When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo approved the arrest of Joseph Ejercito Estrada, she broke an unwritten rule as old as the modern presidency itself: When you gain power, leave your predecessor alone. a certain extent, this unwritten rule was followed even in the case of the Marcoses, particularly after Fidel Ramos allowed them to return home.
While Ramos – who was in many ways the final example of the premartial-law, old-school politician (combined with his own network of martial law contemporaries) – had the breathing space to expand his coalition, its ambitions for the Malaysian model of a permanent ruling party enjoying a parliamentary lockdown on power and patronage foundered on resistance from civil society and public scepticism.
Arroyo, goaded by civil society to throw Estrada in jail, had to turn to the military to protect her when an urban insurrection almost succeeded in freeing him. She let the military loose on the communists as a reward, abandoned all pretences of reform, and indulged her coalition with patronage, costing it the chance to succeed where Ramos had failed – instituting a permanent ruling party presiding over a unicameral parliamentary system immune from public opinion.
Temporarily ceding the field in 2010, the Arroyo coalition returned to power in 2016 although as a partner in a coalition that included the remnants of the Ramos coalition she herself neutered during her presidency after it had served its purpose, and of the Estrada coalition she had made peace with by pardoning him. Together with the Marcoses and the president’s own group of people represented by the new Speaker of the House (and, to a lesser, uneasy, extent, the new Senate president), she has joined forces to finally achieve what couldn’t be done before. To put an end to the wild swings of the pendulum between populism and reform, the application of force, in defiance of public opinion, whether domestic or foreign, is required.
What this coalition enjoys now is a lack of squeamishness on the part of the Chief Executive – and the realisation on the latter’s part that as long as force is selectively used – primarily on the poor and unorganised in urban areas, in well-selected examples of the merchant and political class, and on the bureaucracy and unarmed institutions such as the courts and commissions – then the initiative belongs to the government, which not only puts all critics on the defensive but also creates the kind of momentum necessary to get away with the changes that the coalition wants. (Using force on the poor and unorganised accomplishes three things: It inspires confidence in the middle and upper classes who live in perpetual terror of mobs; it pacifies the poor, who notice the elimination of undesirables in their own communities, and lowers incidents of petty crimes for everyone else; and, by spreading promotions and bounties, it ties the police – and, if anticommunist manhunts gather steam, the military – close to the Palace.)
While all coalition members will get a piece of the action, and no coalition partner suffers from the delusion that there is honour among thieves, the details of which faction wins out in the end are, for now, secondary to achieving what the coalition has failed to achieve for close to 30 years: the defeat of the pesky civil society, church, media, and public expectations that limited official impunity, throughout that same period, and which came dangerously close to permanently placing the country on a trajectory toward modernity both in society and governance, and even business, during the last dispensation. This cannot be allowed to happen again.
This means that 2018 is a make-or-break year for that coalition. Its best hope, as a successor to protect the current culprits and restore some measure of basic competence, is unelectable as president: Gloria Arroyo. All the rest, whether the Marcoses longing for a reversal of the verdict of 1986, the business blocs that fund and maintain the biggest and best-organised parties, even individual standard-bearers for those blocs, whether Cayetano or Villar, are simply too unreliable. The Speaker, in ramming through the biggest story for 2018 – Charter change – can plan for a showdown with Arroyo after the position of prime minister is established. But first things first: Eliminate the 2019 midterms.