Friday, March 07, 2008

With A Hopeful Eye

EDSA Day 2008 came and went with much more poignancy than usual, shadowed as it was by continuing unresolved scandals. On the one hand, there were more ardent calls to rediscover the spirit of People Power as a means to resolve the present crisis; and on the other, a general weariness that disdainfully asks: "What for?"

Indeed, what for?

Twenty-two years after we ousted one dictator, it feels as if a more terrible one has taken its place. It's the Gospel parable come to life: an exorcised demon, returning to its host and finding it clean, invites seven demons worse than itself back in. The new enemy is more cunning, disguising its deeds behind gates of gabble and gold. It is formidable because it is not just one man (or one woman) but a systemically ingrained culture of corruption.

In recent weeks, though, against my own inclinations, I have begun to see our situation with a more hopeful eye. It is not because I see any quick impending resolution; quite the contrary, the process will be proctracted and painful. Instead, I see hope because our discourse has finally given definition to our disease; and knowing so, we no longer box with slippery shadows as we have in the past.

In the first place, the problem is not, as many perceive, merely with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Our wont has simply been to vent our frustration and anger on the sitting president, whether Marcos or Erap or Ramos or even Cory. Removing Arroyo, however, removes the symptom but not the root.

This is not to say that Arroyo need not be dealt with. She must. In a manner of speaking, we already have. Arroyo's motivations for the presidency are ridiculously and disturbingly simple (as I will discuss in the future). In having her misdeeds called out, her punishment has already begun. She will have much to atone before her sins are erased.

In reality, Arroyo is a hostaged president. Hostaged by whom? By congressmen, governors, and generals. Arroyo continues to sit where she does because she condones corruption. As long as this corruption continues, money will continue to flow freely as in a neverending feast. No need for qualms of conscience: after all, the taint has been laundered through countryside development funds. "It is for our constituents, and therefore it must be good! Amen! Alleluia! (And I'll just take the customary 20%, thank you very much.)"

Arroyo, by her actions, has so weakened the presidency that the power has already shifted to the provinces. Arroyo is a powerless president; of this she reminds us every time she saunters on a solidarity stroll with mayors, governors, and congressmen. See them all march side by side, smiling as if the summer will never cease: Arroyo will sit so long as she serves their purposes.

But in this seeming solidarity is also its major weakness. What this administration has developed is a monoculture. Monocultures are doomed to die because they do not have the variety or flexibility to adapt; any disruption, internal or external, will kill it soon enough.

For one thing, all the "political noise" has started to put pressure on the flow of illegal funds. To be sure, there's still money here and there, enough to buy a few more months. However, as Arroyo's supporters demand more rewards for their loyalty, it won't be long before the sources are squeezed out. The heightened vigilance now makes it hard to play another high-stakes gamble a la ZTE; Arroyo cannot afford another major scandal so soon. It's really up to civil society to sustain the heat.

For another, the individual units in Arroyo's ecosystem of support do not have a sustainable long-term gameplan. Their primary interest is their own political survival, a goal now inextricably keyed to financial support from the top. It is predictable, uncreative, and inflexible. The world will soon overtake these dinosaurs: a large part of their constituency are migrating; those that remain will either die from starvation or gain enough financial strength relative to their own so as to make their own independent decisions -- local politicians only really matter to a demographic below a particular income level. Granted, it might take a few more years, but it will happen; it has already started to happen.

If Arroyo's provincial supporters have any vision at all, it is that canard called Federalism. But I suspect that many of them misunderstand it as a simple mechanism to consolidate their fiefdom. Precious few provinces are ready for Federalism; the only ones who will survive the shift are those who can thrive without a countryside development fund or an internal revenue allocation. Federalism can only hasten their demise, though not before plunging the countryside into chaos.

The ultimate weakness in the Arroyo monoculture is, ironically, Arroyo herself. Arroyo has been so jealous of power that she has not groomed any viable successors. Not one of her staunchest supporters in the Lower House has palatability to win the presidency; not one of the present batch of frontrunners feels any compelling need to ally himself with her. Quite the opposite, a staunch anti-Arroyo stance is the sure ticket to the top of the surveys.

Will she attempt to stay in power past 2010? Will she renege on her assurances? It's not something to put past this woman, given her history. A term extension, or parliamentary shift, perhaps? It's been tried before, the former by Ramos just before 1998; the latter in 2006 by de Venecia, both with dismal consequences. Know this: if she or her allies try either so close to the end, they had better be prepared, not for People Power, but for civil war.

So what are the options for Arroyo? Resignation is out of the question as her psychology will not permit it. An impeachment, so close to the end, is a possibility -- not because the congressmen will suddenly grow a conscience -- but because a turncoat will attempt to sacrifice Arroyo in the hopes of playing the hero card. The best that Arroyo can hope for is to limp to the finish line in 2010, and then into the ignominy of history.

Arroyo no longer matters. All she is good for now is photo-ops with flood victims and hapless farmers.

The task that remains ahead for us -- for those who truly care -- is to dismantle the system of institutionalized corruption. It will not be quick. It will not be easy. It will take concerted and prolonged action at the local level to ensure that those who are elected are leaders and representatives who will not condone corruption -- even if it is for the good of their constituents. It will take much patience, and along the way we will sometimes falter, but soon enough this culture will implode into itself. It will take personal sacrifice because we must be the change that we want to be. Persevere!

In the meantime, neither must we let up on the pressure against the high-level corruption manifest before us. Even if we cannot bring those involved to justice, if all we can hope for is to bear continued pressure on their arrogance, it may already be worth the fight: Abalos and Garci no longer sit on the COMELEC; Bolante and Bedol are on the run; and every appearance that Mike Arroyo makes with the Ombudsman at the very least means half a day without major chicanery or mischief. Soon enough, their edifice will crumble.

Speak up. Be vigilant. Watch with a hopeful eye.

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