It is a question that was asked soon after Congress hastily proclaimed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo winner of the controversial 2004 presidential election. But the swift withdrawal from the streets of the protesting voters who felt cheated in the canvassing and the filing of a formal election protest by the opposition gave the proclamation an aura of finality. Whatever doubt remained about GMA’s legitimacy as a leader was later dispelled by her decisive handling of the Angelo de la Cruz affair.
But now the question is on everyone’s lips again. The goodwill she earned from her successful rescue of De la Cruz from Iraqi militants has all but evaporated. Bad appointments to key offices in government, signifying political payback, have eroded her credibility. Bad decisions meant to shore up her popularity before the election have come back to haunt her. Foremost of these was her move to slash the power charges of the National Power Corporation, an act that mired the state firm in a debt quicksand from which it cannot extricate itself. On top of these, her reckless use of public funds for programs without any enduring value in the last election is now better viewed in the light of Ms Arroyo’s own admission of a severe fiscal crisis.
Her political allies in both houses of Congress – the same people who staunchly shielded her votes from close scrutiny – are the same ones who now oppose the measures she has proposed as solutions to the fiscal crisis. They are skeptical of her determination to reform the government, and view her pronouncements about the crisis as nothing but attempts to cow the legislature into submission.
The media have been no less critical. They juxtapose Ms Arroyo’s call for austerity with her free spending for members of her family during her recent state visit to China, and her chartering of a private jet so she could attend the wedding of the Sultan’s son in Brunei. The effect of this is that, in the public eye, the President merely personifies the same insensitivity and arrogance that seem to be the norm among her people, like GSIS President Winston Garcia. None of these things would perhaps generate the kind of controversy they have triggered if it were not for the hunger that stalks many of our people.
A television report on GMA-7 the other night portrayed the daily scramble of whole families for left-over food retrieved from the garbage bins of Metro Manila’s shopping malls. Food that still smells fresh is consumed right then and there. The rest is scraped from plastic bags and re-cooked like pig’s scrap for the next meal. Heartbreaking images like these acquire the starkness of a scandal when shown side by side, for example, reports of a general’s wife who callously boasted of having anywhere between ten and twenty thousand dollars when she goes shopping.
A situation like this is not politically sustainable. No government can demand sacrifices of its already starving citizens while a few powerful and wealthy families live as if they were God’s chosen people. Something is bound to give. But sheer hunger will not spark a social revolution. For it is not hunger alone that grips the poor; they are also seized by a paralyzing helplessness that takes away the volatility from their anger.
That is why, in the final analysis, it is not the poor who pose a threat to Gloria, but rather the educated and the middle class who voted for her. They had set aside their deep doubts about her capacity to turn the country around, and supported her on the belief that an opposition win would spell a sure catastrophe. But now that she is safely president, they are not about to make it easy for her.
They may understand the historical roots of the fiscal crisis and the unfairness of blaming her for the cumulative sins of all past administrations. But they also know that critical times require extraordinary qualities. They expect a modern mindset and professionalism appropriate to a highly educated president. Above all, they demand leadership by example. Yet Gloria has been anything but exemplary. She conducts her office as if she has not stopped campaigning. One hundred days into her new term, there is still no visible shift in her presidential style, no clear program of government around which the nation could unite, and no inspiring Cabinet to which we could harness our collective hopes.
Will she last? Since the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos by people power and military mutiny in 1986 we have not had a normal political life. All our presidents after Marcos faced serious political challenges either from people power or from the military, except Fidel Ramos, who was lucky to be favored by a world economy in the upswing. Today elections no longer guarantee security in public office. There is no reason to think GMA is exempt. The question is not whether she will last, but how long?
The persistence of people power is an indication that the traditional modes of political succession and governance of our society are no longer suitable for our times. Yet for all their dysfunctionality, their death has been repeatedly postponed by the kind of elections we hold. Our leaders are the same because the system we have hasn’t changed. And I don’t mean just the presidential system, but the whole obsolete social system that favors inherited wealth and power over personal effort and achievement, dispenses the nation’s resources in response to political imperatives rather than social needs, and rewards cunning rather than perseverance.
No president can last while this system endures.
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