By declaring she will not run in the 2004 election, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has done what is unthinkable in Philippine politics: withdraw proudly when it is no longer possible to run with dignity. Such leave-taking is rare, for the one who is taking a leave is still very much around. The president has freely chosen a political death that earns for her a chance at rebirth. Where excessive politics ends, governance may at last begin.
Elected officials in our country typically spend the first half of their terms repaying political debts, and the next half buying support for reelection. There’s hardly any time to govern. As soon as they are elected, they find themselves enacting roles in a system built for private enrichment rather than for public empowerment.
Our political history in the last three decades may be read as a series of desperate attempts to break this curse upon our national life.
Ferdinand Marcos made the first of such attempts in 1972, imposing a dictatorship that he justified as a means to free the state from the grip of an entrenched oligarchy. He ended up creating a new one that in some ways was more rapacious and violent than the one he sought to dismantle. The use of the state primarily as an instrument of private accumulation continued undisturbed, and the absence of democracy made its effects worse.
The first people power swept this aberrant system away, and authorized the drafting of a new constitution dedicated to popular empowerment. But the institutions that would inaugurate a new political practice could not be launched. A new Congress of old politicians blocked all efforts at reform. Cory Aquino’s government instantly found itself caught between the adventurism of a politicized military and the security offered by a returning elite. In the end it chose to abort its reform mandate to ensure its own survival.
The ensuing period of political normalization under Fidel Ramos sought to open up the political and economic system to new players. But it did not change the basic nature of the Philippine state. It remained a captive state, a hostage to vested interests. The election of Joseph Estrada on an anti-poverty slogan in 1998 was a populist reaction to this state of affairs. It would have signaled a new beginning. But the new leadership had an impoverished view of its role. It could not rise above the narrow interests of the predatory bloc that financed its election. The president, who was adored by the masses, became a caricature of everything that was awful about Philippine politics.
Fueled by modernist aspirations, People Power II intervened and cut short Estrada’s term before he could do further damage to the nation. This sudden shift once more opened the political horizon to new possibilities. But at the moment of victory, the concern for instant stability weighed heavily against taking an uncharted path and favored the quick assumption of the presidency by a constitutional successor.
In clearing the legal obstacles to her succession, the Supreme Court could have ruled that the spirit of the constitution only permitted Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to serve the unfinished term of the deposed president, without reelection. That would have left her with no choice but to fulfill the mandate of a transitional president, which is to govern selflessly so as to pave the way for the emergence of a modern state. But for all its judicial boldness, the Court failed to do so.
From day one, the new president who could not seem to feel secure in her position was incapable of focusing on the urgent tasks of the present. Her mind was glued to the challenges of leadership under a full six-year term she could treat as properly her own. The result of this, as we have seen, has been a presidency devoid of any vision other than reelection.
Today there is hardly anything in the president’s record of performance since January 2001 to which she can securely harness a reelection bid. Her declining approval ratings affirm this. Yet all this cannot fully account for her decision not to seek the presidency in 2004. It is, after all, natural for an ambitious and egoistic president, surrounded by the usual sycophants and political operators, to ignore the signs and do everything to avoid giving up power. This president stunned the nation by opting to be different. Having prepared long for 2004, she now says she will not seek it. There is style there and character, qualities that have become extinct among our politicians.
The president has sixteen months to show what difference a mindshift makes. I hope she ignores the leader of the House of Representatives, that last stronghold of archaic patronage-based politics. Speaker Jose de Venecia has got it all wrong when he says that what we need today is a Cabinet of national unity. The speaker obviously cannot get away from personalities. Our country is divided because the prevailing structure of opportunities works against the great majority of our people who are poor. What is needed to solve this is not a change of faces but of frameworks.
There are enough good people in the present government. Now that the president has freed herself from the imperatives of political perpetuation, they can all concentrate on the real business of governing. That means essentially having concrete social goals, mobilizing public support for these, and finding the resources necessary to achieve them.
We have a new president. Our nation has every reason to be hopeful as it faces the New Year.
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