Special Issue
The Queen's Gambits
The President

The unmaking of the President

Mrs. Arroyo is reaping the consequences of the damage she has wrought on key institutions.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo apologizes on national TV for a “lapse in judgment.”

UNTIL last month, the heavens seemed to have favored Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The economy was picking up, the stock market was trading briskly, and Congress had just passed a new tax measure. For sure, the budget deficit and rising oil prices were something to worry about. At the same time, the opposition seemed bent on raking the jueteng muck. But all these were part of life — and politics — as usual.

After all, the president had won by a convincing margin in 2004, and although doubts about the integrity of the balloting lingered, the main opposition contender in last year’s elections, the actor Fernando Poe Jr., was dead and buried. Joseph Estrada was safely languishing in the ennui of luxurious house arrest. And the rest of the opposition, while strident and noisy, was also fractured, discredited, and somewhat dispirited. President Arroyo’s popularity may have dipped because of the hard times, but she was clearly, unmistakably in command.

And then came The Tapes. Suddenly, it seemed that the President had lost favor with the stars.

And yet, the stars are not solely to blame. The crisis that has paralyzed the presidency is as much of Arroyo’s making as it is of the confluence of circumstances that brought us to where we are now: on the brink, possibly, of another political upheaval.

Blaming the opposition for the current mess gives it too much credit and endows its members with more cunning than they have. Neither the opposition nor the stellar Susan Roces can lay claim to the unraveling of the Arroyo presidency. Gloria Arroyo did that largely on her own. She is reaping the consequences of the damage she and her predecessors have wrought on the electoral process and on key institutions, among them, the Commission on Elections, the military, and the police.

Much more than Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, Arroyo has politicized these and other agencies of government, stunting their professionalism and turning them into puerile props for a president insecure about her mandate and the affections of her people. She has reasons to be insecure. She became president in 2001 only because Estrada fell and she was second in line to occupy Malacañang. Even those who voted for her in 2004 did so mainly because she was the safest bet, not because they believed in her, much less loved her, She was the lesser evil, not the principled choice.

The president’s insecurity is also partly due to Edsa 3. Arroyo was traumatized by Labor Day 2001, when thousands of slum dwellers protesting Estrada’s arrest came close to breaching the defenses of Malacañang. Even as angry masses were storming the Palace gates, the President remained isolated, unsure of .the loyalty of the military and the police. Edsa 3 defined her presidency and made her acutely aware of her vulnerabilities and perpetually anxious about the stability of her rule.

Since then, Arroyo has exerted every effort to win the allegiance of the military and the police by buying their loyalty through promotions, perks, and special access to her. She used these institutions to quell legitimate threats to her government, like the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny. Nothing wrong with that. But having courted the favor of strategic officers, these agencies were also used for more partisan purposes, including keeping tab of the president’s political opponents and, if the conversations in the “Garci” tapes are to be believed, also to ensure her victory in 2004.

The Tapes that have set off the current crisis exist only because the head of Mrs. Arroyo’s favorite military agency, the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines or ISAFP, ordered the wiretapping of presidential phone pal Virgilio Garcillano. President Arroyo called the elections commissioner 15 times in the span of three weeks in May and June 2004.

The wiretapping, according to military and intelligence sources, was instructed by Malacañang political operatives, who wanted to keep track of the commissioner’s movements, for fear that he would favor the opposition instead. “This is because the administration party, as we’ve learned, considered Garcillano as a vulnerable target of the political opposition for them to be able to cheat in the last elections,” a military officer told the Philippine Star a few days after the tape scandal broke.

Since she assumed power, the President has turned ISAFP into a sniffing dog against her enemies, most notably Sen. Panfilo Lacson but also an assortment of other “bad” guys (ex-RAM, ex-Erap, ex- and current communists). ISAFP officers could go straight to President Arroyo and to the First Gentleman, bypassing the chain of command. The president, as Newsbreak reported, also personally handpicked all the ISAFP commanders during her time, starting with the controversial Victor Corpus, who led the charges of “narcopolitics” against Lacson.

