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
OF COURSE, it is not easy. The classic example is that of Rene Bañez, the BIR commissioner who was forced to resign when recalcitrant tax bureaucrats objected to his reforms and refused to meet collection targets. Raul Roco, the short-lived education secretary, also saw for himself the perils of antagonizing a corrupt and well-entrenched bureaucracy that has the money, the political connections, and the media clout to thwart the most dedicated reformer.
But if the president cannot have her orders followed, who can? It is a sad commentary on the state of this country if even the president, given all the powers of her office, cannot get her will done. And if the president will not take risks, who will? Who can?
Arroyo is not a risk taker. One rare exception is the cancellation of the controversy-ridden Piatco contract for the new Manila international airport terminal. Separate investigations by the Senate and by Malacañang found the contract onerous and that nearly half of the money spent on the new airport did not go to construction costs. The president made a brave decision by nullifying the agreement, but she drew the ire of foreign investors who raised questions about the stability of the Philippine business environment.
For the most part, the president would rather have safe, if sticky, compromises. That will not work in reforming the BIR but it has worked somewhat in the case of computerizing the 2004 elections. The president released additional funds so that all three phases — voter registration, counting, and transmission of the results — would be fully automated by next year. The promised infusion of fresh funds broke the impasse that had stalled the Commission on Elections (Comelec), where the majority of commissioners led by the intractable Luz Tancangco were insistent on first embarking on an expensive project to computerize voter registration. The other commissioners and the election watchdog Namfrel objected to this as it was a needless expense and insisted that given limited time and funds, the Comelec should focus instead on automating the counting.
GMA’s decision was to make everyone happy by computerizing everything. But this has also meant that the government is spending some P1 billion on a potentially useless and already scandal-racked computerized voter registration. In the end, in Comelec’s case, the president has fulfilled the modernizing agenda if not the reforming one. Perhaps we should not expect too much.
AT LEAST, not of this president. After all, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a pampered president’s daughter who married into the landed aristocracy. Her father was a brilliant student who came from a poor, peasant family. Ninoy Aquino described him as someone who “didn’t belong to the old school (but to) the rising proletariat, the intellectual have-nots.” Diosdado Macapagal had a socio-economic reform program and he fought Congress to enact a land reform law that was intensely opposed and eventually watered down by the landlords in the legislature.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the other hand, was an upper-class matron who taught economics on the side. She was taken into President Aquino’s Cabinet because of her father’s involvement in the anti-Marcos opposition. She was elected to the Senate largely because many voters could still recall the Macapagal name and her campaign posters showed her resemblance to a popular movie star. She did not stand for anything much as a legislator, except perhaps for an endorsement of trade liberalization. As a politician she had a track record of promiscuous party switching and was known as a lone player who looked only after herself. She became vice president primarily because the other contenders were even less exciting that she was.
She did say when she was sworn in at Edsa on January 20, 2001 that all she wanted was to be a good president, not a great one. For sure, we have not been plunged into the abyss since she took over. The economy is doing better than expected, although the budget deficit is worrisome and unemployment remains high. The Abu Sayyaf has been somewhat neutralized, but the bigger threat now is the MILF. Criminality remains a problem. And corruption has not ebbed. In general, the country is not much better, or much worse off, since Gloria took the helm.
And that is the crux. If we put too much hope in the presidency, it is because since the founding of this not-so-strong republic, the reform initiatives have come from the executive. Congress is useless in this regard: it has always been a bastion of vested and conservative interests. The historical record shows that reforms were pushed by strong presidents and were often thwarted by the legislature.
Reform, if is to happen, has to come from the very top. (The other alternative is a revolution from below.) This is the reason why Arroyo is a disappointment. Having come to power after a popular uprising against a thieving president, hers was expected to be an administration of renewal and reform. Instead, for the most part, it seemed concerned only with re-election and restoration.
“Filipinos keep bouncing back,” says Miranda. “They shift from hopefulness with a new administration and then to hopelessness not long afterward. They only sink deeper each time.”
The problem lies in the perversity of our political system. Today, it is unlikely anyone can be president unless he or she is popularly known, backed by billions, and beholden to those who provide them. Our choices therefore are limited to well-funded public figures who have made a career of looking — not doing — good. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is very much a child of this political culture. She realizes this and yet fears the consequences of wresting herself free. Her successor will likely not be much different.