Falling Short: The World of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

It is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s world, and we just happen to live in it.

It is almost unimaginable that at this time next year, our country will have a new president. To many, that cannot come any sooner. Even supporters of the President will have to concede that if she has been as honest and as effective as they say she is, then we can count on her turning over the presidency on the high noon of June 30, 2010.

But only if all of us, like Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife, had a genetic disorder that drops us randomly through time. I bet a lot won’t mind flashing forward a year from now and forever losing the ability to jump. (Unless of course the eventual winner is Manny Villar. Then this movie will be punctuated by the Caparasian, “God help us!” But I digress.)

Our present is a state of perpetual exasperation. The recent spate of controversies over the past two weeks have been too ridiculous and petty, and yet commentaries in the media make it sound like a matter of high politics (that referring to real policy debates such as health care insurance reform in the United States). But the truth is, this administration is so unpopular that any issue, no matter how large or small, is magnified and scrutinized under an incredibly cynical lens. And I am not saying that it is our fault.

In shrugging off popular opinion polls and surveys, the administration has made it clear that they do not care for legitimacy. What they fail to realize is that in a democratic setup such as ours, they cannot afford to alienate the people — yet that is what they do. They have it the other way around. It isn’t that the President is so unpopular that she is not seen to be doing anything right; it is that she has hardly done anything right and this is why she is unpopular. Remember that she was lifted to power on the back of People Power. Where has that good will gone?

But note that I am not an advocate of populism, and this is widely different from what I mean by popularity. Politically speaking, being a populist is being at the disposal of the greatest majority. In a lot of ways, it can be incredibly responsive to the needs of the wider citizenry but it is not that equipped in handing issues of greater complexity and deeper nuance. Policies are often defined by immediacy and can shift on a whim. Populism does not lend well to planning and long-term thinking; to accomplish the latter will require the focus of experts but any attempts by an exclusive group to define policy can only be seen as elitism or even tyranny. I suppose that populism can work in more homogenous, nearly-egalitarian societies; but it is not sustainable in a developing nation such as ours where policy makers must be able to project and course-correct.

On the other hand, it is possible for a leader to move against populist sentiments and yet remain popular. The latter is a combination of more internal qualities such as charisma, political skills such as communication and compromise, and external factors such as public perception and image. Popular Presidents may not do exactly as you would want them to, but you will understand why. They will talk to you, make you see where they’re coming from, and make you appreciate why they see things the way they do. With enough skill they might even get you on board and convince you that you were mistaken. But before we proceed let’s all agree with one democratic axiom — Presidents, by virtue of their position, will have to act for the good of the majority.

Yet what a lot of presidents get wrong — and what ours hasn’t gotten right — is that good is a vague concept. It is a relative term that is defined by a plurality of political persuasions, religious views, and personal values. This is why so much is expected of a President. We vote them to power because they represent the persuasions, views, and values of the prevailing majority.

And here is where the problem lies. The fundamental quandary with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is that we never really elected her into office. When she assumed power in 2001, good was defined in terms of everything that wasn’t Erap. Filipinos, at that time, felt that the country simply can’t get any worse after electing an alleged moron into power (allegedly because the media has also been incredibly unfair to Erap). People Power 2 was nothing more than political masturbation. We just had to get it out of our system, consequences be damned.

Ultimately, we placed our trust in a president hoping that she would fix everything without clearly defining how to fix and what to fix. She was merely a mirror upon which we shone our hopes and dreams. But in reality, she began her administration with neither agenda nor coalition, receiving nothing more clearly from us than an imperative to just do better. And here is where we see her failing.

For despite the free pass we gave her into the Presidency, she hasn’t done anything to deserve it either. She could have spent her first four years building a true democratic coalition, reaching out to non-governmental organizations and the common people and bringing them into the democratic process. Only within the past year did the Supreme Courts widen the seats for for party list groups — what if she initiated this back in 2001? And yet she fell to the same trap that all Presidents did.

Our political left may be the louder and more vociferous ones, but it is the political right that has proven craftier and more dangerous. Legal threats to her legitimacy, calls for her impeachment, and phantom plans for coup d’etats were all quelled when she began to kowtow to the same political clans and interests that have benefited since even before Marcos. (This same political right intimidated Aquino, was co-opted by Ramos, and were threatened by the populist Estrada — hence People Power 2.) These same clans egg her to remain in power and conspire a Charter Change for that sole purpose. Furthermore, there is no surprise then that a financieer of one of her extravagant million-peso dinners is a Romualdez, a kinsman of Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

Hence, we are stuck with a President such as Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — out of touch and trapped in a bubble. This is both of her own doing, and of the historical forces that simply overwhelmed her into the presidency. Greater men and women would have seen this battle coming and backed off the 2004 elections. Yet whether we attribute her flip flop and her government’s eventual decline to a weakness of character or the machinations of the darker political forces surrounding her, the conclusion is moot — the President has to go.

In the end, all these talks about the millions she overspent abroad and her meddling into the nomination of the National Artists reveal that her Presidency has betrayed elegance over extravagance and has lost substance over style. The chorus of many that the million pesos she spent on dinner could have been used to feed our hungry, says it all.

It is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s world, and we just happen to live in it.

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8 thoughts on “Falling Short: The World of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

  1. she learned well form the mistakes of past dictators. crafty indeed. but it shouldn’t be a reason for people to surrender to the ‘unfortunate fate’ of living in her world.

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