than ordinary mortals with petty concerns like the rest of us.
It is thus not surprising that our presidents have also been the causes of our deepest disappointments. This is especially true of those who were not simply elected but were installed by popular uprising. They are the products not of normal but of revolutionary politics. Their mandate is to inaugurate the new rather than to ensure the continuity of the old. They are expected to bring about paradigm shifts in the conduct of our affairs as a nation, rather than to follow what has been customary.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was never convincing in this role. She kept going back to the templates of traditional politics, with which she is understandably more familiar. On her first few weeks in office, for instance, she publicly announced that a choice position in the diplomatic service would be reserved for a disgruntled general. “It is his for the asking,” she said without batting an eyelash, as if to assure her allies that she knows how to honor a debt.
A presidential search committee created to screen nominees and recommend the most qualified people to government positions according to strict professional criteria folded up in frustration because it could not match the pace at which the president herself was issuing appointments without benefit of prior screening. The pattern of using board seats in revenue-rich government agencies and corporations to reward political allies quickly became the norm for the new government.
While no single case of corruption against the president or her immediate family has been proven, negative talk has persisted, and the public perception is that the president herself has not been completely transparent in all her dealings. One oft-cited example is her clandestine meeting with businessman Pacifico Marcelo who has accused her of demanding a majority share of his company in exchange for a franchise. Even if Marcelo’s version of his encounter with the president sounded incredible, it nevertheless raised disturbing questions about the president’s sense of propriety after she acknowledged receiving him at the palace through the backdoor.
Such lapses make it easy for the public to believe the worst about the president and her immediate family. Her personal projection in public has not helped her. It is not so much her coldness or remoteness that is disconcerting to many as her seeming inability to rise above political heckling and intrigue. When she indulges her pique, she loses her poise, and then she is reduced, in the eyes of the public, to a petty politician. A president must be able to govern herself well if she is to govern a nation.
This is all very unfortunate because Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is a competent and hard-working president. She has impressed world leaders with her intelligence and firm understanding of the imperatives of a global economy. Although the economic achievements of her presidency have not made a dent on the living conditions of the Filipino poor, these are nevertheless significant contributions to the building of a stronger economy.
Anyone who claims that the economy is worse today than it was during the final months of the Estrada administration must be hallucinating. We were staring into an abyss towards the end of 2000. There was not a single investor who was crazy enough to inject new money into a very sick economy run by a venal government. It is difficult to imagine to what depths the nation would have sunk if the Estrada presidency had continued beyond January 2001.
We did the right thing at Edsa II. We got rid of a corrupt president by a non-institutional route, but we saved the constitutional order. The situation today however is less than ideal. The former president is in detention awaiting trial for plunder, but his allies remain in power, blocking the government at every turn. The failure of President Arroyo to relieve the suffering of the poor in any meaningful way has made it hard for her to win over this mass constituency. She worries over her tenuous grip on the presidency, and this inclines her even more to prioritize political consolidation over reform.
Despite all this, it is foolish to blame all our problems on government. If the spirit of Edsa II lives, we must begin to demand of ourselves the same selflessness and nobility we expect of our leaders.
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