Unstable Stalemate, Uncertain Game
Unstable Stalemate, Uncertain Game
This crisis should now be over. Friday July 8 was not a Friday the 13th, but for Pres.Arroyo it certainly was a very Black Friday. The resignation of seven cabinet secretaries and three bureau chiefs, the core of the administration's economic team, followed by resignation calls from the Liberal Party, the Makati Business Club, former President Cory Aquino, and civil society groups led by the CODE-NGO will almost certainly mark the crucial point marking the beginning of the end for Pres.Arroyo.
But it is also clear that the people who coordinated their moves last Friday overestimated their impact. They thought that Pres.Arroyo would quickly resign. Instead she preempted their resignations by firing everyone the night before. To balance one ex-president's call (Aquino), Pres.Arroyo secured the support of another (Ramos). While the Association of Major Religious Superiors (AMRSP) joined the call for Arroyo's resignation, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) avoided the political issues and came up with a safe, and indeterminate position over the weekend.
Even if almost everyone believes Pres.Arroyo is now mortally wounded, no one group is capable of imposing their own endgame. Pres.Arroyo's obstinacy is only one reason why it will take more time before the crisis is resolved. Various players want their own endgame, the better to position themselves in a post-Arroyo dispensation. So it is not a simple question of being pro or anti-Arroyo. While she would certainly prefer to ride out the storm, Pres.Arroyo minimally wants an endgame where she does not end up in jail. Resigned cabinet officials want the reforms they started to continue into the next administration. The opposition wants snap elections. De Venecia and FVR want their version of parliament.
Players also have different time and space perspectives. Those closest to centers of power want a quick resolution to preempt the danger of things getting out of hand and "allowing the Left and the Right" to get stronger. While cloaked in calls for "rule of law" and "following the constitution", these groups want the crisis resolved in small, secure meetings of the powerful. Those on the margins of power, the various Left groups want the crisis to last long enough for it to spill over into the streets, for the solution to go beyond a new arrangement of powerful individuals and groups towards changes in the political system.
Events have moved so fast that people have a hard time keeping up. It's as if a 33rpm vinyl record (are you old enough to remember them?) has been playing at 75rpm. No wonder there's a lot of distortion. If the powerful can resolve things among themselves, it would not matter much what people think. But if the struggle lasts long enough to require mass mobilizations, what people think will be crucial. The pace of events has also exacerbated resentment of imperial Manila. People in the provinces need a lot more time to digest the issues and formulate their own opinions, but they first have to overcome their resentment at being forced to take sides in a fight that they believe is only of political factions in Manila.
The resignation of Arroyo's economic team brings the economy into play as a factor in the endgame. Apart from Purisima and Santos, the resignationsof Boncodin (DBM) and Parayno (BIR) are particularly significant. The Purisima-Parayno team were actually succeeding in increasing revenue, commonplace in other countries but a rarity in the Philippines. Boncodin was an effective bulwark against greedy politicians. As long as they were around, the business community could put up with stories about Palace corruption because there were small islands of reform in a sea of sleeze. Prior to the crisis, after the passage of the tax bills, the business community was gearing up for an expected upsurge in economic activity. This is the reason why the impact of the resignations have so far been muted.
But the elements of a scary economic meltdown are falling into place. The public sector debt is so large that there is not very much room for maneuver. Foregone income from the VAT postponement, and from the privatization of Napocor assets combined with higher interest rates from credit rating agency outlook downgrades could push us over the brink. The early 1980s collapse of the economy was mainly because of loss of confidence in the Marcos regime. This time, loss of confidence in the Arroyo presidency could combine with a collapse in economic fundamentals to produce a particularly nasty economic meltdown. Arroyo should remember that Marcos was brought down not just by the surging anti-dictatorship movement but also by the economic crisis.
Black Friday, June 8, automatically changed the character of the opposition to the Arroyo regime. Where the Erap/FPJ politicians, the UNO dominated the elite opposition, they now have to share the stage with the LP and resigned cabinet people. This is a major problem for UNO because they have not attracted new people to their ranks. Sen.Lacson moved into the UNO only to move out when he made overtures to Noli De Castro, a big NoNo for the UNO which prefers snap elections. Their old problems, lack of a credible leader and divisions within their ranks continue. Their biggest stick for beating Arroyo, cheating in the last elections, became less useful when credible stories about top UNO leaders also making deals with Garcillano came out.
