YV&C News Desk
Election 2010, Philippines Style
Election season is in full swing here in Manila
Sep. 15, 2009 03:45 PM
Election season is in full swing here in Manila. The current president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (known as GMA) cannot be re-elected as president, even as it seems she wants to be. So several major names—and in the Philippines, you always run into the same major names—are competing for leverage and public affection in these months before the voters go to the polls in May 2010.
The big news recently was the withdrawal of Sen. Mar Roxas from consideration. Roxas, who family names is among the most elite of the elite here, has been praised fulsomely for his principled decision.
The praise is flowing because his decision has cleared the way for fellow Liberal Party Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III to make his bid for the president’s office in Manila’s Malacanang Palace. The reality is that Roxas was running a poor fourth in the polls, with about 9 percent of voters saying they favored him at this point.
People Power Re-Emerges
Aquino, a very self-effacing, gentle man, is the son of Ninoy and Cory Aquino. With the death of his mother last month came worldwide praise for one of the great beacons of peaceful change and democracy in the 20th century. In the Philippines, all other life stopped for several days as the multitudes returned to view her casket, produce public demonstrations in her memory, and attend her funeral in mammoth Manila Cathedral.
Cory Aquino had, to be frank, been largely forgotten in the Philippines and elsewhere in recent years. Her actual governance was not considered a success, as she was unable to push through the sort of land reforms and other societal changes that her “People Power” campaign seemed to promise during the days when she brought down the vile Marcos regime after said regime brazenly assassinated her husband on the tarmac at what is now called Ninoy Acquino International Airport.
Meanwhile, the majority of a youngish population in the Philippines had never heard of her. So many millions here spend most of their time and money housing and feeding themselves, so any discussion of the people and events from 20 years ago can seem abstract and absurd.
But Cory’s death may have changed all that. The amped-up, breathless crises of the Philippines’ telenovas and its asinine game shows were put on hold, as Filipinos became transfixed for a few days by the story of a woman who now shares and will continue to share a place in the history books alongside Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
People Power, with its yellow theme and simple, oblong V-for-Victory gesture returned, at least for a few days.
The powers that be in Malacanang Palace have been icily silent about Noynoy’s potential. Elected with a plurality in 2004 through a cobbled alliance that combined three previously independent parties, GMA, in the view of many newspaper editorialists, seems bent on holding onto a measure of power after the 2010 election. She may or may not run as a representative from her native province of Pampanga (located just outside the Metro Manila area), with the alleged goal of becoming prime minister in a newly created government.
Shall We Hit the Re-set Button?
GMA’s machinations come amidst many cries here for a constitutional convention and/or a charter change (cha-cha). Readers are reminded that The Republic of the Philippines operates under a constitution that dates only to 1986 and the downfall of the Marcos regime and the advent of Cory Aquino’s administration. It’s still a new constitution, and one that many believe needs some adjustment.
The peaceful transitions of power since the establishment of the new constitution--from Cory to Fidel Ramos (a key military leader who abandoned Marcos in favor of People Power), then to former movie-star Josef “Erap” Estrada, then once more to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—are a source of great pride in the Philippines.
Justly so, because even in the boorishly proud United States, with its 220 years of government under the current constitution, the peaceful transition of power is routinely invoked as a strength of the country.
Yet the US has had four presidents removed from power by assassination, experienced a horrendous civil war in which the elected president was not recognized by citizens in about half of its land mass at the time, and is currently sharply divided by a simplistic “red-state/blue-state” mentality in which the legitimacy of the George W. Bush presidency is still bitterly questioned by a significant minority of the current population.
Back in the Philippines, pride with respect to its elective process is mixed with a debate over the weakness of a multi-party system that sent GMA to Malacanang Palace with a plurality, rather than a majority, of the votes. GMA appears a diminutive, innocuous figure on the international stage. Most Americans probably don’t know her name, but would indicate a reflexive approval that a nation of 90 million people has elected a woman as its leader. They would also likely place her in the same boat as fellow female Cory Aquino and think no more about it.
