MANILAWith the campaign for May 14 congressional elections now in full swing,
President Gloria Arroyo is facing some uncomfortable realities of Philippine
First, the ballot box may well deliver a
verdict rather different from the exalted claims of the so-called People Power
II movement that drove President Joseph Estrada from office in January. Second,
Mrs. Arroyo's need to establish a broad base for her government and reward those
who helped her into office risks serious dilution of the unrevolutionary reform
for which the metropolitan middle classes, in particular, are yearning.
Many who joined the street demonstrations
against Mr. Estrada did so hoping that his demise would lead to a wholesale
clean-up of political institutions and that fear of exposure would cause
senators to vote according to their beliefs rather than to fiscal incentives. It
was hoped too that the amazing revelations of the Estrada trial would lead
provincial electors to reject long-established clans and political bosses in
favor of a new generation of issue-oriented politicians.
There is progress. The number of
"traditional politician" candidates has declined and parties with platforms are
getting a little more attention. As Congress is as much elected on local as
national issues and is easily susceptible to presidential patronage, it should
cause Mrs. Arroyo little problem. The Senate is another matter. To support her
claims to People Power, she needs her supporters to sweep the 13 available
Active support for the disgraced Mr.
Estrada is waning but lingering sympathy exists among many poor people. Mr.
Estrada was indicted on eight corruption charges Wednesday but it is not clear
whether this will help the government's cause or lend support to the popular
notion that he is being victimized by the Manila elite.
Despite the ubiquity of national
television, the gulf between Manila and the provinces is wide. In Mindanao Mr.
Estrada's successful military offensive last year against the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front will win votes from Christians concerned that Mrs. Arroyo's
restarting of peace talks is a sign of her weakness.
In the Senate race, opposition candidates
include high-profile figures like Juan Ponce Enrile, defense minister under the
former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a key figure in the 1986 revolt that
deposed him; Gregorio Honasan, leader of two coup attempts against President
Corazon Aquino; and Panfilo Lacson, Mr. Estrada's top policeman, credited by
supporters with reducing street crime but viewed by opponents as a notorious
human rights violator.
The pro-Arroyo candidates are a more
attractive group, but Senate elections are usually more about candidate exposure
and campaign funding than issues. The cost of constant politics in a poor
country invites a continuation of the practices exposed during the Estrada
trial. Few are entirely innocent. Mr. Estrada's takings were tiny compared with
those of Mr. Marcos, whose money still sits in European banks under his family's
control. People Power I did not secure a single significant prosecution.
If Mrs. Arroyo can get a clean sweep she
will have the potential to create a strong administration supported by the
ballot box rather than by compromises with the various groups to whom she owes
power. But opinion polls suggest that the opposition could win five or six of
the 13 Senate seats.
That would not be a good result. Mrs.
Arroyo is a serious and hardworking president with a competent cabinet and she
enjoys international and local business goodwill. But she is already being
accused of lacking the toughness needed to make decisions on the basis of
national interest, not political compromises.
Military men who helped her into power
have been given many posts, sometimes regardless of their reputations. A general
relieved of his command after allegations of racketeering has been given the key
post of Philippines' representative in Taiwan, a strategically crucial neighbor
and a source of much capital. The Church has been rewarded with a presidential
ban of a sexually explicit movie passed by the censor. Even the insurgent left
has been given an olive branch of dialogue.
The business elite is still very much
behind her but time and self-interest are already starting to blur allegiances.
The influential businessman Eduardo (Danding) Cojuangco has shifted from a
pro-Estrada to a neutral position. That is the kind of maneuver which is making
life easier for Mrs. Arroyo now but could make it more difficult to deliver
reforms like cleaning up the police and judicial systems and making corporations
and the rich pay taxes so there is money for roads and schools .
The Philippines may be gradually
returning to "politics as usual" in which case Mr. Estrada and People Power II
will be seen in retrospect as having provided good theater but little change. If
so the Arroyo presidency will be a watered-down version of the administration of
Mr. Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos. That would be a big improvement on Mr.
Estrada, but not enough to justify January's short-circuiting of the
Let's hope the May 14 election will prove
otherwise. It could give political reform the kind of momentum that Thailand
witnessed after the 1992 revolt against the military, later bolstered by the
financial crisis. But do not bet on it.