They are still the focus of attention in the array of anti-Arroyo forces because they've been in opposition longer than any other group, and there are indications they are behind the release of the Garci tapes. They will now be the lead group in the impeachment process in the House. They have also worked the street rally route patiently. Makati Mayor Binay has provided the venue, and UNO reportedly, also provides the resources allowing Left groups to mobilize. The Maoist Left allied themselves with UNO early in this crisis, but their mobilizations have not been as large as UNO leaders expected. Like Ping Lacson, they have also opened talks with Noli de Castro, providing yet more fodder for accusations of political opportunism.
The resigned officials have had their hands full defending themselves from charges that they formed part of a larger political conspiracy. Of course, there was coordination, even if we avoid the term conspiracy. It cannot have been an act of God that brought the cabinet resignations, and calls for Arroyo to resign from Cory Aquino, the Liberal Party, the Makati Business Club and the AMRSP within hours of each other. They need not worry about counter attacks from the Palace. They can simply point to the hypocrisy of conspiracy accusations from people who are conspiring daily to 'damage control' an increasingly uncontrollable situation. The 'if they can do it, why can't we' argument.
They do need to explain things to their middle class and civil society base. I am satisfied with their story of trying to get Arroyo to take steps to save her administration – talking on the tapes, removing the First Gentleman, his people in the cabinet and bureaucracy, a radical revamp of the Comelec, reversing ongoing efforts for a compromise with Danding Cojuangco. How even concessions were half hearted, delayed; how survival became the main determinant of Arroyo moves. I can imagine how this played out in Arroyo's mind, removing Mike's people in the cabinet, because the most important are retired and current police generals, Mendoza, Ebdane, Lomibao, would affect her survival if military capacity became needed. Delaying implementation of the VAT would postpone people's anger, but intensify those of people like Purisima who worked hard to get VAT passed.
They also have to deal with the Arroyo contagion factor. This is not necessarily a rational criticism of what the resigned secretaries did or did not do. They are, by and large, truly the reform wing of the Arroyo administration, competent and upright people. But by not taking a position on the jueteng and tapes issues and basing their resignation on other factors, there is a disjuncture between their political position and that of their middle class base. A more serious problem is their attempt to organize an endgame, and opening moves in a Noli De Castro presidency. My problem is not transparency, though this is a problem for many people. My problem is perspective.
If the ten, including civil society cross overs such as Dinky Soliman, prefer an orderly, quick process in order to exclude the Right and Left, of necessity they will keep their maneuvers in the corridors of power. Their preference for a quick, Noli De Castro succession, may be 'constitutional' but it goes against widespread unhappiness with a game of elite musical chairs, and a preference for system change. If they had succeeded with their 'Friday Coup', if Arroyo had gone ahead and resigned, there would not be a problem. But the CBCP card turned out to be a joker not an ace. After saying they don't want another EDSA-type mass mobilization, what if thats the only other political instrument left for them?
The longer the stalemate lasts, the more the struggle shifts to the street, the more important Left groups will become. But divisions within the Left weaken them. National democratic organizations, Bayan Muna and its affiliated organizations, have allied themselves with the politicians they attacked in EDSA 2. The relatively small scale of their mobilizations, and their blatant political opportunism have decreased their potential political gains from this crisis. In contrast to EDSA 2, they now have a competitor on the Left with equal mobilizational capacity, and greater potential for setting up a democratic Left pole in this struggle. Whereas non-Maoist Left groups such as Akbayan and Sanlakas operated separately in 2001, they are now working together within Laban ng Massa.
Laban nang Massa was launched only in June 29, 2005, in the midst of the crisis. It includes most of the 'RJ' groups which split from the CPP in the 1990s, multi-bloc parties such as Akbayan, and scores of independent Left groups. Although past attempts had been made to get non-Maoist Left groups working together on issues, the first serious discussion by these groups on their analysis of the national situation and on strategy and tactics was done only a month before. The ideological gulf separating these groups remains wide, but they have agreed to a location in the crisis which places them between the Arroyo regime and the UNO in a 'Third Pole'. This is a position which connects easily with widespread sentiment against simply changing one elite leader for another, and posing political and economic system change as a possibility under these conditions.
What complicates Laban's position is that it also falls within a spectrum ranging from the Bayan groups to the civil society groups associated with CODE NGO and the EDSA 2 vintage Kompil 2. Laban has leaned towards the Bayan-UNO coalition, joining at least two of their rallies, partly because they are the ones organizing the main anti-Gloria mobilizations, and partly because some groups see a strategic alliance with Bayan's principal despite current fights. Another reason is that the Kompil 3 (?) groups have tended to work with the resigned cabinet secretaries, and have, thus far, been hesitant to take to the streets. If and when Kompil 3 groups become more active, groups within Laban who are resisting getting too close to the Bayan-UNO coalition will be in a better position to assert another 'Third Pole' dimension.
