After Gloria

Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo share the dubious distinction of having ruled this country longer than anybody else. But unlike Marcos who was ousted by people power, Arroyo will leave Malacanang through the front door, formally escorted by her dulyelected successor. By any measure, that is a momentous achievement in political stability.  Yet the problems that the Arroyo regime bequeaths to incoming President Benigno Aquino III are not very different from those that the Marcos regime dumped on Cory Aquino.  What is different is that P-Noy will have to attend to these problems without the aid of the tools that the revolutionary 1986 Freedom Constitution gave to his mother.

The Freedom Constitution vested in President Cory Aquino the power to repeal existing laws or to create new ones, to re-organize the entire government system, to dismiss or replace any officer or employee of government, to review and revoke all government contracts or concessions or permits if the national interest warrants it, and to appoint the members of a commission to write a new constitution.  These all-encompassing powers, which paralleled the dictatorial powers of Marcos, were deemed indispensable to the task of dismantling the vestiges of authoritarian abuse.

P-Noy will have none of these powers today.  And yet, the problems he is expected to solve are not any different or less serious than those his mother faced: graft and corruption, rising levels of mass poverty, a culture of impunity, distrust of government, the entrenchment of political lackeys in government agencies, a politicized military, a weak economy, unabated criminality, insurgency, etc.  These are basically the same problems that Ms Arroyo is leaving behind.  Without having to declare Martial Law, she had succeeded in undermining the basic structures of a democratic order.   She managed to do this by methodically “exploring the outer limits of executive prerogative,” to borrow an apt phrase from former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban.

A single illustration may be enough to show how this was carried out. From 2005 onwards, when political survival became the overriding concern of Ms Arroyo, almost all appointments to government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) and other attached agencies that used to carry specific terms of office were given on an “acting capacity” basis.  The appointees were made to understand that they were to serve at “the pleasure of the President.”  Meaning, they could be removed any time.  Thus, for example, for the first time in its 100year history, the University of the Philippines began to have on its board presidential appointees sporting the bizarre title “acting regent.” The Palace held these “acting” honorables in a short leash, to the point of telling them how to vote on crucial issues.

The law says that temporary appointments like these are good for one year.  But under Gloria, they were extended indefinitely, meaning, the appointees could continue “at the pleasure of the President.”  Yet, as if to spite the incoming president, sometime in March this year, before the ban on “midnight” appointments took effect, the outgoing president converted many of these “acting” appointments into regular appointments, giving them fixed terms of office.  Perhaps, it is her way of rewarding those who had served her

faithfully.  In other instances, she hastily converted political appointments that are supposed to be coterminous with her own into permanent career appointments. The treatment of government offices as sinecures for the foot soldiers of an outgoing regime was one of the headaches of the Cory government.  It is what prompted the comprehensive re-organization of the government bureaucracy after the ouster of the Marcos regime.

The same headache will bug Noynoy Aquino, but, as I said, he will have no recourse to the same absolute powers that permitted his mother to deal with the problem.  Moreover, he cannot adopt a uniform approach to these appointments without causing unnecessary injustice and resentment.  He will have to follow the law, taking care not to further undermine the very institutions that Gloria relentlessly abused in the last nine years.  This is the whole paradox of reform.

Still, he will not be helpless.  The presidency remains a very powerful office.  The mandate that the 2010 national election gave him is as potent as the people power revolution that thrust his mother to the presidency in 1986.  Our culture is not lacking in resources that he can use to carry out his vision of reform.  So long as that vision is clear, he need not be deterred by the land mines that his predecessor has planted all over his “matuwid na daan” (straight path).  Each one of these inglorious explosive devices will have to be carefully examined and patiently defused.  If P-Noy’s government can do this without triggering a series of explosions, then there is nothing it cannot do to quietly turn things around.

By voting decisively for the presidential candidate of their choice in the 2010 election, Filipinos injected a large dose of legitimacy into their political system.  They have given the nation political stability. And maybe more: A presidency unburdened by legitimacy concerns should have no compelling need to corrupt institutions.  Therefore, the prospects for good governance cannot be but bright — after Gloria.