This essay was solicited by i Report, the online magazine of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for its current series on political predictions. The views expressed in the essays included in this series do not necessarily reflect those of the PCIJ or any of its staff members.
UNDER ORDINARY times, 2010 is the year we elect a successor to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But the Garci scandal changed all that. Since then — or because of it — the Arroyo administration quickly abandoned its reform agenda in favor of short-term survival.
At the start, all Arroyo really wanted was to finish her term up to 2010, at whatever cost. But along the way, in the course of the usual wheeling and dealing with allies, adversaries, and power blocks, she discovered the enormous power of her office, and how it can be used to quell any attempt to unseat her.
Arroyo employed a whole arsenal of tricks to survive. But there are two that stand out:
1) Divide and rule. While surveys consistently showed that a good majority believed Arroyo cheated, there was no consensus on what to do about it. Every community — business, church, nongovernmental organizations, military, and even family — was divided on the course of action to take.
Some analysts attribute this to people-power fatigue: a general sense that another extra-constitutional change of regime would not lead to better governance, but simply to a change of faces — mostly, recycled politicians. Worse, the prospect of a Noli de Castro presidency scared both the middle class and the business community.
Arroyo did not even have to prove her innocence. All she needed to do was to fuel the Noli scare and nurture enough allies and followers within every community to keep them fragmented. In the process, she destroyed more institutions than former President Ferdinand Marcos did.
2) Rule by law. Arroyo and her allies would often invoke rule of law even while taking the narrowest interpretation that favors them. The moro-moro of Congress in determining sufficiency in form and substance of the impeachment complaint says it all. What it was actually doing was rule by law — perverting both the letter and intent of the law to suit its own end.
Meanwhile, the executive branch simply threw at us its own creative redefinition of existing laws — CPR (Calibrated Preemptive Response), Executive Order 464, and Presidential Proclamation 1017. It argued that these were valid until rebuffed by the courts. The Supreme Court eventually declared CPR unconstitutional, and E.O. 464 and P.P. 1017 partly unconstitutional; but the damage to our civil liberties had been done.
How can the administration get away with such blatant and willful distortion of the law?
The answer is quite simple: lack of indignation from a citizenry that has grown cynical of government. Even veterans of the two Edsa revolutions are skeptical that another people-power revolt would do the country any good, or that it is even possible.
Many people have simply given up on this country and are too busy securing a nursing degree and a work visa. They could not care less who the president is or will be, or what he or she does or will do — good or bad.
There are many factors contributing to this malaise of national apathy, but it will require another essay to analyze them. Suffice it to say that an acquiescent citizenry invites more repressive and punitive measures from a regime with dictatorial bent. No wonder that it has added in its arsenal of survival tools the intimidation and terrorizing of its critics. The unabated killings of journalists and militant leaders under the Arroyo watch in such short a time puts to shame the Marcos track record. And whoever is behind these seems to have begun to believe that he or she can get away with murder.
STILL, SURVEYS show that anti-Arroyo sentiments remain high. This might just translate into an opposition-dominated Congress after the May elections, with enough numbers to impeach her. Thus, the rush to shift to a parliamentary form of government. Because even though Arroyo has survived two impeachment attempts, there’s a very real threat that she might not survive a third one in 2007.
Under the guise of pushing for much needed structural reforms, the real motivation is to preempt any future impeachment attempts by: a) not holding local elections to retain the present pro-Arroyo configuration of Congress; b) altering the structure of the legislature; and c) changing the rules on impeachment.
While at it, the administration’s supporters realized they might as well lift term limits and pave the way for Arroyo to stay on beyond 2010. If Arroyo succeeds in completing her term until 2010 in spite of the lack of true mandate from the people, she will definitely find a way to perpetuate herself in power beyond 2010.
The bogus People’s Initiative is dead, thanks to the ruling with finality by the Supreme Court. The indecent haste and brazenness of the whole exercise shows the extent this administration will go through to advance its agenda. Already, its supporters have unashamedly declared that they will make one final push to alter the constitution through an even more obscene process: Con-Ass, or a Constituent Assembly.
But time is running out on them. And it will soon come to a head in the May 2007 elections. Arroyo will pull out all the stops to prevent the opposition from securing enough seats in Congress to impeach her. Garci-like operations with Bolante-type of funding similar, if not bigger, in magnitude to the 2004 elections will be the game plan.