Dynamic duo. President Arroyo and Vice President Noli de Castro when the going was good. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

But that is a digression. Suffice it to say that Garcillano was wiretapped by ISAFP operatives on orders of their superiors, who in turn got their orders from the Palace.

The wiretaps would not have been made at all had President Arroyo left ISAFP alone and allowed it to operate as an independent, professional intelligence agency free from partisan politics. But even if for some reason ISAFP on its own had made the recordings, these would not have fallen into opposition hands had the morale of ISAFP personnel been high and their commander-in-chief commanded their respect and loyalty.

Intelligence sources say one of the ISAFP agents linked to the release of the tapes, the ill-starred T/Sgt. Vidal Doble, is a “loyal soldier” who would probably not have succumbed to opposition inducements to be part of the plot if ISAFP were a more disciplined and tightly run organization.

The problem is that President Arroyo’s sense of institutions is overwhelmed by her inherent insecurity and instincts for survival. She has put her own partisan political interests over the long-term development of the institutions of government. The scandal over The Tapes shows the ‘pitfalls of this approach: rather than bolstering her rule, the weakened institutions only further heightened her vulnerability.

Take the Comelec: Arroyo went farther than either Ramos or Estrada ever dared. Ramos, who had ambitions to hang on to the presidency, named his trusted knaves — the autocratic and mercurial Bernardo Pardo and the “kissing lolo” Manolo Gorospe to the commission. Estrada got the controversial professor Luz Tangcangco, who used the Comelec to settle old academic scores and ended up being so powerful that she single-handedly delayed automation of the counting.

Happy couple.
Mike Arroyo’s actions have diminished the presidency. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

Instead of rebuilding the Comelec’s shattered credibility by naming respectable commissioners, Arroyo handpicked a political ally, Benjamin Abalos, to head the commission. Just as the 2004 presidential campaign was kicking off, she also named Garcillano, a known dagdag-bawas (vote padding and shaving) expert, and Manuel Barcelona Jr., her campaign contributor, as commissioners. These appointments contributed to the further weakening of the Comelec’s institutional capabilities and effectiveness, thereby only contributing to the general unease about the count. Thus, even if she really and truly won in 2004, the Comelec’s bad performance darkened the shadow of doubt that hung over the results of the voting.

After The Tapes, that shadow is now a huge, ominous cloud. Comelec’s credibility is now completely shattered. Thanks to President Arroyo’s phone calls, it’s one key institution now wallowing in the muck.

As this whole affair unravels, one wonders which agency of government will next be covered in slime. The revelations in The Tapes of the collusion of the military and the police in election fraud will likely take on a life of its own. As the opposition gets the upper hand, it is more than possible that insiders in the police and the armed forces who were part of that conspiracy will talk.

Apart from these, the staff and resources of civilian agencies of government were also used for the campaign. There’s Philhealth, the state insurance company that issued millions of health cards that Arroyo gave away as largesse during the campaign. Part of the funding for those health cards came from the medicare program of the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration or OWWA, which authorized the possibly illegal fund diversion. The Philhealth chief then, Francisco Duque III, is a neighbor of the Arroyos at La Vista and has been rewarded for his role in the elections by being named health secretary, replacing the more professional Manuel Dayrit.

There’s the Department of Agriculture (DA), headed until last week by lawyer Arthur Yap, Arroyo’s former student and a known crony of the First Gentleman. The DA released millions of pesos in fertilizer subsidies to win the support of local officials. During the campaign, Yap headed the National Food Authority, which was reported to be giving out free rice as part of the effort to win votes for Arroyo in the May 2004 polls.

There’s the Department of Public Works and Highways, which implemented the road-repair programs that oiled the administration’s patronage machine. The current chief of that department, former police top gun Gen. Hermogenes Ebdane, is another officer known to be close to the First Gentleman.

There’s of course the Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corp. or Pagcor, headed by yet another close buddy of the First Gentleman, Ephraim Genuino. Pagcor has been accused of releasing millions to fund various doleout projects associated with the presidential campaign. Genuino was also reported to have handed money to fund Garcillano’s postelection manipulation of the count (see the article, “Master Operator,” in this issue).

