Blast from the past: “Reformist bloc agonizes over GMA ‘dilemma'”

Last month, I stumbled on a copy of this nearly-seven-year-old front-page feature story I wrote for the newspaper. Those were the days.

Published on August 22, 2002

CIVIL society representatives working with the Macapagal administration are now questioning their basis for supporting President Macapagal-Arroyo.

At least three major meetings have already been held in the last several weeks beginning with the controversy over the resignation of Vice President Teofisto Guingona as foreign secretary and the appointment of pro-Estrada oppositionist Sen. Blas Ople as his replacement.

The meetings attempt to list the group’s “bottom lines” — issues which may push the group to withdraw its support from the President.

When pressed, civil society leaders say the list is still a work in progress. One draws the lines in the sand in general terms: more rightist rhetoric, lack of participation at the grassroots level.

Others define the flashpoints in terms of political appointments: if retired Ombudsman Aniano Desierto were named to the Supreme Court; if political operator Ronaldo Puno were appointed formally; if pro-Estrada Sen. Teresa Aquino-Oreta replaced Raul Roco at the Department of Education.

Still others point to specific issues: more Balikatan exercises; an escalation in the President’s red-baiting; even the reimposition of the death penalty (because, as one source said, “the Church is a very big part of civil society”).

But the “bigger threat,” says Teddy Lopez of Kompil, is the “2004 factor.”

At the Ateneo, Dina Abad, dean of the Ateneo de Manila School of government, spends most of her time “dealing with government people.” The school conducts programs for government officials that, she says, “help prepare and support them … in this effort to reform.”

She labors this point because she wants to make the limits of her comments clear. It quickly becomes obvious why.

“My fear is, it is the 2004 (plan) that becomes the dominant factor (in the Macapagal administration),” Abad says. “But it should not be the only focus, the main factor, that shapes the things that you have to do.”

She is not the only one who feels this way. The soul-searching sessions that have been held in the past several weeks have been drawn precisely against this background: that in the internal struggle for direction inside the administration, it is the group charged with winning in 2004 that has gained the upper hand.

Internal debate

Former Constitutional Commissioner Chito Gascon, who is with the government peace panel negotiating with the National Democratic Front, summarizes the internal debate. Is Mike Arroyo the “Achilles’ heel” of the President, or does he have her “tacit approval?” Gascon is referring, of course, to the oft-mentioned involvement of the First Gentleman in the President’s election plans.

“There really is a dilemma. Does the President know (that the reformist bloc that helped put her in power is agonizing over this internal struggle)? Does she really care? We don’t know,” Gascon says. No one in civil society, as far as can be told, doubts that preparations for 2004 are a necessity. The issue is only whether election politics will dictate policy.

Third Force as beacon

No one in civil society also doubts that the President works hard, or is struggling to juggle the demands of her many constituencies.

Urban poor advocate and now Malacanang official Percy Chavez describes what is already a familiar image of the President. “She’s really hands-on. Fantastic. That’s because she’s been a teacher. She remembers all the homework and assignments.”

Abad points out a crucial difference. “You have a President who still respects and listens to people who advocate change. Kahit paano, nakikinig pa rin siya (When you come down to it, she still listens). Give her the benefit of the doubt.”

And yet, the 2004 factor continues to worry many. Abad sums up the issue succinctly. “What we’re really up against is this entire culture of political patronage.” She adds: “I think that is what the people expect from the President, to strike a balance (between the demands of politics as usual and the reformist agenda). But somehow she’s caught up with her own agenda of 2004.”

That is why “many of us are arguing the need for a third force,” Gascon says, “not really to challenge, but to serve as a beacon.”

Back to Ninoy

Civil society groups (all of the sources say they are dissatisfied with how the term has been narrowed down to its Edsa II meaning) may not yet be able to elect a president, but they are quite capable of unseating one.

“They have the capacity to mobilize and generate public support for certain issues, but have not yet been able to translate this into votes,” says Kompil secretary general Bobit Librojo. What happens when the administration that civil society is engaged with begins to make decisions on the basis of votes rather than development or reform?

Abad defines the stakes. “Outside of government, what can be done?” she asks. “Very little. Then we go back to doing our own thing. Then everything we do will be very micro.”

“Government bureaucracy is very intricate,” Chavez says. “But you can also be very creative. That’s the challenge.

If anything, everyone in civil society talks the same language: there is “tension” in working in and with government, there are specific “challenges,” and there are “creative” ways to meet them.

Abad cautions against externalizing the problem. “We always see the problem outside of us, we always see the enemy outside of us,” she says.

Maybe, she adds, “Aug. 21 is a good way to confront ourselves: how we should proceed (on) the path of change, the path to a better life. I think we should relive the pain — that something as horrible as this could happen. At the same time, cure the pain. Ask ourselves: ‘Are we really worth dying for?'”

