The unravelling of Arroyo

Print edition : January 31, 2003

President Macpagal-Arroyo addresses the gathering in front of the embossed bust of the country's national hero, Dr. Jose. P.Rizal, during the flag-raising ceremony on his death anniversary in Baguio City in northern Philippines on December 30, 2002. - JUUUS B. REYES/AP/PCPO/MALACANANG/HO

Displaying a lack of political will and imagination, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines squanders several opportunities to take bold reform initiatives.

IN his classic Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington, the controversial Harvard University professor, states that while successful revolutionaries are rare, successful reformers are even rarer. The presidential career of Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo serves as one more confirmation of this dismal thesis.

Arroyo stunned the country with her announcement on December 30 that she would not run for President in the 2004 elections.

Arroyo sees herself as a reformer. That is to her credit. She has, however, displayed none of the three qualities essential to an be effective reformer: political will, political imagination and political competence. And that has led to the dangerous impasse that the Philippines is in now. Crises are important for the development of a nation since they present the opportunity for far-reaching change. The skilled reformer is one who is able to take advantage of a crisis to forge a critical mass of allies that isolates the most die-hard sectors of the establishment while winning the neutrality of the less reactionary. The skilful, reformists - such as Kemal Ataturk of Turkey and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States - can bring about substantial change while avoiding the bloodshed and severe destabilisation associated with revolutions. Skill is paramount: successful "reform-mongering", says Huntington, involves accumulating allies from one reform to another, while preventing enemies from accumulating and consolidating into one comprehensive anti-reform front by ensuring that the targets on one reform front are allies or are at least neutral on another front.

The May 1, 2001 urban uprising that followed the ouster of her predecessor Joseph Estrada presented a grand opportunity for Arroyo to construct a grand reform coalition on the issue of corruption. One prong of an attractive anti-corruption initiative could have been a determined drive to bring Estrada's prosecution to a decisive conclusion by taking advantage of the disarray of the pro-Estrada forces after the uprising,. The other could have been the initiation of a serious probe into the allegations of corruption surrounding the pre-Estrada presidency of Fidel Ramos, including land scams and energy deals that cried out for investigation. This two-pronged attack would have established her as an impartial reformer and assured the pro-Estrada masses that her administration did not practise double standards when it came to dealing with corruption. Instead, Arroyo allowed the prosecution of Estrada to drag on interminably while refusing to heed strong suggestions to probe the Ramos record. On both flanks, reform took a backseat to political expediency - in the first case to split and neutralise the Estrada camp; in the second, to maintain good ties with the bloc of Ramos supporters.

The May 1 uprising also presented Arroyo with an opportunity to address the grave problem of perennially widening social inequality and increasing mass poverty. As the Catholic Church hierarchy recognised, behind the uprising was the cry against the institutionalised social injustice. Again, this opportunity was squandered. Instead of decisively reinvigorating a languishing agrarian reform programme, the President was content to let it proceed at snail's pace under a political appointee whose interest was elsewhere. An opportunity for a bold reform effort in the matter of urban land by speeding up the issue of titles to squatters, which carried the bonus of winning over Estrada's base among the urban poor, was never used; the President was satisfied with photo opportunities, showing her visiting poor, pro-Erap neighbourhoods.

The elite could have been split on the issue of rural and urban land reforms, with the "modernising" capitalist sector pitted against the reactionary landed faction. Even the U.S., which has long transferred its support from the agrarian elite to technocratic and capitalist sectors, could have been induced to give rhetorical support. Instead of moving decisively, however, and making use of the moral reserves of the Church and the organising clout of the Left, Arroyo left both forces high and dry once "normal politics" returned.

When Arroyo took over, the economy was dead in the water, as it had been since the Asian financial crisis in 1997. She also assumed power at a time that the neo-liberal paradigm - with its doctrinal emphasis on rapid trade liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation - was in disrepute, having been shown to have contributed to greater global poverty and inequality. With star economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman deserting the collapsing paradigm, here was surely an opportunity for the President, herself an economist, to face down a discredited International Monetary Fund (IMF) and initiate bold initiatives.

A programme focussed on stimulating domestic demand via income and asset redistribution, increased social expenditures and more aggressive taxation of the rich could have been formulated. Models were not absent, with Mahathir Mohammad in Malaysia and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand taking interesting departures from the reigning IMF model. But caution and political expediency - his time to pacify external interest groups - took precedence. Despite an early promise not to privatise the National Power Corporation (Napocor) and look for more innovative ways to deal with the power issue, Arroyo submitted to the demands of the IMF and the Asian Development Bank and put privatisation of the state enterprise at the top of her legislative agenda. Bowing to the IMF, she made classic budgetary conservatism her fiscal stance.

