Column: In praise of electioneering

Published January 29, 2008

Last week in Bangkok I had the chance to sit in on a thrilling discussion on North Korea by three journalists with extensive experience in covering the world’s last Stalinist state. Mike Chinoy, formerly of CNN and now Edgerton Fellow on Korean Security at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, gave a comprehensive quote-rich overview of the current diplomatic impasse, but it was Takabumi Suzuoki of Nihon Keizai Shimbun who ended up with the sound bite of the day.

“We cannot expect a happy ending from the North Korea issue, I think,” Suzuoki said of the country he has covered, on and off, for over three decades. He was responding to a question, at that Bangkok discussion, about post-Kim Jong Il scenarios.

Lee Joo-hee of the Korea Herald, who has followed the six-party talks for the last few years, shared the Japanese veteran’s pessimism. “I don’t even want to think about post-Kim scenarios,” she confessed with a smile. “I think it [his departure from the scene] will be chaotic.”

Only Chinoy, who ought to know a thing or two about the fall of dictators, was sanguine about North Korea’s prospects. Referring to speculation that the North Korean system would collapse after the death of founder Kim Il Sung, he noted that in fact “the system didn’t collapse.” He added: “It didn’t hold true then and doesn’t hold true now.” Chinoy’s book on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, “Meltdown,” will be published in August.

* * *

Bankers who write memoirs must subscribe to the theory of boundary situations. Either that, or they work with editors who believe that life stories should begin, not with the circumstances of birth, but in the turbulent middle of a crisis.

Alan Greenspan’s “The Age of Turbulence” begins with the defining moment of recent American history, the terrorist strike on Sept. 11, 2001 and how he learned about it and contemplated the consequences while on a Swissair flight. “The Federal Reserve is in charge of the electronic payment systems that transfer more than $4 trillion a day in money and securities between banks all over the country and much of the rest of the world. We’d always thought that if you wanted to cripple the US economy, you’d take out the payment systems.” This worst-case scenario, however, American’s most famous Federal Reserve chairman considered “highly unlikely.”

Like Greenspan, the former US secretary of the treasury Robert Rubin began “In an Uncertain World” in medias res too: He took his oath before Bill Clinton at the height of what he later called the “first crisis of the 21st century” — the 1995 Mexican financial debacle. “It didn’t occur to me that day that Mexico’s problems would shortly blossom into a full-blown economic crisis that embodied the heightened risks of a more global economy.”

Who knows? Perhaps last week’s market rout will figure in the opening pages of a market-moving banker’s future memoir.

* * *

I took time out from the media conference organized by the East West Center to appear in an Al-Jazeera talk show. Only Bobby Tuazon of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance made it to the network’s Kuala Lumpur studio; Jesus Arranza of the Federation of Philippine Industries in Manila and I (in a rented studio in Bangkok) were linked by satellite feed.

It was quite difficult to follow the discussion, because (among other distractions) we could not see each other. The show’s host, Teymoor Nabili, seemed exceedingly well-prepared, but after some time I realized he was proceeding from rather apocalyptic assumptions: about the Philippine polity being irretrievably broken, about the inutility of the Catholic church and the irredeemable venality of the political class.

I tried to talk about sources of hope, but not having the chance to define the context, at times I seemed out of breath, if not out of arguments. Perhaps next time.

* * *

“If civil society groups are looking for a resignation call, they will not be satisfied with our pastoral statement.”

That’s Caloocan Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez talking about the certain disappointment anti-Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo forces will meet in the new pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

But does anyone with his or her head still straight on actually think that the CBCP is anywhere near calling for the President to resign? I think the moment for that has passed. Perhaps the famously activist bishop is listening to the wrong advice.

If I read the middle forces correctly, what they want is for the bishops to put all their weight behind one, election reform, and two, elections AS SCHEDULED in 2010.

In this sense, the aggressive pre-positioning and premature campaigning of presidential hopefuls — while usually a cause for concern and a subject of homilies against electioneering — should be welcomed.

Let a thousand candidacies bloom. They will help create a demand for elections to go on as scheduled. The alternative is too stark, the ending too unhappy; “I don’t even want to think about it.”


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  1. Pingback: Column: Debating Manny Villar « Newsstand

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