At a time of “Filipino-bashing,” she says, we should ask ourselves the question (Ninoy) Aquino asked and answered in dramatic fashion. “What is our real worth?”

The way of Ninoy

A member of Generation Text — born, say, in 1976 — would have reached the age of reason the year Ninoy Aquino died. It is difficult now, 19 years later, to imagine the turmoil that overwhelmed the country after the assassination, when at times it seemed as if reason itself had taken flight.

But it is even more difficult to imagine that a thousand days of protest did eventually oust Ferdinand Marcos — without a single text message being sent. The cell phone that hounded Joseph Estrada out of office had yet to be invented.

In 1983, the messaging system was primitive (people in the millions lined up for hours to view the leader’s battered remains), but the message was simple and universal and repeated over and over like a prayer: “The Filipino is worth dying for.”

“It’s always a death in the family that brings a family together,” says Abad. “That was the way with Ninoy.” Abad was nursing a month-old son at the time she heard the terrible news. “That same night, we went to visit.” (The body was first waked at Aquino’s residence in Quezon City.) But it was only when she saw “the long lines” that wound round Times Street like an unraveled yellow ribbon that she began to realize that grief over the assassination was not only personal but national.

At least two million people turned out for the Aug. 31 funeral — the second largest in history, after Mahatma Gandhi’s.

Librojo remembers the assassination for the life it breathed into the Marcos opposition. “Aug. 21 was a landmark because in 1981 to 1983 we (the social democrats) were in disarray,” says Librojo, now Kompil secretary general. “At the wake we could already see it was different. Bihira sa mga rally ang walk-ins (It was rare for protest rallies to attract the non-organized). It was 1978 all over again.” In 1978, an Aquino-led Laban party was cheated in the Interim Batasan Pambansa elections, but only after a wildly successful “noise barrage” famously shook Malaca?ang to its foundations.

First light

“Aug. 21 was a turning point,” says former Constitutional Commissioner Gascon. “It was the assassination that pushed me to become politically active.”

As he would be the first to admit, he was not alone. “There are so many of them (people whose lives were changed by the assassination, who became politicized because of it),” says Gascon. “Literally thousands. Community organizers. Politicians who are non-traditional.”

None of this is to say that the pro-democracy movement began only on that fateful Sunday in 1983. Many, to borrow Rizal’s rich prose, had already died without seeing the dawn. But the Aquino assassination was first light.

“He explicitly symbolized the incremental and reformist struggle, the way of active non-violence,” says Gascon. Reflecting on Aquino’s final statement, he says: “The Filipino is worth dying for. Now that’s a statement about all of Filipino culture.”

Edsa II difference

Recalling those heady days, Chavez says: “Even Edsa II pales in comparison.”

The difference is not merely generational, or technological. Many of those who swam in the mainstream of anti-Marcos protests — those who might be called Aquino’s true heirs — would have nothing to do with government, once dry ground had been reached. Today, prompted in no small part by Aquino’s example, his political heirs in so-called civil society are working with government, or even knee-deep in it.

Chavez, for instance, was appointed chair of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor a month after President Macapagal Arroyo took office. Gascon was drafted to join the government peace panel, together with Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel. Most prominently, Kompil stalwarts Vicky Garchitorena, Dinky Soliman and Ging Deles were appointed to the Cabinet. (Since she resigned as chief of the Presidential Management Staff, Garchitorena remains a Palace consultant.) There are many other members of the anti-Estrada movement who work with the Macapagal administration, in varying degrees of cooperation.

Sometimes, the work is completely unexpected. Teddy Lopez of Kompil found himself appointed as member of the Film Ratings Board, which mercifully “phased itself out,” he says. He cannot think of any reason for his unsolicited appointment, except maybe “because I was in the media committee of Kompil!”

Such, apparently, is the price of maturing coalition politics.

“I think we have a better appreciation (now) of where we can engage other forces,” Lopez says.

“More people are conscious now that the approach to government is engagement, in the sense that we have a development agenda,” Librojo says. They are referring both to their allies who are in government, and to those groups outside it.

“After Edsa I, the moorings that connected us to those in government quickly went adrift. Maybe in one and a half years.”

Now, Librojo says, the social development groups are more conscious of the “agenda” and “constituency” that they are accountable to.

In Cory Aquino’s time, Chavez says, “there were no precedents, no insights and learnings” from working in government. But now, “our moves are more learned, more savvy, they have more direction. Before, they used to be all fervor and nothing more.”

“The strategies for advocacy, for change, are more mature now,” Abad agrees. “We support and nurture the relations” between civil society members in government and the groups that brought them there in the first place, she adds.

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