OTHER than being the birth month of Madame Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, this April has given birth to important events that may have far reaching consequences for her embattled regime. Call it poetic justice or whatever, but these events that are both internal and external are increasing the odds against Madame Arroyo’s chances of lasting until 2010 in Malacañang.
These events are as follows:
1. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decisions against Arroyo’s Executive Order 464 and “calibrated preemptive response,” or CPR, policy on protest rallies.
2. The sudden increase in oil prices in the world to all-time highs.
3. The Catholic Church’s strong stance against Charter change through the so-called “people’s initiative.”
4. The Makati Business Club’s similar opposition to Charter change via the “people’s initiative.”
5. Persistent signals from Washington of US disaffection with the Arroyo regime.
The impact of the Supreme Court decisions
It is bad enough for Arroyo that she lost on the issues of EO 464 and CPR in a Supreme Court where most members were appointed by her. But the fact that both decisions were reached via unanimous votes transmits earthshaking tremors upon her regime.
Before the two Supreme Court decisions, Arroyo enjoyed the public perception that she cannot lose in the high court -- a perception that discouraged active resistance to her regime. After those two unanimous decisions against EO 464 and CPR, many are now wondering if she can win in those other issues like Proclamation 1017 and the legality of the Charter change “people’s initiative.”
Have the justices of the Supreme Court decided that enough is enough and it is time to move Philippine democracy from the ICU into the recovery room? Did the justices succumb to the pressure of public opinion, as expressed in various credible surveys? Do the justices that she had appointed sense a foreboding of shock waves coming and are now keeping distance from what they may be seeing as an imminent collapse of the regime? These are the questions humming in coffee shops among people who could not believe that Arroyo could lose by a unanimous decision in the Supreme Court.
Whatever the real reasons are -- and I can only give the justices the benefit of the doubt that they decided based on what was truly fair and just -- these setbacks erode Arroyo’s power myth enormously. Just as the aborted Feb. 24 withdrawal of support planned by some elements in the military smashed Arroyo’s pretensions of enjoying a solid chain of command in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, these Supreme Court decisions signaled that she also does not have full control of the courts.
Come May 1, we shall see just how this has invigorated street protests against her.
Church, business and the US as potent brew
The last time the Catholic Church, the Makati Business Club and the US were on the same side in a Philippine political dispute, a powerful dictator was ousted.
Now, the Catholic Church has fired its broadside against Charter change, and erstwhile Arroyo supporter Mike Velarde, the leader of the Catholic charismatic group El Shaddai, could not do otherwise than support the church’s position.
The Makati Business Club has taken a similar stance against Charter change and even my friend, conservative businessman Ronnie Concepcion, is now advocating that in his Consumer Price Watch ads.
A New York Times editorial echoed official US concerns over the developing Philippine political situation. The Heritage Foundation, which is known to reflect Bush administration thinking and sentiments, has voiced the same concerns. Even the new US ambassador to Manila, Kristie Kenny, has expressed concern -- leading Philippine Star publisher Max Soliven, who is known to be kind to Arroyo and close to the US, to comment that the Ambassador’s remark that was made before the American Chamber of Commerce was “undiplomatic.”
Now that the three are again converging on the side that moves for a changing of the guard in our political landscape, can Arroyo resist this powerful triumvirate?
Again --it’s the economy, stupid
Still and all, the political equation will need a trigger mechanism to bring out the critical mass. The aforementioned factors -- the Supreme Court, Catholic Church, Makati Business Club and the US -- deliver massive erosion to Arroyo’s power base.
If likened to an edifice, the Arroyo regime is a weakened structure that is ready to collapse.
The impact of oil prices on the cost of living of a nation that is already experiencing hunger can well be the so-called perfect storm that will topple what is now no more than a house of cards. Just how much more misery will over 40 million Filipinos living below the poverty line take before they seek relief through radical or illegal means? In a Pulse Asia 2005 third-quarter survey, 33 percent of respondents were already open to that.
The fact that Arroyo has been appealing to the opposition to join hands with her in seeking to soften the effects of high oil prices is the best measure of how vulnerable the regime now feels. The floating of a plan to suspend the value-added tax on oil products (only to withdraw it upon being told of the dire consequences) shows just how badly shaken and rattled the administration is, no different from a boxer who has absorbed a combination of haymakers on the chin.
Just as truth and wine are good companions, hunger and an unpopular ruler form the best recipe for a political upheaval. The hungrier the governed is, the more unpopular the ruler becomes and the greater is the danger that the upheaval will be severe, unforgiving and brutal.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would do well to read a lot of history these days. She would do well to temper the arrogance of her generals who boast that they are above senate summons and put a stop to the scandalous decisions and actions of her Justice Secretary. They are like highly combustible substances that pour on an already highly heated political tinderbox.
She should pay particular attention to understanding the factors that determined the fate of rulers who did not know when to step away from the cliff and cut clean -- Russia’s Nicholas Romanov, Vietnam’s Ngo Ding Diem, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and France’s Louie XVI. She can also learn from the King of Nepal who is now desperately trying to avoid ouster by allowing democratic reforms.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s priorities have now shifted from retention of power to that of obtaining the least severe exit mechanism. And if it still matters to her -- she must now try to secure a more favorable judgment of history.
You may e-mail William M. Esposo at: email@example.com.