Published on December 4, 2007
Not content with the damage Antonio Trillanes et al. caused last Thursday, Malacañang issued orders to detain some (but, crucially, not all) of the journalists who covered the caper. The resulting controversy was like ramming a tank into the country’s various newsrooms; it invited public outrage and international condemnation, at the exact moment the administration found itself in a position to claim an unusual, because unalloyed, victory.
But the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo overreacted in cuffing journalists and imposing a curfew — forcing the President, on the eve of her departure for Europe, to remind her alter egos “not [to] unnecessarily rile the media at this point in time.”
To be sure, there is logic to the paranoia. The administration is testing the limits of the people’s capacity for resistance. It is essential that we push back.
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I was guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Manila on the day Trillanes decided to play (ineptly) for all the marbles. Naturally, the possibility of popular support for Trillanes and company was a topic of discussion.
As it happens, I had decided to speak on “the limits of outrage,” in an attempt to read current public opinion on corruption. I wanted to know the answer to a question I thought was all too often assumed in political scenario-building: Will public disgust over corruption unseat President Arroyo? In other words: Will outrage lead to ouster?
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I have been tracking what I then called the “outrage gap” since the “Hello, Garci” scandal exploded. My first post in my Newsstand blog, written on July 4, 2005, raises a question about the relationship between public outrage as measured by surveys, and protests in the streets.
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At the Rotary Club of Manila forum, I studied three surveys. It was important, of course, to start right, with something that approaches Cartesian certitude. I started with the hypothesis that the public today shares the sense that “corruption is at its worst.” I began with anecdotal evidence: the sense that, especially since the disclosure of the distribution of “cash gifts” in Malacañang, public forums and private conversations have been shaped by growing disgust over all-pervading corruption.
And then I looked to the surveys for confirmation. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy 2007 survey (admittedly requiring a leap back in time) shows the Philippines faring the worst among 13 economies. This is the survey (again, admittedly of a very select public: expatriates doing business in Asia) that, taken somewhat out of context, gave the opposition a rallying cry in the last election. But why was it such an effective rallying point? Because it captured so-called conventional wisdom. The June 2007 survey by the poll group Social Weather Stations (SWS) also showed that, on the issue of graft and corruption, an almost-majority of voting-age Filipinos said they were dissatisfied with the Arroyo administration’s performance. Only a bare third said they were satisfied.
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These numbers, if we equate public dissatisfaction with public outrage, will give pause to any politician with a weak stomach or weaker appetite. But as it turns out, the numbers are not as damning over the longer term. The same SWS survey shows that the net satisfaction rating on the administration’s handling of graft and corruption (-18 in June 2007) was actually worse in September 2006 (-30). In other words, there has been a cooling in public opinion (or at least the results allow us to say that).
In fact, the cooling pattern is some 20 years old. SWS reports that public opinion on government’s handling of graft and corruption traditionally begins at a (relatively) high level with every administration, and then declines over the administration’s term.
That brings us to the present. In its October 2007 survey, the poll group Pulse Asia found that a majority of voting-age Filipinos identified various graft and corruption issues as reason enough for a president to resign. (I have a little problem with this part of the survey, but I think the main thrust is indisputable.) When asked what action they were willing to take to force the resignation of a president linked to graft and corruption, however, only a quarter said they were willing to take to the streets. About the same number said they were willing to do something beyond street protests.
There, as that little Shakes-scene taught us to say, is the rub. Outrage over corruption is not what brings people to the streets. It prepares the public, and it leads to defeat of the incumbent at the ballot box. But EDSA People Power I in 1986 was not so much about corruption as about election fraud; EDSA People Power II in 2001 was about the hijacking of the impeachment process.
Rotarian Nick Locsin summarized my point succinctly: We are not insensitive to corruption, but we are used to it. The lesson for regime-changers: Corruption scandals do not prematurely bring down an administration, but proof of something else entirely — brazen fraud, gross impunity, lewd dancing in the halls of the Senate.
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Allow me to remember a friend who died a most unexpected death last month. Emoy Gorgonia was a poet of possibility, with a gift for locating the positive in any situation. He was also the most gifted, among all the people I know, at the art of romance; he knew the stagecraft of courtship, of wooing, intimately. Indeed, some of his “gimmicks” are legend to his students and mine, back when we were teaching in Xavier University. That these were as collaborative as plays, that they depended on other people for their style and wit, is a tribute to his talent for working with people, and imbuing them with, yes, the sense of possibility.