POSTSCRIPT / June 16, 2005 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Hanging tough, Gloria is likely to ride out crisis

VULTURES: As the nation lays bleeding, watch the vultures — meaning the politicians and the power brokers — hovering over the macabre scene for the opportune time to swoop down for easy pickings.

The latest to fly low enough to be recognized as an intending replacement of mortally wounded President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is Vice President Noli de Castro.

There are other familiar faces waiting in the wings, such as former Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph “Erap” Estrada.

Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. is also being mentioned (although he is not volunteering) as a neutral hand who might be acceptable to most of the contending forces as a compromise caretaker who can command the respect of the greatest number while the nation sorts out its problems.

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NOLI’S EDGE: But De Castro enjoys the edge over the other contenders, because:

  1. In the event President Arroyo steps aside or is otherwise removed, the Constitution ordains that Vice President steps into the vacancy. No other contender enjoys as strong a legal foothold on the presidency as De Castro.
  2. TV newsreader De Castro is supported by ABS-CBN. The powerful media network has been noticed lately to be stepping up its attacks on President Arroyo, presumably to hasten the ascension of its fair-haired boy.
  3. An influential Makati law firm, supposed supporter of President Arroyo, has started talking with De Castro and his patrons to help him — under certain conditions, I assume — clinch the presidency. The firm can look after the legal underpinning of De Castro’s assumption.

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GMA ON LEAVE?: De Castro and his handlers are expected to fight tooth and nail any attempt of the political opposition to kick him out together with President Arroyo on the theory that the same foul tactics carried them to victory in the last elections.

The law firm reportedly promised to see to it that De Castro gets ample support in the Supreme Court and in the top echelons of the armed forces and the national police where it has placed a number of nominees.

But would President Arroyo resign? She has declared that she would never quit. If not, how about going on leave?

Note that she has not said anything about going on vacation and allowing the Vice President to temporarily hold the reins of government. That route is open.

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NOLI IS SAFER: The problem with being temporarily out is that Ms Arroyo may not be able to trust De Castro and his patrons. “Temporary” could mean “indefinite” then firm up into something “permanent.”

But if Ms Arroyo and her family feel it in their bones that her continued stay has become untenable, she might agree to lose the presidency altogether — but only to her running mate De Castro, if the latter could assure iron-clad protection.

It would be risky for the Arroyos to have the opposition capture Malacanang and embark on a vengeful witch hunt.

In short, if Ms Arroyo has to go, she would rather have her Vice President taking her place.

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THE FIRM MOVES: Aside from the expected objection to De Castro from the middle class and the business community, I can see some possible questions being raised about the forces orbiting around him (or should I say “the forces that keep him in orbit”?).

His identification with the Lopez family operating the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), which enjoys negative approval among consumers reeling from exorbitant electricity rates, is an interesting point.

There is lingering suspicion that the Lopezes, who played kingmaker before the dictator Ferdinand Marcos cut them down in 1972, have been moving to recapture political preeminence by pushing their protege De Castro to the presidency.

A new element in De Castro’s campaign is the Makati law firm, a notorious power broker that boasts of making (and unmaking?) presidents. The firm’s overreaching turns off many sectors.

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CHA-CHA ROUTE: But we must assume that Ms Arroyo, if she has to go, wants to stay until she is able to work out her graceful exit and step down on her own steam.

One way of achieving this is to rush the rewriting of the Constitution. As there are enough key players supporting amendment, she is likely to find many supporters if she moves in this direction.

From the public relations point of view, such a move will be good for the administration. It will (1) change the subject fromjueteng and wiretapping to charter change, and (2) suggest to the public that many problems can be traced to or blamed on the system, not so much on the leadership.

The selection alone of the Constitutional Convention delegates will provide distraction from current concerns threatening the Arroyo presidency. Such distraction will deepen during the Con-Con session.

When the amendments installing a new system (most likely a modified parliamentary system) take effect, President Arroyo would be able to assume another role and phase herself out, if she so desires, without the black marks of impeachment or ouster via people power.

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U.S. UNHAPPY: President Arroyo really has reason to be worried, considering the buildup of American impatience with her administration coinciding with the slipping of her local approval rating.

In a reversal of fortunes, the United States has shown signs of being unhappy with the lady who first gained White House approval with her sending of the Philippine flag to Iraq to fly with the Stars and Stripes in a foreign war.

The word we get from diplomatic row is that Washington is not satisfied with the anti-terrorism campaign of the Arroyo administration, particularly in Mindanao.

A number of US officials have described our southern backdoor as porous, what with terrorists from neighboring countries freely coming in and out without the government being able to do anything.

The US wants to develop Mindanao as a strong buffer not only against the spread of terrorism in the area, but also as a reminder to China not to entertain thoughts of expanding southward in the region.

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BUSINESS RESTIVE: For instance, a ranking diplomatic officer told his home office in a report that “Manila business leaders have increasingly expressed serious concern about how corruption is hindering their ability to conduct legitimate business.”

Among the businessmen quoted was Washington Sycip, founding partner of SGV (a prominent accounting firm and an affiliate of US firm Ernst and Young), who was said to have expressed doubt about democracy’s suitability for the Philippines.

He was said to have become “increasingly pessimistic, claiming privately that corruption nowadays is at its worst, surpassing even the Marcos era.”

Corruption, he was quoted further as saying, “has destroyed the constitutional checks and balances.” He reportedly said that “years after Arroyo wrestled the presidency from former president Joseph Estrada, the Philippines has stagnated economically and deteriorated politically.”

The report also mentioned First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo’s behavior, describing it as “damaging the credibility of the government and hinders President Arroyo’s ability to implement anti-corruption measures.

It added that the President is aware of her husband’s activities, including those related to “jueteng” and smuggling, but is unwilling to curb his activities because “he was instrumental in marshaling campaign donations and is now keeping those supporters in line to help her maintain her grip on power.”

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PESSIMISM: Citing remarks of other prominent business leaders along the same line, the US diplomat’s report said:

“Clearly, serious minds are increasingly questioning the current administration’s ability to lead the Philippines out of its difficulties. The irony is that, as they note, the government is doing more to combat corruption, but the problem is getting worse.

“Such assessments alarm potential foreign investors and may foreshadow serious growth problems down the road, as the government fails to attract outside investment and finds itself unable to adequately invest in the country’s future.

“The business community admitted that the optimism and confidence that permeated Filipino society in 1998 is gone. With the current deteriorating situation, the populace needs a clear leader who could bring back the optimism it had after the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

“Given the importance of the Philippines to US interest and the enduring commitment of so many Filipinos to fixing their society, we need to redouble our efforts, for hope that this ‘failing state’ can rescue itself.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 16, 2005)

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