In her desire to be elected president, Gloria Arroyo (with the more than ample help of her husband) mobilized the whole machinery of govemment for her campaign, in the process wreaking havoc on key institutions. Having so used the police in the elections, even mobilizing them to do a parallel count, how can she now discipline them over such matters as jueteng, for example? Having played favorites with the generals, how can she now punish them for the corruption that is ravaging the armed forces? Having owed so much to the Garcias of Cebu for her landslide win in the province, how can she now get rid of Winston Garcia, who has been accused of messing around with state pension funds?

Her victory (if she really won) was exacted at a very high price: the effectiveness and credibility of the most important office of all — the Office of the President. The conduct of the elections and the use of state resources for the campaign took the luster out of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s electoral triumph. Even without The Tapes, the long count and the blatant use of government resources did little to shore up the Office of the President.

The cynical public response, first to Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye’s two tapes and later, to President Arroyo’s apology and her banishment of the First Gentleman, shows how little trust and respect is left in the office. The distrust is reflected not so much in street protests, but in the ring tones, the jokes, and the blogs. These are not just forms of entertainment, they are cries of anger and disapproval. Malacañang’s belated recognition of the extent of public disaffection only shows how unfeeling of the pulse of the people it has become.

It is doubtful that the public can now be appeased by such actions as Big Mike’s disappearing act. The First Gentleman’s voluntary exile is the belated acknowledgment of the damage he has wrought on the presidency. The “FG’s” parallel power structure and his intervention in government appointments and contracts has so diminished the Office of the President, his banishment is unlikely to revive a mortally wounded presidency.

Anti-Arroyo rally. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

Finally, and most importantly, there is the unfinished business of Edsa 2, Edsa 3, and Elections 2004. The poor were left out of Edsa 2, when they felt that the Manila elite and middle class deprived them of their president. Edsa 3 was their response, but that went largely unheeded. In 2004, they voted in droves for Fernando Poe Jr. If they were indeed robbed of their vote, then they had been, in the span of just three years, twice denied their president.

The last elections showed the class divide, with the middle class and the business community supporting the “safe choice.” They applauded Gloria Arroyo’s victory and paid little heed to the charges of fraud, reasoning that all sides cheat in Philippine elections anyway, and besides, the incumbent’s margin was significant enough, even discounting the margin of fraud. Thus, the pollwatch groups, the survey agencies, the Roman Catholic Church, and the majority in Congress took what they deemed was the prudent stance: despite some doubt, the lesser evil seemed to have won, so there was no point in rocking the boat.

Now that The Tapes have shaken the boat, they are in a real dilemma. Accustomed in Edsa 1 and Edsa 2 to taking the high ground and marching in the streets against discredited presidents, they are now the ones calling for calm and sobriety. In 1986 and 2001, they advocated “people power” over constitutional and legal processes, but today they are the ones arguing for stability and “the rule of law.” The shoe is on the other foot. Other forces now claim the high ground.

The businessmen and the middle class can, if they wish, blame President Arroyo for making their safe choice now seem like an unprincipled one. While they ponder, the political initiative is being wrested away from them.

If this crisis is drawn out, then the very system that put Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in power will be put in question. This did not happen in Edsa 2: Erap’s transgressions were seen as the excesses of an individual, not the product of a political system that is rotten to the core. Yet it should be clear by now that our woes cannot be blamed solely on the wrongdoings of individuals; they are systemic and structural. That was why, even with Erap gone, it was business as usual — jueteng, relatives dipping their fingers in the public coffers, corrupt politicians taking cuts from government contracts. The scandals that have rocked the Arroyo presidency, like those that booted Estrada out of power, are all signs that the system remains fundamentally unchanged even if it is fundamentally unsound.

It is a system that is made for scandal and crisis. Even if President Arroyo weathers this one, another crisis is likely in the offing. And even if she were replaced, as long as the system remains the way it is, we will remain trapped in the politics of perpetual scandal and recurring crisis.