…For she may well be the most dangerous political operator the Philippines has ever known, with more cunning than Machiavelli’s Prince and less compunction than the Arthasastra…
In the past few weeks, the Philippines has been convulsed by a somewhat surreal group of scandals and mini-scandals surrounding President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (or GMA/PGMA). First, a son of Speaker Jose De Venecia (JDV) alleged that the Mainland Chinese company ZTE had bribed Philippine officials to secure a major contract, with the knowledge of the President’s husband. Then, a reportedly weak impeachment complaint against GMA–one that, if denied due course, would “immunize” her for another year–became the focus of allegations that she was trying to manipulate the impeachment process. A few weeks after, it was revealed that officials attending a meeting at the Presidential Palace had received “Christmas gifts” of half-a-million pesos each; and as that scandal began to snowball, a massive explosion rocked an uptown mall and fuelled speculation that it was the government’s handiwork.
Under normal circumstances, such a series of events would be the writing on the wall for a leader. In particular, the resulting clash between the President and the Speaker seems to spell her doom: The support of the savvy JDV had been instrumental in defeating prior attempts to unseat her, and his defection could enable the House Opposition to marshal enough votes to impeach GMA–who would then be tried and probably convicted by the Opposition-dominated Senate. Even more, the Catholic Bishops have publicly demanded an explanation for the “gifts”; a key GMA ally, former-President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR), has publicly criticized her; and there are rumbles of dissatisfaction in the military. With all these factors ranged against her, why is it nonetheless probable, even almost certain, that GMA will hang on to power?
The Political Ecology
The first reason for GMA’s past and future longevity is the existence of a structurally favorable political climate. By this, we do not mean that GMA enjoys popular support—far from it, in fact–, but rather that, in terms of institutions, it is unlikely that any force or group of forces will have the strength to remove her through peaceful mass action or by mobilizing legal processes of removal.
To explain: The Philippine political system is best understood if we see its major players as estates divided into blocs composed of factions. An estate, following Weber’s usage, is a group distinguished by its specific social functions and conventions (rather than by mere economic standing, as in the case of a class); blocs are subgroups made cohesive by a common ideology, orientation, or interest, and which are the best Philippine equivalents of political parties; and factions are groups usually united by personal antipathy or allegiance. In the Philippines, the estates would be the Thinkers or “lords spiritual” (its Blocs being the Church, the Left, and the urban intelligentsia); the Warriors (i.e., the regular military, the armed Left, and the criminal and private armies); the Commons (the urban middle class, and the rural electorates); and the Magnates or “lords temporal” (i.e., the political elite, big business, and organized crime). There are other estates and other blocs, but they are not as politically significant.
There is no space here for a detailed explanation of these estates and blocs, most of which were politicized during and immediately after the regime of former President Marcos; but for our purposes, it suffices to make the following tentative observations:
(1) Since 1986, the successful removal of a sitting President through peaceful mass action has required a coalition composed of at least one bloc from each estate. Hence, the 1986 EDSA revolt was carried out by an alliance of the Church, the non-aligned intelligentsia, the urban middle class, the military, and the Opposition factions of big business and the political elite; and the 2001 EDSA revolt required the same broad alliance, with the addition of the intellectual Left, which directly participated in the protests.
(2) Of these blocs/factions, the most important have been the military, the Church, the urban middle class (as the popular base of the protests), and the opposition faction of the political elite (which provides the leadership). The absence of any one of these blocs/factions, especially the last, renders removal of a President through peaceful mass action unlikely.
(3) A successful removal through peaceful mass action requires a correlation of forces that favors removal; that is, in leadership, will, and political strength, the pro-ouster coalition must have the advantage over the administration. Thus, the 1986 coalition was marshaled against a regime weakened by economic crisis, the President’s wasting illness, and the attacks of the intellectual and armed Left; and the 2001 coalition confronted a President whose main political base was the isolated and untested urban poor, and who had neither the skill nor the machinery to counter-mobilize.
At present, however, the preconditions for successful removal of the President through peaceful mass action simply do not exist, as was amply demonstrated in the almost-successful ouster attempt of 2005.
To begin with, the main social blocs have been isolated, neutralized, or weakened. For one, the urban middle class, especially the all-important 18-35 age range, is sheltered from economic pressure (like that faced by the urban poor) by the existence of outsourcing and emigrant (OFW) employment, which also siphons off discontented urban intellectuals; and it is diverted from politics by the expansion of the emigrant- and outsourcing-driven consumer market. (Some writers, in fact, have noticed the discrepancy between the youth that fueled the First Quarter Storm and the young adults of contemporary Philippines: once, they say, the paradigmatic activity of college and young professionals was public protest against oppression and injustice; but today, one finds the youth in Starbucks and the ever-ubiquitous malls.)
Even if it were politically active, the urban middle class has declined in relative strength with the politicization of the rural electorate, which tends to be less pro-Opposition than the urban sectors. The presence of this new countervailing force allowed GMA to fight the 2005 ouster-movement by counter-mobilizing the provinces; and with the dominance of patrimonial politics in rural Philippines, which, as we explained in another essay, is under Presidential control, she can well use the provinces again to resist urban protest. Another additional factor has been the rise of urban poor as a potential force. Being less inclined to liberal-democratic ideology and oriented to bread-and-butter issues, the urban poor’s very existence as a mobilizable force serves to weaken the claim of the urban middle class to represent the public will. In a word, we are seeing in the Philippines the beginnings of the process that, in Europe, led to the displacement of middle-class Liberal power with the Conservative, Catholic and Socialist movements.
