Gloria, in excelsis

Part 2
“And here awaits one astute politician who may have calculated these permutations and may now be positioned for any eventuality.” (“Game of thrones, Part 1, The Manila Times, March 15, 2018)

AFTER Ferdinand Marcos, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) is considered the most qualified to assume the presidency. An economist with impeccable academic credentials from elite schools here and abroad, married to old money, she was a daughter of a Philippine President who no doubt inculcated in her a passion for public service; and as in progenies of presidents and the entitled, she possesses the detached demeanor of an heir presumptive.

The country’s longest serving President, GMA started her ascent to power with the ouster of President Joseph Estrada in the so-called EDSA 2. Serving the unfinished portion of Erap’s term from 2001 to 2004, Arroyo was an interloper whose mandate was questioned culminating in the pathetic EDSA 3 “rebellion” aimed at removing her and reinstalling Erap, who remained popular with the masses. Her decisive declaration of a state of rebellion saved the day for her, perhaps giving her a taste of the exhilarating and addictive use of power that would demarcate her future acts.

Two years into her rule, junior officers and enlisted soldiers staged a mutiny in July 2003 to protest all sorts of corruption allegations, including those involving the AFP and Philippine National Police. GMA declared another “state of rebellion.” In less than 24 hours, the mutineers surrendered. But this incident, it is believed, prompted Arroyo to change her mind and go back on a public promise she made in December 30, 2002 that she would not seek the presidency. With this reversal, GMA’s word of honor was put under question, a sad precedent for her future declarations.

GMA was elected in 2004 with allegations of poll fraud, corroborated by recordings of inappropriate conversations between her and a Comelec henchman. The infamous “Hello Garci” tapes triggered massive protests, and the resignation of several of her cabinet secretaries and confidantes, almost toppling her, despite her public “mea culpa” admitting to a “lapse in judgment.” Those who threw her to the dogs were later recruited into the cabinet of the subsequent Noynoy Aquino presidency, the nucleus of the emerging “yellow army.”

Her resolve to stay in power no doubt was also bolstered by her discovery that her preferred and trusted law firm, the CVC Law, headed by her anointed Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, conspired to drive her out of power and install her vice president. ( Supreme Court politics: “Sereno will lose, but Carpio will lose more”).

She survived these machinations but her second term from 2004 to 2010 was fraught with allegations of corruption that engulfed even her family, particularly her husband.

On the plus side, Arroyo presided over an economy that expanded comparably faster than the three previous administrations, avoiding even the 2008 global financial crisis. But the growth was not that inclusive making her realize then that the basic restructuring of Philippine society was imperative. Thus, her initiative to amend the 1987 Constitution and shift from a presidential-unitary to a parliamentary-federal system, with the underpinnings of a social-market economy, allowing for badly needed foreign direct investments. This was to be her legacy, despite the purported massive corruption in her government.

Upon leaving office, her many transgressions caught up with her. She was arrested and charged with electoral fraud and corruption but released on bail.

Rearrested by the Aquino government for the alleged misuse of $8.8 million in state lottery funds, Arroyo languished at the Veterans Memorial Hospital. Upon the assumption of power by the Deegong and with his backing, the Supreme Court acquitted her of all charges.

She has suffered for her indiscretions, pummeled and bludgeoned by friend and foe alike – “not enough, the yellows exclaim”. A polarizing leader put to roost. For a leader and a woman inured to the trappings of power, it could be hell exiled to the twilight zone of political irrelevance. In this surrealistic world imposed upon her, she maintained the arrogance of a high-born, welcoming and presiding over a coterie of sycophants, hard-nosed political disciples, her true believers and technocrats, perhaps plotting her comeback—her redemption!

The Philippine political condition today is in a flux. We have a federalism idea, whose time has come, but barely disseminated to the constituents; a Cabinet in disarray with DU30 confessing to being unhappy with its performance, threatening to revamp the cabinet and firing the underperformers. The disorder in the Office of the President may be traced to the absence of a chief of staff, who can help PRRD whip them in line and allocate his precious time. We have a president constantly harassed by an alliance of the “Yellows,” the oligarchy, and the moneyed few, whose tentacles have entangled rent-seeking bureaucrats; a president whose agenda may be derailed by early infighting among his own allies in Congress, impelled by the prospects of the coming elections and the expansion of their political turfs.

