In December 2002, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo felt so discouraged about how the country was faring under her leadership that she found herself suddenly announcing she was not standing for election in 2004. The decision jolted even her closest allies who were only too aware of her consuming quest for another six-year term.
By then, two years had passed since the presidency fell on Gloria’s lap. The euphoric expectations that attended the overthrow of an incompetent and corrupt presidency had all but evaporated. Hopes for reform lay buried under a series of compromises forged by a fixation with 2004. The public was restless again. The President saw that she was the focal point of the relentless politicking that plagued the country. She said she was sacrificing her political ambition to begin a national healing process that would permit the government to do its work. The announcement was widely applauded as a new beginning.
Nine months later, she is still talking of personal sacrifice, but this time what she is offering to give up is no longer political ambition but the pleasure of retirement. The country is as divided as ever, she admits. But instead of being heckled into retirement, she is now accepting the challenge of continued service, citing the experience she has gained as president as an advantage the country should not waste. What experience is she talking about? Experience at using political power to perpetuate political power?
Since she became president, GMA has shown nothing but the same ruthless readiness to treat top government offices as political spoils to be distributed to individuals who have no other qualification but personal loyalty to the president. Edsa II was a revolt against the culture of patronage. But instead of dismantling this pre-modern political culture, GMA began her presidency by enforcing its logic.
This went on even after she announced her retirement from politics. As a political observer, I have learned not to assign too much weight to the reasons that politicians give for their actions. I find that they have no trouble citing the same value to justify two diametrically opposed decisions. More crucial to understanding political behavior is the analysis of conditions that make certain outcomes possible.
After GMA announced her withdrawal from politics, the public started to look to other leaders for new visions. This was a public that was fed up with politics. For a while Raul Roco was the most attractive alternative. Young educated Filipinos who formed the constituency of Edsa II looked to him for leadership. Unfortunately, Roco failed to rise above the generalities that all politicians mouth when they aspire for the presidency. What the public was looking for was someone with a clear view of the road ahead and was unequivocal about his priorities. For some puzzling reason, Roco became quiet when he needed to be heard more.
Then Danding Cojuangco entered the picture promising a form of expertise bred in the corporate world. Politicians crossed party lines to endorse his candidacy. But the excitement over Cojuangco proved to be short-lived. As it turned out, it was not his past as a Marcos crony that hobbled him so much as his image as a wealthy politician who had almost nothing to say about mass poverty. No matter how his publicists tried to invest him with a common touch, the masa could not identify with him. The low ratings he got with the D and E crowd attest to this.
On the other hand, Ping Lacson, who started out as an improbable presidential aspirant, managed to command serious attention with his no-nonsense approach to public issues. He was always forthright with his answers to questions. He resonated the public’s contempt for politicians, and he consistently spoke in an idiom that instantly connected him to the masa. He also succeeded in impressing a segment of the middle class that was fed up with rampant criminality and police corruption. But Lacson has a long way to go. He is a single-issue candidate. His readiness to resort to malicious innuendo in his campaign to nail down the First Gentleman for corruption and money laundering has left a bad taste in the mouth. The nation is looking for a statesman, not a rumormonger.
Gloria saw that none of the presidential aspirants has been able to capture the public imagination. In the meantime, she regained her self-confidence after a well-publicized state visit to the United States. Her foreign trips gave her many opportunities to show her mettle as an Asian leader. The Filipino intelligentsia justly derides her for her sycophancy to George W. Bush Jr. but in a country where proAmericanism is a religion, that is hardly a disqualification. The Oakwood mutiny was the turning point for her. She was determined to crush it, no matter what the cost. The surrender of the mutineers completely restored her spirit.
Anyone in her position after Oakwood would have been very stupid to give up the presidency. Today GMA imagines herself as God’s anointed. In the midst of so much political mediocrity, she has come to a full realization of her powers. She projects strength and resoluteness. Filipinos like that in their leaders.
All this means that Gloria will be very difficult to dislodge. If she wins, it will almost be by default. Only a leader with a populist appeal and a clear pro-poor agenda, someone untainted by politics, can mount a formidable challenge against her. Even if he or she loses, the sheer candidacy of such a leader would have the immediate effect of dispelling the political cynicism that has corroded our country’s public life.
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