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VOL. IX   NO. 2

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 P U B L I C   E Y E  — T H E   P R O B L E M   W I T H   G LO R I A

TO MIRANDA, the problem is fundamentally that the president has no mind of her own. “She is a weather vane,” he says, “but even a weather vane is moved by the wind. The problem is if you confuse the wind with windy people giving you advice. She keeps changing her position and so the inability to become credible has become firm in the public mind.”

Photos courtesy of Malaya

Photos courtesy of Malaya

For sure, the president has flip-flopped enough times that the perception is that she doesn’t believe in anything, she just wants to be popular. It is not clear, for example, where she stands on such issues as Mindanao. In January, her negotiators were ironing out a peace plan with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but in February, she supported an all-out military offensive against the MILF in central Mindanao. Then, in April, she personally escorted home those displaced by the fighting and once again sent peace emissaries to the MILF. In May, she called off the peace talks once again, citing the vicious MILF attack on Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte. This was also after the polls showed her popularity plummeting in Mindanao because of her diffidence toward the Moro rebellion.

Last year, Arroyo ordered an investigation on onerous power plant contracts, but has not said whether she would renegotiate better terms. While she supports the Catholic Church’s position against artificial birth control, she said she took birth control pills as a young mother and encouraged pro-family planning legislators to enact a liberal reproductive health law. She also made a statement in January linking a high population growth rate to poverty, which prompted a howl of protest from the bishops.

While Arroyo has always been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, she softened her position somewhat when she addressed the generally anti-American Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Kuala Lumpur in March. Initially, the president had premised her position on fears of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which she said might end up with the Abu Sayyaf or the MILF. Later, she said Philippine support for the war would enable Filipinos to get jobs in the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq.

In fact, her support for the United States in Iraq has cost her dearly in terms of popularity. Tiglao says Malacañang had anticipated some flak for that decision but did not think that it would affect her ratings so severely. The Social Weather Stations blames Arroyo’s position on Iraq for her plummeting ratings in March: its survey found that 63 percent preferred the Philippines remain neutral and only seven percent supported her decision to be part of the U.S. coalition.

But Iraq was only one of the reasons why, five months after the Rizal Day vow not to run in 2004, the presidency seems to be in a rut. Many Filipinos expected that the announcement, coming on the heels of Rep. Mark Jimenez’s corruption accusations against then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez and presidential spouse Mike Arroyo, would be followed by a series of dramatic moves that would signal a renewal of the presidency.

The rhetoric gave reason to hope. In her December 30 speech, Arroyo said that the Philippines was an economic laggard because of “the persistence of an economic system wherein vested interests and traditional politics have stunted development toward a strong and modern society.” Three weeks later, in a fighting speech marking the second anniversary of Edsa 2, she launched an anti-corruption campaign. “The situation is unsustainable,” she said. “This way of doing things and not doing anything about them cannot go on. As I said, reform or perish.”

THOSE words may yet be Arroyo’s most prescient. Still, the pronouncements were not followed by dramatic action. In January, the president named the lackluster and politically acquiescent Simeon Datumanong as the new justice secretary, a clear signal to many that no boats were going to be rocked in this presidency. Contrast this with the crusading lawyer Jose W. Diokno, whom Diosdado Macapagal named justice secretary shortly after he took over Malacañang. Diokno went hammer and tongs against U.S. businessman Harry Stonehill, uncovering information of the huge payoffs the latter made to top politicos in Manila.

Unlike her father, Arroyo makes no claims of being a crusader. Diosdado Macapagal took on Stonehill until the political pressure became so intense that he had to let Diokno go in order to spare his allies in the Liberal Party. But then he was a duly elected head of state who espoused a platform of political and social reform. His daughter is an accidental president whose actions were constrained by doubts about the legitimacy of her assumption of the presidency.

Tiglao says in her defense that there was precious little she could do in the beginning. The first year and a half of her presidency, he recounts, were spent in fending off challenges and consolidating her political base. “She was under siege and under tremendous pressure to undertake coalition politics. She was facing a well-funded and well-organized opposition with a rallying leader in Erap. Plus there was the threat of the Abu Sayyaf. I don’t think there has been any such president facing such odds, except for Cory.”

“Her performance would have been nothing but spectacular if she had assumed the presidency under normal circumstances,” he adds. “From the very beginning, there were very real threats to the presidency and the constitution, and she knew that her toppling could lead to bloodshed and nonstop political instability for the country. Political pragmatism for a higher good is a prime value in such circumstances.”

Arroyo became president with no political platform and no staff. She had a handful of trusted advisers and initially depended mainly on the counsel of her husband, her brother Diosdado Jr. or ‘Bubuy,’ who is an investment banker, and her long-time publicist Ang.

“I suppose it was difficult to trust people in the beginning, but she did,” says Tiglao. “One of the most important requirements of the presidency is you have to trust people, and you need a good sense of character. The people around her came from all sorts of places. It was difficult to trust people you don’t really know in crisis periods, but she did. Now she is learning, and has learned the art of leadership.”

That has made for a better-managed presidency, but not a reforming one. That is because Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is not a reformist at heart. Even Tiglao says so: “Her vision is that she is a modernizing president, creating the conditions for 80 million people and their descendants to develop as a real nation-state, a strong republic.  Her goal is to develop and professionalize the political culture. But she has realized that it is not that easy. She knows the limits of her agenda. She knows she can only push reform so far, or else you create an untenable situation for the whole system that reverses even the smallest reform. What if no bill at all is passed, no secretary, ambassador, or general is confirmed just because a president felt like snubbing Congress? Even if it’s the only system proven to work, it’s not a very clean system.”

Thus, the anti-corruption campaign launched at the Edsa 2 anniversary was narrowly focused and did not aim for the big fish. Expect no Stonehills in this crusade. Instead, the targets are primarily bureaucrats in revenue-generating agencies, especially the Bureaus of Internal Revenue (BIR) and Customs (BOC). Arroyo ordered the closure of bonded warehouses, which have been used as fronts for smuggling. That has been done. She also asked for P35 million that will enable the Ombudsman to recruit new lawyers. A budget request is there for 2004.

A lifestyle check on BIR officials is being conducted, but so far there have been no prosecutions for unexplained wealth. The president’s order canceling 25,000 letters of authority issued by the BIR has been followed, thereby plugging a lucrative source of kickbacks for corrupt tax personnel. Individuals and businesses that receive such letters from the BIR are subjected to tax audits, which provide ample opportunities for extortion.

New procedures for issuing such letters are now being drawn up, though, raising the possibility that the practice will again be abused.

The president has also been tentative about pursuing the reforms further. She has not used her clout with House Speaker Jose de Venecia to speed up deliberations on a bill that will create a new National Revenue Agency (Nara). This would abolish the currently graft-ridden BIR and pave the way for overhauling tax collection.

It is characteristic of Arroyo to tread softly. Unlike Ramos, who played the general coordinating different core groups working on strategies to liberalize the telecommunications and transport industries, Arroyo removes herself from the fray. In the case of the BIR, she is also torn between the need to raise revenues, given the ballooning budget deficit, and the requisites of reform. Thus, even as she waits by the side for the Nara bill to be passed, she meets regularly with BIR officials who update her on revenue targets. She micromanages short-term goals without working on the long-term vision.

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