How Much Longer?
"It's only a matter of time" may be the consensus, but in speeded up, tense and polarized political conditions, time turns around and seems interminable. Some anti-Arroyo groups are simply impatient. Others are counting the days of damage to the economy and social fabric. Politicians such as the Vice President are biding their time. Only the general public seems to be patient, refusing to go to the streets until conditions ripen. Some of GMA's hype managers are even beginning to think she can last until the end of her term in 2010. Not likely.
Arroyo and her advisers are counting on the fact that the Catholic Chruch and the military, two key players in EDSA 1 and 2, have remained neutral. The CBCP's fence sitting stance is the result of the absence of a powerful political prelate such as the late Cardinal Sin and intervention from the new, politically conservative Pope. But large segments of the church are already in the anti-Gloria side. As these groups increase and become more active, the CBCP will be under pressure to get off the fence if only to minimize the damage of division within the church. Unlike in 2000 when there were many rumors of coup preparations, there are none at this time except for stories about disgruntled younger level officers. If the military is lucky and Arroyo is impeached, they won't have to act at all. But if anti-Arroyo forces get strong enough to mobilize threatening street action, or the economy goes bust, the military leadership might act.
Arroyo may say "its not a popularity contest" but she better take the survey results seriously. The SWS Metro Manila survey saying that 62 percent want Arroyo to resign, and if she does not, 85 percent want her impeached, has a lot of embedded meaning. Its not just that Arroyo is now overwhelmingly unpopular. These results show that people have a sense of pacing that the Arroyo and anti-Arroyo camps should pay attention to. It's the old "R (resign), I (impeach), O (oust)" formula. 'Resign' is, logically, the first step. The Hyatt 10, whose 'play' was unfortunately only pitched to 'resign', might say "Been there, done that." Now it's on to the next letter.
Impeachment has been resurrected for two reasons: Oliver Lozano, who filed the first complaint, is willing to have his impeachment complaint amended, and the Liberal Party has gone anti-Arroyo. The House minority bloc has changed its mind and has taken on the task of crafting a more legally and politically potent impeachment complaint. They can best do that with the help of the Hyatt 10 who know what has been happening in Malacanang. The Liberal Party is unlikely to get all 34 of its members in the House to support impeachment. This would leave the impeachment votes five to ten short of the 79 needed. The key is the Nacionalista Party, and/or the Speaker.
The FVR-JdV (former president Ramos and House Speaker De Venecia) chacha play is, as things stand, a side bet. With impeccable, opportunist timing, FVR went to the Palace late on Black Friday when Arroyo needed all the help she could get. But FVR's offer of ten months to Arroyo before she has to 'gracefully' bow out does not yet match Arroyo's sense of threat. Like the Hyatt 10, FVR and JdeV may soon discover that Arroyo makes promises she easily breaks. She is under pressure to say something definitive at the time of her SONA speech. If she goes back on her promise of stepping down before the end of her term, Speaker De Venecia may turn against her and secure the necessary votes to impeach her.
The Nacionalista Party is the 'sleeper' in the whole equation. It is the closest thing to a party for the Vice President. The Vice President's political comfort zone is the Wednesday Club in the Senate which includes senators Joker Arroyo, Kiko Pangilinan, Ralph Recto, Manny Villar and Noli De Castro when he was still senator. Sen.Pangilinan has thrown his lot in with the Liberal Party. Sen.Arroyo is a "roving rebel". That leaves Recto, and Villar who has had the foresight and the financial resources to revive the moribund Nacionalista Party. De Castro can afford to wait to join the anti-Arroyo camp, but he should not wait too long. Many are sharpening political knives marked 'Noli'.
It is difficult to predict how long the impeachment process will take. If it remains uncertain for a couple of weeks after the opening of session, June 25, it will give time for the popular movement to organize discussions in school campuses, and for anti-Arroyo forces in the provinces. Despite the CBCP stand, Catholic schools and universities are beginning to stir. The nationwide Akbayan rallies in nine places, July 15, opened up that arena. The impeachment will dredge up more dirt on the Arroyo administration that will drive popular judgment to outrage. The takeover of the Department of Agriculture by angry peasants is a portent of things to come. If impeachment fails, on to the next letter. Popular outrage was hijacked by elite politics. We cannot let that happen this time.