True, the Deegong is buoyed up by the 80 percent national approval rating but even these nebulous hordes are themselves torn by a cacophony of contradictory voices, reflected in the social media, the president’s most loyal constituency. One, following the path of pagbabago conservatively through the rule of law, and another through a call for revolutionary government – all taken in the name of the Deegong.

In the midst of all these, it is obvious that the Deegong needs a surrogate that stands out from among the dregs of the parties now populating his supermajority; one with a similar charisma possessing qualities acquired uniquely by those who have attained the pinnacle of power and grasped the parameters of its flaws and possibilities.

We have such a one. Today, Gloria stands at the cusp of a chaotic political tableau, poised on the side, awaiting the call. She is no doubt a quintessential traditional politician, steeped in the arcana of Philippine politics, knowledgeable about the flaws and strengths of the system.

It is perhaps also the height of irony that such a politician—who has sunk to the nadir of power but once enjoyed its zenith, and descended to the depths of despair—is exactly what is needed to play a crucial role as handmaiden to DU30 on effecting the restructuring of Philippine society no less. PRRD’s initiative today is a coherent sequence that GMA seriously started during her watch, but was aborted by the maneuverings of the oligarchy in alliance with the same “yellow army.” In this, both are eerily confronted by the same adversary; both share a common vision.

Having “been there, done that,” she has nothing to lose. She has already lost—almost everything, except perhaps the ability to reinvent herself. As the political consort of DU30, she will; hopefully for the good of the country and for both their legacies.
The aerial photographs obtained by’s Frances Mangosing show incontrovertible proof that China’s militarization of its South China Sea outposts is almost complete.

To this latest outrage, another demonstration of Xi Jinping’s contempt for compromise commitments his predecessors entered into with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Duterte administration offered … a collective shrug, combined with a finger pointed in the usual direction.

“If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what [do] they want us to do? We cannot declare war — not only is it illegal, but it is also contrary — but it’s also … impossible for us to declare war at this point,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, once a credible lawyer with experience in human rights law and expertise in international law, told reporters.

Among many other dismaying statements he made, he also said this: “Our position is everything found on these islands were already there when the President took over. So let’s not talk of a militarization that happened under the Duterte administration, if there is such a militarization which China denies.”

He should have at least read the news report before opening his mouth. The story quoted Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., former mayor of Kalayaan town on Pag-asa Island, the largest part of the Spratlys occupied by the Philippines, thus: “I flew with HBO before the elections in 2016. We got repeated warnings from the Chinese because we were circling over the islands. I see there are now additional vertical features.”

To this categorical statement from someone who lives in the area, one can add any number of scholarly or intelligence assessments, including from independent institutions, which assert that the Chinese have not only aggressively reclaimed land in the seven reefs they occupy in the Spratlys, they have built military facilities on them.

Not even China denies that new facilities have been built that can be converted to military use; Beijing only denies that the new facilities are military in objective.

Why the official speaking on behalf of the President of the Philippines should prioritize what China says (“if there is such a militarization which China denies”) over the informed judgment of Filipino citizens and indeed of the Philippine military is a riddle.

Why that same official, a lawyer like the President he speaks for, would assert easily disprovable lies (“If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything”) is a mystery.

Why he would think that his answers, and the Philippine government’s position, meet the national interest (“let’s not talk of a militarization that happened under the Duterte administration”) is an enigma.

The truth is: Only Beijing thinks that the alternative is war. To be more precise, Beijing wants us to think that the only alternative to the current state of affairs is war.

President Duterte himself said so. Referring to Xi, China’s all-powerful leader, he said: “His response to me, ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.’”
Tellingly, no Chinese government agency ever denied or confirmed these remarks — and why would they? To hear the president of a sovereign state say these words is victory enough for the Chinese. If the only alternative is war, why would a small carabao butt heads with an enormous dragon?