As for the Church, her past influence was largely due to Jaime Cardinal Sin, who dominated the clergy through force of personality and his control of Manila’s mega-diocese. However, his death in 2005 deprived the bishops of an activist leader with both will & power, and the Church thus reverted to her customary ideological divisions–that is, among (a) activists advocating mass action & aggressive pursuit of structural reforms; (b) prudentialists favoring indirect reform efforts (e.g., influencing existing leaders) or, at most, legal procedures; and (c) neutralists who prefer non-intervention in temporal matters–which is rooted in the absence of an explicit political program in Divine Revelation.
GMA’s aides have hence used the bishops’ disunity, and the weak language of their consensus decisions, to combat activist bishops by emphasizing their minority status. Note also how, in 2005, the victory of the non-activist bishops (who naively believed GMA’s promise to comply with the constitutional impeachment process) effectively killed the oust-GMA movement. Until the rise of a new paramount leader, or the creation of a solid consensus, the one true Church is neutralized as an active political force.
Moreover, the weakening of the urban professional sector also weakens the Church, for her active political power (her auctoritas) in the Philippines largely stems from her alliance with the urban middle class: The Church’s size, organization and Christian-democratic social ideals makes her the main institutional voice of the liberal-democratic ideology of the urban middle class; and thus does she mobilize the masses. With the middle class depoliticized and neutralized, the Church has no liberal mass opinion to crystallize and no activist class to mobilize; and being barred by law from building a formal party, she is left a voice without arms, railing weakly against the present dictatorship. Her dignitas or passive political power (to exert indirect influence) remains, but while it may moderate the pious, it cannot compel the stubborn or oust the incorrigible.
This would not be so bad if the oppositionist faction of the political elite provided effective leadership; but the present opposition is even more fragmented than in the early 1980’s, when it had a figurehead in Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. and at least had the excuse of being actively persecuted. Thus, the 2004 opposition effort, even without the alleged election fraud, scuttled itself on the Angara-Sotto-Lacson divisions; and the present crop has no less than 5 paramount leaders, to say nothing of the independents. This is less a matter of structure than it is of character, for opposition unity today demands nothing less than the self-sacrificing courage of a Salvador Laurel, Jr., who, after uniting the anti-Marcos factions, agreed to play 2nd fiddle in the 1986 elections (to say naught of Senator Aquino walking to his death). That none of the opposition leaders today has done a Laurel bespeaks their selfishness and pride, which is GMA’s fifth and strongest column.
As a result, the opposition has failed to present a credible alternative to GMA–or more precisely, a single credible alternative around which anti-GMA efforts could coalesce–and has failed to build a united machinery beyond the tactical electoral alliances. This explains as nothing else the subsisting strength of Fortress Gloria; for can one imagine Normandy without SACEUR? The irony is that, though there is no lack of possible leaders and organizers within the opposition (Senator Aquilino Pimentel, for one, is a statesman par excellence), its members have become so desperate for alternatives that they are practically scavenging outward. Senator Pimentel even suggested settling for the Dan-Quaylish Vice-President Noli De Castro, a man whose reputation for competence moves even the most staunchly atheistic oppositionist to beg heaven for GMA’s continued health (and it is said that the bishops chose moderation in 2005 precisely for fear of the “Noli factor”).
Lastly, the military will not move against the President. First, it has never moved without a clear opposition-Church-middle-class alliance (the initial 1986 coup and the Oakwood mutiny fizzled out for lack thereof), and such an alliance, as shown above, is presently impossible. Second, the years after 2001 have led to a re-emphasis not on the military’s activist tradition but on its “professionalism”, interpreted in the narrow Prussian sense of allegiance to the State. Third, the military leadership has a vested interest in the continuity of the GMA government, especially since her regime, in membership if not in structure, has to a large extent become a civilian-military complex. For one, retired officers now populate appointive posts; and, though the custom of appointing them began under FVR, the present practice is to appoint indiscriminately, whereas FVR at least sifted for true officers and gentlemen like Rodolfo Biazon, Renato De Villa, and Arturo Enrile.
The inertia of the military (except, that is, of the activist Marines, who were then fed to the cannons in Jolo) means that no peaceful mass action will ever succeed in ousting the President. For all Philippine mass actions have a time limit of about 5 days, after which the protests would fizzle out; and in those 5 days it is absolutely critical that the ouster coalition successfully intimidate a sitting President into resigning. In both 1986 and 2001, this occurred when the mass of the military, bowing to the “will of the people” (understood in the Rousseauist sense), defected from the President, but without military support, a middle-class protest movement has no way to intimidate a leader into removing herself. Nor can it launch a general strike, as was once done to save the Socialist-Catholic coalition of Weimar, for organized labor in the Philippines is divided and unpolitical, and, besides, has no history of concerted action with the urban middle class.
Without a strong oppositionist coalition therefore, how can the correlation of forces not favor GMA? Finally, in my opinion, even if the 1986 coalition were intact now and stood at its strongest, the advantage will still lie with GMA, not through power but through mind and will. For she may well be the most dangerous political operator this country has ever known, with more cunning than Machiavelli’s Prince and less compunction than the Arthasastra; and she has learned well the lessons of EDSA and how to outflank it, while her disunited opponents are still stuck behind the Maginot Line. To this therefore we shall turn in part 2 of this essay.
 Two special cases should be mentioned: (a) the urban poor, which first became a cohesive bloc as the mass base of former President Estrada, but was neutralized by the suppression of the pro-Estrada protests of May 2001; and (b) organized labour, which has tremendous potential power but whose organization and numbers are exerted for economic and not for political ends. The political mobilization of these groups, as partially occurred for opposing sides in 2001, would end the unchallenged hegemony of liberal-patrimonial politics in the Philippines, but is not likely for the moment.