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Philip Bowring: The Philippines at an impasse

International Herald Tribune

MONDAY, JULY 11, 2005
HONG KONG It is hard to find a satisfactory way out of the Philippines' political crisis. Every avenue seems mined. But there is still a chance that this catharsis could lead to a change in the Constitution.
Until the July 8 defection of much of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's cabinet and calls for her resignation from former President Corazon Aquino and the Makati Business Club, the least bad option seemed to be for the president to stay in office - at least until impeachment by the Congress appeared likely or more damning evidence of ballot rigging emerged. Arroyo could still make a reasonable case for not bowing before street protests, unproven allegations or political opportunism.
But the dubious ouster of her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, in 2001 has returned to haunt her. Loss of support from large sections of the elite that engineered her assumption of power has undercut her biggest claim - that she could deliver competent government and desperately needed fiscal reform. Now if she tries to cling to power she is, at best, likely to be a lame duck for the rest of her term, which still has five years to run.
Before then Arroyo would most likely be ousted either by impeachment, military intervention or the combination of mass protest, judicial and church activism and withdrawal of military support, which is the mix of forces that removed Estrada, despite the refusal of the Senate to impeach him.
It might seem best for her now to fall on her sword in the manner of President Richard Nixon. But Nixon had a clear and unquestioned successor. Arroyo does not.
One can, for the moment, set aside the worries that Vice President Noli de Castro is a lightweight who was a reluctant candidate and owes his vote-pulling power to his career as a television presenter. He could rise to the job. Perhaps an amiable personality would be as effective as Arroyo's economics lectures in gaining legislative support for reform. There have been reports of a deal between de Castro and the ministers who have resigned.
The problem is that if there are doubts over the legality of Arroyo's election there would be doubts over de Castro's. With Estrada forces still campaigning for his return, leftist forces and nongovernmental organizations hostile to de Castro and ambitious would-be presidential candidates waiting in the wings, there is no guarantee that a smooth succession would be possible. The defeated vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda is determined to oppose it.
The elite groups may rally round de Castro for now, but there are still five years of Arroyo's term to go. If Castro's elevation were to be seen as too divisive, there could be an effort to move to the next in line, Franklin Drilon, the president of the Senate and the Liberal Party leader. There would then have to be a new presidential election within 60 days that could have unpredictable results, not least the return to power of allies of Estrada. The situation could get messier yet.
So is there any possibility of a silver lining? There is one. Former President Fidel Ramos has advised Arroyo not to be railroaded into resignation but to offer to step down next year once changes in the Constitution have been pushed through. Ramos has long been in favor of a shift to a parliamentary system and a movement in that direction was attempted late in his presidency but made little headway as it was seen as a means of prolonging his power. Now, however, after years of political turmoil and ingrained political corruption there is a possibility of a consensus forming for such a shift. At the very least there could be a move to a unicameral legislature. Other changes being pushed for are a federal system, proportional representation and strengthening of the party system.
It is doubtful if such major changes could be achieved in today's highly-charged atmosphere. They would particularly undercut the power of the 24 senators, an opportunistic collection of individuals often more interested in self-promotion than good governance.
However, there are ways of changing the constitution, and reform could be done quite quickly. The most straightforward is through the election of a Constitutional Convention. But it is also possible for the two houses of Congress to form an assembly to propose changes that would then go to a referendum.
The majority of Filipinos are believed to be sick of their politicians and would back changes in the system. But can the politicians set aside their battles for the spoils of office? It seems unlikely, but today's impasse is so serious that radical steps to improve a system that has become an embarrassment to democracy are needed.
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