Friday, February 29, 2008

The Irrelevant President

In a presidency fraught with denials, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did the unthinkable last Saturday: she admitted, over public radio, that she was aware of the anomalies surrounding the ZTE-NBN deal. Her words:

“Nasumbong sa akin the night before the signing of the supply contract, pero hindi pa naman kasi...oh that was only one of many pa paano mo naman makakansel the night before mayroon pang ibang bansang kausap...tinuloy yung signing pero sa unang pagkakataaon kinausap ko na agad yung pangulo ng China para sabihin sa kanya na kailangang kanselahin ang proyekto.”

Come Tuesday, MalacaƱang spinmeisters quickly backtracked on the story, claiming the tried-and-true "she-was-misquoted" defense. As they say: "Tell it to the Marines."

Just what are we to make of the foregoing statement? Setting aside, for the moment, the distinct possibility that this president is irredeemably corrupt, the admission points to contemptible incompetence and stupidity.

One: it is Mrs. Arroyo's job as chief executive to ensure that the deals she signs are airtight and aboveboard; if not herself personally, then through the series of checks and balances that are inherent in the processes of any large system. Certainly a deal as large as $329-M requires extensive audit.

Two: once she already learned of irregularities in the transaction, why did she proceed to sign it anyway? Because, as she reasoned out, that was only the first of many signings? How strange, then, because in business, it is the chief executive's signature that is the final seal of approval! Regardless, she displayed wilful negligence and tacit complicity in the anomaly.

Three: the signing took place in April 2007. The ZTE-NBN deal was only scrapped in October 2007, when its stink already proved to be indisguisable. If we are to believe her words, it took her all of six months to work out its cancellation? Why not sooner before the hint of scandal overtook the contract?

Four: she learned that there were irregularities in the deal almost a year ago, and yet all this time no one has been reprimanded, suspended, fired, charged, or jailed. An irregularity for a deal of that magnitude, not to mention the accompanying instability it brought, should have been sufficient cause for heads to roll.

This is the fundamental problem at hand: Mrs. Arroyo, when she isn't clinging desperately to the presidency using the Constitution as her bat, styles herself as the Chief Executive Officer of Philippines, Inc. Her perpetual boast is one of financial gains and foreign investments. But as we can gauge from her decisions, she is not fit to run a company. The stockholders would pretty soon run her off.

Mrs. Arroyo's corporate fantasies notwithstanding, the Philippines is not a company. It is a country, it is a nation, it is a state. There are simply some things that you can never ever do with a country or a nation or a state.

A company, for example, could put its assets in collateral for a loan. It might even sell these assets in order to raise cash for other investments. But a country can never ever willingly cede sovereign territory that it lays claim to, at least not without a fight. That, in effect, seems to be what Mrs. Arroyo has done.

Following a Correspondents special report, this is what is coming to light: starting in 2006, the Arroyo administration managed to secure loans from China amounting to $2-B per year up to 2010. Summing it up, the loans will run up to $10-B over the 5-year period. This is what is funding the National Broadband Network, the Cyber Education Project, Northrail, Southrail, and other questionable deals just coming to light.

The Arroyo administration will, of course, boast that the interest rates are low and repayment conditions lenient. However, it is suspiciously coincidental that such loans should come on the heels of a deal with China for joint oil exploration of the Spratly islands. The deal implicitly grants China access to any valuable resources that may be found on those islands.

Mrs. Arroyo, it seems, is trading our patrimony and our future for a very expensive bowl of lentil soup.

There are words for this: Treason. Treachery. Traitor. Traidor. Taksil. Maka-Pili. Hudas.

That's not all. Mrs. Arroyo's radio confession seems to have been a preparatory step to distance herself from her lieutenants. Where else would such an open admission lead to? Mrs. Arroyo was getting ready to sacrifice some lambs.

Just who was Mrs. Arroyo going to sacrifice? Lorenzo Formoso. Leandro Mendoza. Benjamin Abalos, whose resignation from the COMELEC last year was merely a prelude. But could she really afford to break with Mendoza, a former PNP general? Or with Abalos, who holds so many, many secrets? These are not lambs who will go down without a fight.

As the ZTE-NBN puzzle come together, it seems that the web is much more intricate than was previously believed. Really, a deal of this magnitude or complexity cannot come together with just a few heads and a few hands alone. More than the usual Palace spokespersons, who have been the most vocal in the past few days following the admission? Peter Favila? Eduardo Ermita? Ricardo Saludo? The actions of her cabinet secretaries and generals will bear much observation over the coming weeks. Like as not, Mrs. Arroyo is now a prisoner within a cage of complicity of her own making.

Finally, there was the much-vaunted "Unity Walk" with the 52 governors early this week. It may be that these governors genuinely feel for Mrs. Arroyo and did so out of the goodness of their hearts. However, if we follow the tit-for-tat politics of the Philippines, it's more likely that such solidarity entails the promise of future purse strings for the projects...if Mrs. Arroyo survives the next two years. If not? Well, so easy to turn their backs on their president at that last opportune moment; after all, they were elected by the people of their province, were they not? It's a win-win scenario.

To be effective, a president must wield real power. This power emanates from the Constitution, yes, but prior to that, this power emanates first and foremost from the will of the people. Mrs. Arroyo, because of her questionable victory in 2004 and because of the continuing unresolved doubts, cannot fully claim this mandate. Mrs. Arroyo, because of her actions within the recent weeks, has shown herself beholden to a select group of people around her, either co-conspirators or opportunists. Worst of all, Mrs. Arroyo, by the records of her administration's transactions, may be beholden to a foreign power.

Nothing we the people will say or do will matter much to her now. Why should she matter to us?

She is irrelevant.

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