The Putin formula

Vladimir Putin was elected to a 4-year term as President of Russia in May 2000, a few months before Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power as Philippine president following the January 2001 civilian-military coup.  He ran for re-election in May 2004, reluctantly ending his second and final term in May 2008.  He said that the four-year presidential term, allowing only one re-election, was too short. Yet despite enjoying consistently high public approval during his presidency, he did not attempt to lift term limits by charter change. After his former chief of presidential staff, Dmitry Medvedev, won the presidency, Putin had himself appointed prime minister instead. Everyone knows in whose office the real power in Russia today resides.

Ms Arroyo is about to end her term too — a de facto second term. Unlike Putin, however, she leaves the presidency in the wake of unequalled disapproval ratings for any sitting president.  Anyone else in this position would have been troubled by such unremitting public rejection, but not GMA, the virtuoso of traditional politics.  No one believes she is preparing to retire from public life after June 30, 2010.

The question is how she can continue to wield public power after 2010 so she may be able to protect herself and her family from corruption charges that will surely hound her once she steps down from power.  The shift to a parliamentary system of government offers the answer.  In itself, the parliamentary model is arguable as an alternative to the present dysfunctional presidential system. Unfortunately, under the current political reality, it is nothing more than a vehicle to ensure the continuity of the Arroyo regime.

How does one stop Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from sliding seamlessly into the office of prime minister in a parliamentary set-up after her term as president ends in 2010?

Many think that the answer lies in preventing all attempts to change the Constitution before the 2010 elections.  The focus on 2010 is premised on the assumption that Ms Arroyo has no choice but to return to private life at the end of her term as president.  This fixation with 2010 as a critical date, to my mind, systematically blinds us to a scenario that is becoming increasingly plausible. I call it the Putin option.  It is so outrageously simple that only our readiness to think that a president may be incapable of doing it makes us ignore its possibility.

Briefly, this is what can happen: The 2010 national and local elections take place in May 2010 as scheduled.  GMA runs for the congressional seat of the second district of Pampanga (presently held by her son Mikey), without having to relinquish the presidency until June 30, 2010.  She wins the seat, and is subsequently elected as Speaker by her adoring peers in the House of Representatives.  At noon of June 30, she ends her term as president and begins her term in Congress.  Under her financially muscular leadership in the House, the long-awaited shift to a parliamentary system is accomplished. The Speaker becomes Prime Minister.  Gloria’s transfer from one seat to another is carried out seamlessly — without a single moment of vulnerability.

This scenario has been tossed around in Pampanga’s political circles, creating hushed excitement among the trapos of the province, long before former Speaker Jose de Venecia talked about it to Metro Manila’s media.   It acquired a distinct plausibility in the last three months when GMA began to visit the province far more frequently than she used to.  During these unusual fortnightly visits, capped by her recent birthday celebration in Lubao, she would meet with the key leaders of the province, tickling their egos by remembering their nicknames, and mending fences that were disastrously broken in the 2007 local election.

This plan is almost constitutionally painless.  As far as I know, nothing prevents a sitting president from seeking a lower office.  The Constitution bars a second term as president, but not a run for another office.  Not being a legal expert on these matters, I cannot be certain; but I cannot find any rule that requires an elective official to resign her position when she files her candidacy for another office.

Indeed, she may even enter the race as a substitute candidate of her party, and wait till election day itself to announce her availability for a congressional seat. In our kind of system, everything is possible; nothing is improbable.

Is there no way of derailing this scenario?  Certainly, there is.  The Senate remains a major stumbling block to an Arroyo-managed charter change.  That is why the move in the House is to marginalize the senators by insisting on a literal reading of the charter provision on how the voting on amendments by a constituent assembly should proceed – by separate or by joint voting of the two chambers.  The current effort is to submit this issue to the Supreme Court as soon as possible.

If GMA runs for a congressional seat in Pampanga, defeating her will nearly be impossible.  Even so, the small chance of stopping her right in her own backyard ought not to be wasted.  The final battleground will, of course, be the plebiscite for the ratification of charter revisions.

It is up to us whether to make it difficult or to make it easy for Ms Arroyo to remain in power.  All I can say is that she and her generation of trapos are overstaying.  They represent the last stage of a political system in decline.  We must hasten their exit and allow our political system to evolve.

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