The Philippines’ Prolonged Political
By Ronald Meinardus
If there is one ray of light in the protracted political turmoil
besetting the Philippines it is that, thus far, the situation
has remained peaceful. Just how tense things have become is reflected
in a recent statement of a close advisor to beleaguered President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who told foreign correspondents
that we are “one notch short of getting violent.”
With both sides mobilizing their supporters for huge demonstrations,
even a minor incident could turn into a full blown vicious outburst.
Such a violent escalation could, in turn, become the pretext for
the military to step in and restore “law and order.” This, I hasten
to add, is a worst case scenario. The fact that it is hardly debated
publicly may indicate that it is not considered a likely development.
One and a half months after audio tapes surfaced allegedly showing
Mrs. Arroyo cheated her way into office, the political crisis
in the Philippines has entered a new stage. While in the early
weeks of the turmoil the political momentum for the president
to resign grew, Mrs. Arroyo’s position was stabilized when the
Roman Catholic hierarchy publicly stated it would not
join the clamor and the military also refrained from
getting involved. Considering the very negative mood earlier,
the neutrality of two key players blew new life into the besieged
Still, the political crisis is far from settled. There is a general
feeling that the country has entered a period of a drawn out political
stalemate. While the supporters of the president maintain Mrs.
Arroyo will never resign, her opponents claim she has lost the
moral and the political authority to govern.
Once more, Philippine politics is extremely polarized. How one
perceives the president has become the single most important issue,
transcending established ideological and partisan allegiances.
“Churches, officials in government, men in uniform, the business
community, teachers, students, and even families are divided,”
said a former member of the Arroyo cabinet who resigned recently.
With more or less all major political forces having opted for
one or the other camp, voices of compromise are scarce – and hardly
heard. This, too, makes an amicable solution difficult and improbable.
Today, many public debates focus on the question why the present
situation is different from 1986 and 2001, two defining dates
in Philippine history, when massive demonstrations led to the
downfall of presidents considered unfit to run the nation by major
sectors of society. In both people power uprisings (as they have
come to be known) the Roman Catholic hierarchy and eventually
also the armed forces joined the movement thereby tipping the
balance in favor of the demonstrators.
Arguably, the most important difference today is that the public
has shown little if any inclination to go to the streets in large
numbers. For many left leaning Filipino intellectuals who tend
to idealize the popular protests of the past, this people
power fatigue is a painful disappointment. The people’s
passivity challenges the widespread perception that in the end
of the day the masses will take their destiny into their own hands.
Filipinos seem to have learned their lesson. Few would
argue today that the two previous revolts led to an improvement
of the quality of their lives. Many would even say, and
empirical data justifies their claim, that their situation has
worsened. A recent opinion poll conducted by a reputable survey
institute revealed how fed-up the people are with being sent to
the streets by political agitators. When the Social Weather Stations
(SWS) published its findings, the local media focused on the falling
trust ratings of the president. Equally newsworthy I found the
result that only two individuals out of more than 500 respondents
opted for “people power.”
There are indications that the political conflict will return
to the halls of Congress, from where ideally it should never have
left in the first place. Following initial hesitation, the opposition
seems willing to impeach the president. This is a reasonable option,
as it is constitutional, and importantly, gives the accused president
a chance to defend herself. It may be expected that the president
will repeat her claim that she did nothing illegal or even criminal.
Her supporters will argue that while speaking to an official of
the Commission of Elections (Comelec) may be morally objectionable,
it is a common practice in this land. “There has been
no candidate who hasn’t called the Comelec to ensure that his
votes didn’t disappear during the counting or in transport, given
the amount of cheating that goes on during every election,”
wrote a commentator who is known for her support of the president.
While friends and foes of Mrs. Arroyo will probably always disagree
who should lead this country, they agree that the current
political system is in dire need of radical reform. The
president herself came out with the revealing and also incriminating
remark that “our political system has degenerated to such an extent
that it is very difficult to move within the system with hands
In the midst of the crisis, various political sectors have come
out with proposals aimed at remedying the situation. A consensus
is evolving that the Philippines is in need of a new constitution.
Among the formulas proposed is to transform the present presidential
system to a parliamentary and federal form of government. One
influential proponent even suggests that the new constitution
should be ready as soon as next February so that the people may
decide on it in a plebiscite. Considering the seriousness of the
endeavor, any such haste seems inappropriate. At the same time
this hurriedness is unrealistic. One condition for constitutional
change is a basic consensus among the major political forces.
The assumption that this consensus may be achieved any time soon
is wishful thinking. As long as major political players question
the legitimacy of the president, the political stalemate in the
Philippines will continue.
Dr. Ronald Meinardus was the former Resident Representative
of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the Philippines and a commentator
on Asian affairs. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
© BusinessWorld, July 19, 2005