True, economic policy-making under Arroyo has not been neoliberal in a doctrinaire fashion, as it was in the Ramos period. But it has simply lacked imagination, commitment and - not least - coherence. The absence of a real programme became evident during Arroyo's visit to the U.S. in October 2001, when she brandished President George Bush's promise of "$4.2 billion" in economic aid and investment in exchange for her leading role in the anti-terrorist war as the magic bullet that would lift her country's economy from the doldrums. That amount has, of course, not materialised. The economy continues to be dead in the water, and more and more Filipinos see emigration as the solution to their economic woes. Meanwhile, Mahathir and Thaksin are reaping the benefits of undertaking daring economic reforms departing from the neoliberal solution. Among other things, Mahathir and Thaksin showed the possibility of uniting most classes or sectors in their countries on an anti-IMF, pro-domestic interest platform.

When the terrorist gang Abu Sayyaf resurfaced dramatically in mid-2001 with the kidnapping of 16 people from the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan, a crisis emerged to provide an opportunity for Arroyo to deal boldly with another problem, one that had mired the country in seemingly endless conflict. For all its criminal bloodthirstiness, the Abu Sayyaf was a symptom of the deep dissatisfaction of the Moro and Muslim people with their conditions as an oppressed and marginalised minority. Here was the chance for a daring initiative to negotiate real autonomy and cultural and religious equality that could have led to the cutting of a centuries-old political Gordian knot. Instead, Arroyo lapsed into the Marcos-Aquino-Ramos-Estrada mode of dealing with Muslim discontent as principally a peace-and-order problem. Under pressure from anti-Muslim Christian political hacks, the military - which has always considered Mindanao its political turf - and, after September 11, the U.S., the Arroyo administration gave up on any policy initiative towards Muslims that was non-military in character.

Timid and unimaginative, the President underestimated the potential constituency for a bold, equitable solution to the Mindanao problem. As a result, western Mindanao today continues to hurtle towards a Palestinian-Israeli type of endless war that will forever hold hostage the security and economic development of the rest of the archipelago.

The fifth crisis-as-opportunity arose in the permanently problematic relationship with the U.S. Since the expulsion of the U.S. bases in 1992, the Philippines had been in the process of forging a more independent foreign policy. The signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement, though a setback to this process, was not irreparable. When the U.S. sought to expand its military presence in the archipelago after the September 11 events, the administration was presented with an opportunity to draw the line in the sand to chart a sophisticated course that would not offend the Americans yet keep them at bay and protect the hard-won gains in the sovereignty of the country. Again, there was no lack of models. Indonesia, China and Thailand all condemned terrorism but refused to be enmeshed in the U.S. war against Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups. European governments, aside from the U.S.' Anglo-Saxon allies, were also extremely reluctant to commit troops to Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups.

This opportunity to complete the reform of Philippine foreign policy was not taken. The President instead rapidly reversed the halting trend towards a more independent stance and landed the country back into full and unqualified support for Washington. The introduction of U.S. troops in Basilan enlisted Manila blatantly on the U.S. side, and in its pronouncements, the administration - with loose cannons like National Security Adviser Roilo Golez spewing pro-war propaganda at every opportunity - did not hesitate to characterise Philippines foreign policy as being one with Washington's. The bombs that have exploded periodically in the last few months are a clear reminder that instead of a neutral party, the Philippines is now seen as a compliant U.S. ally that must be made to pay the price of this relapse into being a full-fledged U.S. satellite.

Again lack of political will and imagination crippled the administration's response to the foreign policy crisis. Instead of using the prestige of the presidential office and mobilising the country's latent nationalism to pull the people forward, Arroyo elected to arouse unthinking superficial pro-Americanism to justify her slide backward.

By the beginning of 2002, the Arroyo presidency was bereft of both momentum and direction, except the President's overriding goal to be re-elected in 2004. By the third quarter, even her base in business had given up hope that her credibility could recover. At year-end, the loss of direction was giving way to a process of unravelling. Murphy's Law is taking over, with everything that can possibly go wrong going wrong. Her Secretary of Justice has had to be put on extended leave on suspicion of accepting bribes; allegations of bribery now extend to the First Family itself; she was embarrassed into withdrawing her ill-advised nomination of husband Mike Arroyo as the czar to corral overseas Filipino votes when absentee voting becomes a reality. Her announcement that she would not run was simply a recognition of the reality that her loss of credibility was irreversible.

Was it John Kennedy who once said that those who make reform impossible make revolution inevitable? Would that were true, for the Philippines is in real bad need of a social and political revolution - though hopefully one with little violence and bloodshed. Unfortunately, the Left, in its own incompetent way, is fragmented and antiquated in its vision. It is the Right, the counter-revolution, that is poised to take advantage of the unravelling of the Arroyo government. A disillusioned middle class, lower classes that can still be seduced by Estrada-like millenarian promises owing to their lack of any hope in the system, and believers in the need for a new bout of strongman rule a la Ferdinand Marcos - these are the ingredients of the dangerous conjuncture to which an inept process of reform has delivered this country.

Sadly, 2003 offers Filipinos nothing but the prospect of great political instability.

Walden Bello is Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines and executive director of Focus on the Global South.

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