Risky political moves

We may never know what impelled P-Noy to say in a television interview that he is open to amending the Constitution to check judicial overreach and restore the equilibrium among the three branches of government. Add to this the admission made in the same TV appearance that he is no longer closing his mind to a lifting of term limits—and what we have is an attempt to shape the national discourse that is as risky as it is mystifying.

All our presidents after Marcos have had to contend with the reality not only of diminished influence in the last two years of their term, but of being prematurely treated as if they no longer mattered. At around this time, the political system enters a stage when major pending programs of the administration are put on hold. The incumbent begins to be threatened with the filing of criminal suits from the moment his or her term ends. It is more than enough to discourage any president from pursuing any bold reform initiative.

As it happens, the last two years of every president also tend to be marked by their lowest approval ratings. It is not easy to figure out why this is so—whether this is a kind of penalty given for unmet expectations, or whether it is a way of signaling the fickle affections of public opinion. Whatever it is, incumbent presidents sooner or later simply lose their emotional connection with the public. When they do, they start to be kicked around not just by the media but also by the other branches of government.

What is a president supposed to do under these circumstances? The conventional move has been for allies of the president to start a public clamor for an extension of the incumbent’s term. Without exception, all such attempts in the past have failed. They have always been equated with overweening ambition. P-Noy could not have been entirely oblivious of this. No matter how much support he may enjoy in Congress, it is simply impossible for him to mobilize enough public enthusiasm for this enterprise. So, what is he up to?

First, I believe that what drives these recent declarations is not a sudden craving for a second presidential term, but a compelling need for clear assurance that he still has the public’s support as he securely puts in place the reform programs he has begun. I think he felt deeply hurt by the Supreme Court decision’s unfortunate insinuation that his administration might be as corrupt as its predecessors.

Second, I do not think this President wants Congress to set aside its legislative tasks in order to engage in the very highly divisive exercise of amending the Constitution. I cannot imagine anything more foolish than for P-Noy to cap his presidency by a wasteful attempt to extend it, knowing that among his fondest wishes is for Congress to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Third, I strongly suspect that P-Noy has been irked by the fact that people are so resigned to the inevitability of Vice President Jejomar Binay becoming president in 2016 that they are hovering around him as though he were the government-in-waiting. No president who is bent on completing his task until his last day in office could possibly draw comfort from a situation like this.

Having seen the rare display of emotion with which he ended his recent State of the Nation Address, I surmise that the President has been nursing a personal pain that is sharper than what he felt at his mother’s passing. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. I now think it came from his idiosyncratic reading of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Disbursement Acceleration Program. It wasn’t the declaration of unconstitutionality that wounded him so much as the Court’s suggestion that the policy measures that were struck down could not have been mere innocent lapses. I think he felt that his integrity was under question. And, he has reacted by accusing the Court of judicial overreach.

In a society like ours where all kinds of innuendoes about politicians constitute the stuff of everyday media, P-Noy might be thought of as someone too onion-skinned to thrive in politics. Yet, when you think of it, no one in his place could have taken the Court’s decision lightly. Here is someone who takes exceptional pride in his moral DNA, who believes that the fight against poverty is best waged as a battle against corruption, and who wishes to be remembered for the moral fiber that undergirds every action of his administration. Integrity would be everything to him. He would not leave any implied accusation unanswered, even if it means taking on a Supreme Court that is wrapped in the sacred garments of the Constitution.

People may think the timing is all wrong. Risky, maybe. But the timing for this settling of accounts could be just right. Indeed, P-Noy’s approval ratings have undergone a steep decline. But that is because they had been uncommonly high for an unusual length of time.

No one has shown this better than fellow Inquirer columnist Mahar Mangahas, who heads the polling firm Social Weather Stations. If one tracks the ratings for P-Noy’s administration over time, the recent drop to +29 would indeed be quite dramatic. Its highest rating was in June 2013, when it registered a record high of +66. But, compared to all previous presidencies since February 1989, when SWS began polling satisfaction with incumbent administrations, P-Noy’s watch has been quite exceptional. Says Mahar (Inquirer, 8/16/14): “The new record low rating under P-Noy is far better than the worst ratings under previous presidents.” Indeed, it is higher than “all of the 35 ratings of the long admin of Gloria Arroyo.”

I see a President who is determined to risk all his remaining political capital to bring back the people’s trust in government. He is not stupid; he knows that the best way to lose that trust forever is by seeking a second term.

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