Gloria’s Power Grab

 

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124560456128134971.html

The Philippine president will not leave office quietly.

By BRETT M. DECKER | FROM TODAY’S WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is a lame duck struggling to stay afloat. With less than a year left in her constitutionally mandated last term, national politics is dominated by next May’s election and the president’s efforts to cling to power. In the meantime, policy efforts to address the country’s myriad problems are at a standstill.

Ms. Arroyo’s latest gambit is to run for her son’s congressional seat when her presidential term expires next year. Members of her cabinet have openly advocated this plan, and her son Mikey has said he would consider running for governor of their home province of Pampanga if Ms. Arroyo chooses this path. Last Monday, the Commission on Elections declared that there is no legal barrier preventing a former president from running for Congress.

There is only one reason why this sitting head of state — who previously served as vice president, a cabinet secretary and in the Senate — would be interested in a comparably lowly seat in the House of Representatives. She is angling to be prime minister in a restructured government composed of a unicameral parliament. Reformists assert that two contending chambers make the legislative process too slow, and the Philippines needs to implement fast-paced change that would be eased by removing gridlock caused by the inert Senate. The Philippine government currently is based on the U.S. presidential system with a bicameral legislature, so this conversion would require rewriting the constitutional charter.

For Ms. Arroyo and her supporters, maintaining power is not just about keeping the pork and perks of office. It’s a matter of survival. The leading contenders for the presidency all have said they will investigate rampant corruption in the Arroyo administration if elected. This poses an existential threat to Ms. Arroyo and her family, especially if the opposition wins. It has not been forgotten that the Arroyo administration put her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, in prison after he was overthrown, although she later pardoned him. Mr. Estrada is still one of the most popular figures in the Philippines; his many supporters have been waiting a decade for revenge for his ouster and seven-year incarceration.

It might sound implausible that the nation’s form of government could be altered to suit the president’s demand for power, but there is a precedent for such an action. Former President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and suspended Congress in 1972, only to reopen the legislature as a unicameral parliament in 1978. At that time, he added the title prime minister to his previous position as president.

It’s ironic that Ms. Arroyo is pursuing the Marcos model because the authoritarian leader beat her father, Diosdado Macapagal, in the 1965 presidential race. There are many similarities between the Philippines today and the status of the country 44 years ago: the economy was in decline; corruption hobbled government; and national security was threatened by Muslim insurrection in the southern islands and armed Communist revolution in the mountains.

Mr. Marcos defeated Mr. Macapagal’s bid for reelection because the latter was perceived to be an ineffectual leader in a period of crisis. Today, the position of President Arroyo’s advisers is that the country is too unstable for a transition. There have been discussions at Malacanang presidential palace about the possibility of declaring a state of emergency to delay elections and thus stall Ms. Arroyo’s departure from office. One longtime Arroyo insider told me the main reservation is that administration officials are not sure they can pull it off.

It would be a risky strategem. Ms. Arroyo may not have a strong enough hold on power to declare and enforce a state of emergency. The public sends mixed signals. Street protests against the administration are routine, but voter apathy is a more prevalent national trait than serious opposition. Perhaps most important, Ms. Arroyo is backed by the military command structure. The support of the generals composed the balance of power that was necessary to oust President Estrada and install Ms. Arroyo in his place in 2001.

Changing the constitutional charter is a safer route to maintain power than declaring a state of emergency because it would instigate less public outrage. A constitutional assembly offers the veneer of legislative legitimacy, and a workable strategy to secure charter change has been crafted over the past few years. A little over two weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to convene a constitutional assembly to work toward charter change. A three-fourths majority vote is needed to amend the constitution. House leaders are pushing to hold that vote next month.

There is disagreement over the makeup of that vote. Senators, who overwhelmingly oppose parliamentary change since it would abolish their chamber, argue that separate three-quarter votes are necessary in the House and Senate. House leaders maintain that the tally required comes from a joint session of both chambers. This view is convenient because the margin in the House might be large enough for passage over the opposition of a majority of senators. In any case, the dispute is likely to go to the Supreme Court, where 11 of the 13 sitting justices were appointed by Ms. Arroyo.

The president solidified her hold on the House of Representatives through patronage politics. As Senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas, a former member of the Arroyo cabinet and frontrunner to win the presidency next year if elections are held, explains, “The system created by the Arroyo administration has made corruption, official opacity and the dole-out culture almost endemic at all levels.” At one notorious meeting a few years ago, legislators were photographed leaving Malacanang presidential palace with shopping bags full of cash. The palace also allocates “countrywide development funds,” pork-barrel money that individual congressmen can direct as they see fit.

According to a poll released June 11 by Manila-based Social Weather Stations, only 31% of 1,200 Filipinos surveyed believe that Ms. Arroyo intends to step down in 2010 when her term is up. Staying in power may be the only way Ms. Arroyo can stay out of jail. The president is a political survivor who has beaten back numerous attempts to unseat her, so anything is possible. But whether through the bayonet or charter change, subverting next year’s presidential elections would set back the maturation process of the Philippines‘ fragile democratic institutions.#

Mr. Decker, a former editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia, is managing editor of the Opinion pages at the Washington Times and author of “Global Filipino” (Regnery, 2008).

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