Corrupt or Good for Business?
But in the Philippines, GMA is viewed as far from benign. Her administration is routinely criticized for its corruption—“kurakot” is a word I hear a lot—which is said to be at minimum equal to that of the Marcos administration. The president herself rarely issues a statement on this topic, but rather, lets a variety of spokespeople to point to her success in raising direct foreign investment while flatly dismissing any talk of corruption.
A $376 million deal with a Chinese electric company that was botched when stories of payoffs emerged is the current focus of attention, with fingers pointed at various members of the administration, and charges and counter-charges flying around the head of GMA and her husband. Separate questions about how their son acquired a $1.3-million+ house in California on a salary of about $8,000 per year form another daily debate.
GMA’s travel, which has included 15 trips to the US over the past six year, and Magellanic voyages with stops in 40 countries, Libya, Finland, Colombia, and Vatican City (twice), is another source of continual debate. Her annual expenses exceed that of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, as well as several worthy government organizations focused on things such as children’s health. The palace responds that her travel leads to billions in direct foreign investment and establishes the Philippines as a serious business destination.
Meanwhile, during my recent visit, a deputy director of intelligence who also once served as a provincial governor bragged extensively about beating his common-law wife (and mother of his five children) when he caught her with a boyfriend. His bodyguards were reported to have castrated the boyfriend, yet the jealous husband has repeatedly said they were both lucky he did not kill them.
Malacanang Palace has been mostly silent on the issue as well, only issuing a directive to the husband to “behave” as the legal process plays out in the case. It is legal in the Philippines to kill your wife if you catch her in flagrante delicto. But it is forbidden to abuse women. Already, questions have emerged as to whether the wife and her boyfriend were doing anything more than sitting at a kitchen table, whether or not the husband and wife were separated (and whether that matters), whether the jealous husband himself has been faithful over the years, whether their common-law status equates to certified marriage, and on and on.
Bureaucratic and Family Legacies
The Philippines has been blessed with the highly bureaucratic sensibility of its Spanish conquerors, along with a discursive, Latinate way of argument that would appeal to Robert’s Rules of Order sticklers yet seems obfuscatory in the extreme to someone who wants the discussion to get to the point.
Add to this the “faced-based” Asian aspect to Filipino culture, in which debates are often carried out indirectly in newspapers rather than in direct conversation, and one can guess that what appears to the American eye as a simple case of a jealous husband out of control will result in nothing more than a long-running, inconclusive discussion in the Philippines for a long time.
The nature of discussion here defies an executive briefing. GMA’s elevation to the presidency was the result of votes being split by two like-minded candidates from the liberal side in 2004, with neither willing to accede to the other. So a call for cha-cha and a two-party system emerges.
But looking at the US again, one sees three presidents in recent history elected with less than 50% of the vote (Nixon in ’68, Clinton in ’92, and Bush in ’00). Interlopers, namely George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader, drew enough support to arguably swing the election to the winner in ’68 and ’00, and unarguably in ’92.
The elephant in the room here has little to do with all that. This elephant, which is in fact discussed openly and frequently, represents the continued dominance of politics and wealth by a very small number of families and key supporters.
Cory Aquino was criticized, even in death, for her failure to convince her fellow elite landowners to share the wealth a little with the tens of millions of poor countrymen. The Philippines seems to be looking for the person who can bring about such change. It yearns for something other than yet another “trapo,” or traditional politician.
Noynoy Aquino seems to be just that, a highly moral man with parents who set the global standard for courage and moral leadership in the 20th century. Yet a quick look at his face reveals someone who doesn’t appear in the least mean or Machievellian. He seems to be bossed a bit by his sisters. Would he stand a chance against the hardened type of person who seeks high office here as elsewhere throughout the world?
If so, could he govern a fractious young democracy that is spread across 7,100 islands, has dozens of groups that define themselves by their own native language, and is in essence a collection of millions of tightly-knit families who don’t generally become enthused about the notion of nation until the next Manny Pacquiao fight?
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