But in fact, other alternatives exist.

The sweeping legal victory the Philippines won at the arbitral tribunal, in the case the previous administration filed, is proof that other options are available.

It is nothing short of tragic that the first administration to be led by a lawyer since Ferdinand Marcos’ does not believe in the efficacy of the law.

It would have taken time, but Manila stubbornly insisting on its rights recognized by the landmark ruling of July 12, 2016, would have had the support of many influential members of the international community.

Instead, we have the tragic spectacle of the President’s spokesperson, lying about the objective facts, blaming those who actually fought for the country’s best interest, and spreading China’s own black-and-white, war-or-else gospel.

History repeats itself, first as spectacle, then as capitulation.
In politics there’s no such thing as being too big to fail. Ruling coalitions become ruling parties, at which point being bloated often results in a party split, as factions lose out in the jockeying and sense an opportunity to strike out — and strike back — by forming rival coalitions to contest the next election. In regional terms, the Visayas (Cebu in particular, with Pusyon Bisaya) and Mindanao (with the Mindanao Alliance) have their own tradition of regional parties standing up to Marcos’ KBL: even PDP-Laban traces its origins to that era. Regional barons don’t take well to being bossed around, and if a boss gets too big for his britches, a revolt is inevitable. This is why everyone seems to be expecting Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez to fall, the beneficiary of his toppling being Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but the cause being widely attributed to Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s sharp-tongued confrontation with him.

The clash between the mayor of Davao and the representative from the first district of Davao del Norte has been framed as a battle royale between the Speaker’s machinery and everyone else, under the umbrella of the President’s daughter. The Speaker’s take-no-prisoners approach most famously took on the President’s former patron, Antonio Floirendo Jr., with the President weighing in on the Speaker’s side after Floirendo supposedly was too uppity in response to the President’s efforts to smooth things over. But if it was necessary to teach Floirendo a lesson, it seems the time has come to teach Alvarez one, too, not least because a Floirendo-led effort to defeat the Speaker in 2019 is widely expected to succeed. But it is bigger than that as the presence of Sen. JV Ejercito at the launching of Duterte-Carpio’s regional party demonstrated. The Estrada home turf of San Juan has been rocked by a confrontation between the Zamoras and Mayor Guia Gomez, yet PDP-Laban took in the Zamoras despite JV Ejercito’s support for the President. What sort of treatment is that? And so, for every ally denied the blessings of the ruling party, there now glitters the opportunity to be associated with Hugpong ng Pagbabago.

In the meantime, aside from publicly being humiliated by Duterte-Carpio, the Speaker came under attack within his own party from members unhappy with his recruitment methods and for supposedly giving the cold shoulder to party veterans. Creating the impression of a civil war within a party is a tried-and-tested method for taking down party bigwigs a peg or two, and what matters most here is the hands-off announcement from the Palace when it comes to party matters. Those with sensitive political antennae will take it as the absence of a ringing endorsement for the Speaker, at a time when he has been accused by no less than the President’s fiercely outspoken daughter for being disloyal and disruptive.

PDP-Laban and Hugpong ng Pagbabago trying to outdo each other in being more “Dutertista” than the other only increases the chances of keeping the overall ruling coalition intact, and tying all factions to the Palace’s apron strings. It’s also a pointed reminder to the Speaker, even if he survives, not to be too piggish in the company of piglets. It does not do well for a runt to act too convinced that he’s an undefeatable wild boar. While he leads a big chunk of last-term congressmen, he has been too pushy with his no-election-in-2019 agenda, leaving no room for those looking forward to replacing last-termers, and bruising the feelings of so many players — and the public, too, which otherwise might give the President’s Charter change scheme the benefit of the doubt if only it weren’t so obviously stacking the odds in favor of people like Alvarez. Now the Speaker’s scheme is running out of steam, just when the President’s collection of consultative commission mummies are showing signs of life.

Still, all the factions could reunite by the State of the Nation Address in July, where the President could make a pitch for a plebiscite on a new constitution by October — the deadline for filing candidacies for the 2019 midterms. It will be the
balancing act of a lifetime.