The lost hope of a strong republic

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made a bid to become a modern executive by making the formation of a “strong republic” the key goal of her administration.  But in the last three years, she has probably done more to weaken our Republic than any president before her except Marcos.  Her beliefs may be republican, but her recent actions have been brazenly monarchical.

At the expense of public institutions, she has tried to magnify her personal power.  Her recent appointments of political allies with dubious qualifications to sensitive government positions have greatly compromised the credibility of these offices. These appointees are widely expected to do her personal bidding than to discharge their duties honorably as public officials. She has treated the beneficiaries of government programs like feudal subjects dependent on the personal benevolence of the sovereign than as citizens with formal rights.

“I just want to remind you,” she told the soldiers of the republic at the start of the electoral campaign, “that I was the one who raised your pay.”  She repeats the same “you-owe-me” message in almost every urban poor community she visits.  Lately she has been distributing “land titles” to families of informal settlers.  These are actually occupancy certificates for lands identified as socialized housing sites. At the Barangay Batasan Hills in Quezon City the other day, she told the crowd after the awarding ceremony: “But the actual identification of the land that you will buy and your first payment — that will be the next installment.  But now we can say you are no longer squatters in your own land.”

She has also claimed as a personal act the laying down of water pipes connecting these communities to regular water service.  As with the land titles, the project comes in installments and its completion is conditional.  The Inquirer reports her as saying: “And while we are waiting for those pipes to be laid down and strong water pressure to be enjoyed 24 hours a day, I have asked my co-workers to provide for the meantime free clean water through the trucks that are now here.”

But she knows that unlike the monarchy, her term is not indefinite. The good fortune of her subjects is conditional upon her remaining as president.  “So for all of you, this is my down payment — housing, clean water and clean government.  But I need a new mandate from you so that our proclamation will be translated to land titles and these water trucks translated to permanent pipes and I will give you clean government as well.”  This is not good governance; it is blackmail.

In a modern state, the president of the country does not possess authority in her own right.  Her powers come from the office.  The resources she gives away do not personally belong to her.  The citizens do not receive the benefits that come their way as private favors but as entitlements under a system of law defining the relationship between public authorities and citizens.  In our system of government, we have a term for the private appropriation of the powers inherent in a public office: corruption.

That is why there ought to be a law prohibiting billboards that proclaim public programs and projects as the personal achievements of public officials.  This practice is not only dishonest; it is also a regression to a form of patrimonial governance that allows the personal exploitation of the means of administration.  Most important of all, this political habit infantilizes our people by treating the fulfillment of their basic needs as conditional on the personal benevolence of elected officials.

Of the candidates seeking the presidency in the coming elections, one would have expected Ms. Macapagal to be the most singleminded in observing the practices of modern administration.  She is after all not only the accidental trustee of the Edsa II movement for good governance, but she has also made the creation of a strong republic the centerpiece of her presidency.

A strong republic is a political order that rests on strong institutions rather than on charismatic or benevolent leaders.  It draws its life from the participation and submission to authority of mature citizens rather than from any ability to buy or coerce the loyalty of powerless subjects.  It is a system of rational administration based on legal authority.  The applicable theory on this subject was laid down almost a hundred years ago by the German sociologist, Max Weber.

This is what Weber said: “In legal authority, submission does not rest upon the belief and devotion to charismatically gifted persons, like prophets and heroes, or upon sacred tradition, or upon piety toward a personal lord and master who is defined by an ordered tradition…. Rather, submission under legal authority is based upon an impersonal bond to the generally defined and functional ‘duty of office’.”  Modern governance, in short, is rule of law and not rule of the patron.

By turning to the archaic ways of traditional politics in her bid to retain the presidency, GMA has moved to a political arena in which she holds no advantage.  Here she is no match against FPJ, who is running on pure charisma.  Lacking in charisma, she has gone on a reckless populist mode in order to win votes.  In the process, she is losing the chance to be truly “the last and best hope” for our times – a modern leader who built institutions.


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