Civil society has to do no less. First, it must fight tooth and nail against Con-Ass. Second, it must actively participate in the May 2007 elections — campaigning for or against candidates to win enough opposition seats in Congress, as well as guarding the ballot to ensure every vote is counted correctly.
THE 2007 polls will be an all-out, winner-take-all showdown between Arroyo and her adversaries. But the real battle is in winning the hearts and minds of a people that has lost its conscience — unable to discern between right and wrong, and unwilling to stand for what is good and right. Admittedly, it’s an uphill battle.
At a minimum, we must persist in keeping the burning issues in the public eye, especially in the international community. The killings of journalists and militants slowed down a bit when international human-rights groups and business communities, as well as governments, weighed in on the issue.
At the same time, we must reassess our modes of engagement and reinvent ourselves, if need be.
When the Garci scandal broke out, civil society immediately turned to people-power mode, subscribing to a model that has worked so well in the past: stoke the outrage of the populace, enough to make them come out to the streets, coupled with defections from the Palace and the barracks, albeit not necessarily in that order.
But the people did not respond. There were just too many turn-off factors.
First, there was no clear alternative. Noli was simply not acceptable to some sectors, especially business. The transition council proffered by some groups was too complex for comprehension by the average man on the street.
But the bigger turn-off, especially to Edsa 1 and 2 veterans, was the sight of personalities closely associated with the discredited regimes of Marcos and Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada in the frontlines. The possibility of the Marcos or Estrada family returning to power evoked revulsion for some people, and was enough to keep them off the streets.
WHAT SHALL we do then?
People power is not dead. But perhaps we need to tweak it and make it more responsive to the needs of the time. Let me offer a few adjustments we can readily make:
1) Stop the counterproductive efforts at forging a united front. We can agree on our objectives. We can synchronize and synergize our efforts. But we don’t have to proclaim to the world that we are one. Each group works best in rallying its natural constituency without the baggage of having to explain why they walk side by side with other groups advocating conflicting values.
2) Rethink street actions. While they are necessary to express protest over the issues of the day, and an essential ingredient of people power once a tipping point is reached, street actions are generally perceived by the public we want to win over as disruptive. We have to be mindful of the inconvenience we cause. We have to creatively restructure the format to make the exercise less threatening and more appealing for the general public to participate.
3) Borrow marketing techniques from the business world. In the end, it’s about the clash of ideas — between ours and that of an administration bent on overstaying. We need to be more media-savvy. It’s pointless to organize a big rally without media coverage. We need to craft our messaging so it can be heard by the text generation. We need to think in terms of campaigns, and not just one-off programs. We need to stage events, and not just rallies. We may even have to use billboards instead of just graffiti on walls.
4) Harness the power of the Internet. It’s cheaper and has more reach, if used properly. Build advocacy-based websites or blogs. Join e-groups and post regularly. Link up with like-minded communities. Not only does the Internet provide you with a global presence, it also allows you to reach out to a potent and politically active force: the OFW community. They exert significant influence over their families back home.
5) Play politics like the politicians do. If we are to succeed in securing enough seats in Congress to impeach Arroyo, we first need to understand how to play and win the game. We have to adapt our ways to the system, without sacrificing our principles. For example, we believe voter education is important, but it has never been proven to influence the outcome of an election. At the same time, we know that the masa — who actually determine the winner — vote based on personalities, not issues. So we have to temper our idealism with a healthy dose of pragmatism.
We must remind ourselves that people power has always been spontaneous. It cannot be conjured by organized groups, or even by icons of Edsa 1 and 2. But it will certainly help if we can induce an environment where people power can, at least, have a chance to blossom.
Most people erroneously think 20/20 vision is perfect vision. Actually, it refers to normal vision. It means a person is able to see at 20 feet what a normal eye would see at 20 feet. 2010 vision is better. It means a person can see even at 20 feet what a normal eye would normally see at 10 feet.
In these extraordinary times where you have an incumbent president setting her sight beyond 2010, I think that’s what we, in civil society, need: a 2010 vision.
Vicente ‘Enteng’ Romano III is the lead convenor of the Black and White Movement, a coalition of middle forces that would like to make a stand in the current political crisis brought about by the legitimacy issue on President Arroyo. He was also the founder and moderator of eLagda.com, one of the first Internet-based petition sites for political advocacies that gained a significant following among Filipino communities for its Erap-resign petition.