Her candidates may have been clobbered in the senatorial race by the opposition and her most strident critics, but Gloria Macapagal Arroyo knows better than to complain. The defeat of her candidates strengthens the system over which she presides, and effectively removes the issue of her own contested legitimacy from the national agenda. Despite the gross incompetence and fraudulence that attended the conduct of the 2007 election, the country’s political system, ironically, has never looked more stable.
Just six years ago, following the mass demonstrations and the military withdrawal of support that forced duly-elected President Joseph Estrada to leave Malacanang Palace, observers were asking if the Philippines had not dangerously plunged itself in another cycle of extra-constitutional transitions. The march to Mendiola in May that year to restore the deposed president, which drew the participation of the resentful masses who had voted for him, confirmed this dire scenario. It brought out in no uncertain terms the class element that the country’s more discerning elite politicians have historically preferred to play down.
This mobilized mass energy, a potentially disruptive element in any social order, was however duly tamed and channeled by the opposition into the midterm election of 2001. Yet it had a force that would not quickly dissipate, and indeed newly-installed President Arroyo spent most of her first year attempting to harness it to her own star. The Oakwood mutiny of 2003 could have tapped into it if the young soldiers had been better organized. The poor were on the side of the soldiers, but they were not given the opportunity to show it. It took them four years to manifest it – by making one of its figures, Lt. SG Antonio Trillanes IV – a senator.
It was this residual energy of the mobilized poor that the presidential campaign of the late Fernando Poe Jr. also rode upon when he stepped into the ring to challenge GMA, the candidate of the elite, in the fraud-ridden 2004 presidential election. Congress proclaimed GMA winner in that dubious national canvass, but to this day, the Filipino poor believe that she actually stole the seat she occupies — not once but twice. In July 2005, after the “Hello Garci” tapes revealed Ms Arroyo’s own scandalous complicity in electoral fraud, many expected her to go the way of all disgraced presidents. Half of her Cabinet resigned and called on her to do the country a favor by stepping down. She refused. In retrospect, we can now say that what ultimately saved her was not so much her shameless tenacity but the Filipino public’s profound fear of a civil war. It was this latent conservatism, born out of exhaustion and fear, that held back the outrage.
Political systems survive to the extent they are able to absorb dissent and discontent. Elections are the best safety-valve mechanisms ever invented for letting out excess political steam. Gringo Honasan’s successful senatorial run in the ‘90s marked the end of a season of recurrent coups. Similarly, far from being an endorsement of future mutinies, the astounding achievement of Sonny Trillanes in the 2007 senatorial election represents the functional absorption of the virus of military rebellion into the political system.
We may call it the “wisdom” of the system. The system makes it difficult for an aroused public to support a mutiny or to get rid of an illegitimate president by means of another costly and uncertain extra-constitutional maneuver. But it then lets out the accumulated energy through a controlled electoral process, that, in spite of its vicious weaknesses, preserves the system.
Our political system is truly amazing in this sense. In modern societies, the institutionalization of political combat works by means of stable political parties alternating between the roles of “government” and of “opposition.” We have not reached this level of political development yet. That is why, in lieu of parties, families continue to be the important organizing agencies in elections. The problem is that when individual politicians and political clans dominate the landscape, their ambitions and animosities can be so magnified as to endanger the whole system. Everything becomes personal. That the system has managed to contain the fallout created by successive dysfunctional regimes can only attest to the growing resilience of the country’s political system.
I have no wish to diminish the message of the opposition’s victory in this year’s election. I take it too as a strong indictment of the Arroyo regime. The analysis I use here is basically neutral as to the type of political values embodied in a system. I am aware that a stable political system is not necessarily a just system. For indeed, looking at the whole Philippine situation from a value perspective, I will not hesitate to say that our society is one of the most highly unequal in the world – a social order that has needlessly consigned more than half of its population to a life of penury and daily struggle.
But to wish that such a system be subjected to the cleansing fires of a social revolution is vastly different from any attempt to understand how it works and maintains itself. Marx once derided the sterility of theorizing thus: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” I agree. But I also think that the path to change is clearer when it is illuminated by an understanding of how social orders persist, and how modernity is shaping the world.
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