Monday, August 01, 2005

Teodoro's Column

Commentary : The Ramos factor

Luis V. Teodoro
Inquirer News Service

DESPITE her basement-level approval and trust ratings-and calls for her resignation from the opposition, business groups, academe, erstwhile members of her Cabinet, former political allies, Corazon Aquino and a broad range of militant, religious, people's and non-governmental organizations-President Macapagal-Arroyo has so far defied predictions that she would be forced out of office by the hemorrhage of her support that began last July 7.

The Catholic bishops' decision not to ask her to resign came later. What stopped the bleeding was former President Fidel Ramos' declaration of support, on condition that she preside over Charter change and the shift to the parliamentary system.

The Ramos "solution" to Ms Arroyo's predicament put him on collision course with former President Aquino and the Franklin Drilon faction of the Liberal Party. But not surprisingly, Ramos' act was followed by the jumping of the remaining Cabinet members, House Speaker Jose de Venecia and the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrat party to Ms Arroyo's defense. The threat of military intervention also waned as the Armed Forces chief of staff declared the AFP's "neutrality."

Like Ramos, De Venecia is focused on changing the present presidential system to a parliamentary one, as all third-termers in both houses of Congress are. Barred from seeking fourth terms under the present system, these third-termers can see to it that they can run for parliament in 2006.

But the far juicier prospect is that a parliament under Lakas-CMD's control can hand over to failed presidential aspirant De Venecia the post of prime minister. Ramos is himself not very popular among Filipinos. But he would share in the spoils once a parliament is in place, perhaps, as a president with powers equal to those of the prime minister, or in some other equally pivotal capacity.

While Ramos seemed to speak only for himself in supporting Ms Arroyo, he spoke with a political and military network behind him. In the process, he also assured the United States-never a disinterested observer of Philippine politics-that the nationalist provisions in the present Constitution, which foreign investors detest, will soon be things of the past. Ramos' proposal for Ms Arroyo to stay on until 2006 also appealed to the middle class' concern for order, and its cynicism over what another political upheaval could accomplish.

As a result of Ramos' intervention and, later, of the Catholic bishops' support, Ms Arroyo got a chance to remain in office long enough to deliver her fifth State of the Nation Address last July 25. Despite her vast unpopularity, her putrid record of governance and the general perception that she cheated in the May 2004 elections, Ms Arroyo may not be forced out of office in the immediate future.

But she will eventually have to go, four years before her putative six-year term ends. Under Ramos' proposal, constitutional amendments would be completed by the end of this year, followed by their ratification in January and by parliamentary elections in May 2006. The proposal is silent on whether Ms Arroyo can run for member of parliament in those elections. If the new Constitution that Ramos wants would allow it, and she did run in an election with a modicum of integrity, she would risk being trounced so severely it would validate the widespread view that she "won" in 2004 only by cheating.

Between now and that moment when she makes her supposedly dignified exit, Ms Arroyo will have only Ramos, De Venecia, the Lakas-CMD and the Ramos wing of the military to lean on. She has lost the support of those civil society leaders she put in her Cabinet and of those NGOs that made billions out of her generosity. She has also lost the confidence and approval of much of the business community, the middle class and academe.

The rank-and-file nuns and priests and their leaders in the religious orders who do not share the Catholic bishops' moral ambiguity demand her resignation, while millions of Filipinos prefer that someone else run the country. Given these conditions, Ms Arroyo is likely to end up a painted MalacaƱang figurehead while Ramos and company rule. And they will make sure that she remains as vulnerable for the next 10 months as she is currently.

With Ms Arroyo's hands thus tied, the truly honorable and genuinely dignified way out for her is to resign now. This is to assume that Ms Arroyo will choose dignity over expediency, and that she will reject being diminished personally and politically. Assuming Ms Arroyo is not removed from office via People Power, and Ramos has his way, she will probably stay on to implement the Ramos agenda no matter what the conditions.

That agenda, without the cliches and the pretty words, is for Ramos, De Venecia and their cohorts to get back to or stay in power via the shift to a parliamentary system. They claim that a parliament will solve the problems of the political and electoral system, including its non-representative character, corruption and lack of integrity. But unless the Filipino millions are empowered, elite dominance, misgovernment and corruption will continue in a parliamentary system as these have prevailed in the presidential one. A parliamentary system will thus make reforms even more difficult, if not impossible.

The prospect for the disempowered is continuing exclusion even as the Ramos "solution" to the present crisis will also intensify intra-elite contention. The business-landlord-Catholic Church faction of the elite will not look kindly at a second Ramos presidency, for example, and neither will the other military factions. Indeed, unless Ms Arroyo resigns now and denies them the pleasure of having her as their flunky, only Ramos and company and their partners will end up benefiting from a crisis that has divided and debased the country, exposed the bankruptcy of its political and electoral system, and the rot at the heart of Philippine "democracy."

Luis V. Teodoro is a professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines.