Marcos and Arroyo

Thirty-four years ago, the then incumbent president, Ferdinand Marcos, invoked an obscure provision in the 1935 Constitution to free his presidency from basic constitutional restraints.  The imposition of Martial Law, which was meant to preserve the State, was supposed to last only for the duration of the imminent threat to public order.  But Marcos shrewdly stretched the meaning and scope of emergency powers, and hijacked an unfinished constitution, so he could legally remain president for life.

In the years that followed, Marcos referred to his government as a “constitutional authoritarianism.” The legitimation of martial rule came rather quickly and seemed to be the least of his worries. By capturing the Constitutional Convention of 1971, he was able to control the final version of the new constitution.  Instead of submitting this custom made document to a plebiscite for ratification, he then convened the so-called “barangay assemblies” and used their simulated approval of the new constitution as proof of its ratification. In one of its lowest moments as a key institution, the Supreme Court pragmatically acquiesced in this Marcosian maneuver.

Doubtless, Marcos desired nothing less than to rule indefinitely.  But even his most strident critics would concede that he had a clear vision for the country, although they staunchly opposed it.  Apart from the corruption, which he centralized, the actions that Marcos took in the first few years of authoritarian rule showed that he had thought about the nation’s problems thoroughly.  He filled his Cabinet with credible technocrats, issued decrees that re-organized the economy, and drew a long-term path for sustained economic growth.

In his long years as a professional politician, Marcos gained an insight into the general predisposition of Filipinos – that they did not care enough about liberty to risk their lives defending it.  For him, civil liberties and political rights had become so meaningless to most Filipinos because of their poverty that they would exchange them anytime for the promise of food and jobs.  That many people went underground to fight his regime shows that he was wrong, but the fact that he lasted more than 13 years as a dictator suggests that he wasn’t entirely wrong.  Had Marcos succeeded in turning the Philippine economy around and improving the economic situation of the average Filipino, it would have been impossible to overthrow him.

Though the circumstances are not the same, Gloria MacapagalArroyo finds herself today in an analogous situation.  Because of the legitimacy problem that has hounded her since she assumed the presidency in 2001, she has had to fight every inch of the way just to survive.  But every action she takes to protect her position only impels her toward an indefinite extension of her powers.  Unlike Marcos, she cannot solve this problem by declaring Martial Law.  The framers of the present constitution virtually took that option away by chaining it to a wall of conditionalities.  In February this year, Ms Arroyo tested the public’s mood for martial law by declaring a state of national emergency.  The public reaction was so strong that she was forced to lift it after only one week.

Unable to draw on the unconditional support of a unified armed forces, GMA has had to buy additional support elsewhere.  To no one’s surprise, she has found needy cooperators in the Lower House of Congress and in the local governments.  Unlike Martial Law, the option provided by transactional politics is not only more costly, it is also messier because of the sheer number of individuals one has to deal with. But like Marcos in 1972, Ms Arroyo’s objective is the same – to capture State institutions, eliminate the opposition, and rule indefinitely.

Ms Arroyo clearly intends to dictate the basic content of the Charter revisions.  Whether this is done through a people’s initiative or by a constituent assembly, or by calling a constitutional convention, is important only in so far as these options offer variable spaces for intervening in the process. The people’s initiative is the easiest to manipulate.  In a constituent assembly, Ms Arroyo has to contend with the personal ambitions of her own political allies.  With a ConCon, there is a big possibility that the convention will be dominated by her political enemies.

In any event, whichever method is adopted, so long as the public’s attention is drawn to charter change rather than to regime change, Ms Arroyo is assured of staying in the presidency until 2010.  By that time, she will have completed nine years in the presidency – not a mean feat for someone who has never been properly elected to the position.  The question, however, is: Will she relinquish power in 2010 and fade gracefully into private life?

My guess is that she will not.  Ms Arroyo, who has violated every norm of civilized politics during her presidency, will be hard-pressed to keep herself in power for as long as she can, if only to stay out of jail.  I do not believe anyone can spit on the basic rights and freedoms of a nation, and wreck its cherished institutions, and expect to get away with it.  Not Marcos, not Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

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