Published on July 28, 2015.
IN JULY 2005, at the lowest point in Gloria Arroyo’s presidency, she went to the Batasan for the State of the Nation Address rite not so much to defend herself, as to test her political allies’ defenses. She received an enthusiastic welcome.
To witness the outpouring of support, to hear the lusty cheers and to see the outstretched hands, for a leader who only a couple of weeks before had considered resigning because of an election fraud controversy, was to learn a crucial lesson in political resilience.
The political class respects power, recognizes it, rallies to it—and nothing adds sheen to power like surviving a crisis.
I am reminded of this fundamental fact of Philippine politics because of the spreading notion that President Aquino is “losing clout,” is becoming a “lame duck,” as he begins his last year in office.
This notion runs counter to Philippine political experience.
Just in the last few months, before Vice President Jojo Binay finally resigned from the Cabinet, he was engaged in an undisguised effort to win Mr. Aquino’s endorsement for the 2016 elections. Nobody will question Binay’s pragmatism, his practical reading of the political situation. Why bother to win the President’s endorsement, at the exact time he loses clout and becomes politically ineffective?
The awkward dance between the President and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, on one side, and Senators Grace Poe and Chiz Escudero, on the other, also does not make full sense unless administration resources—the network of allies and the government machinery that Poe does not have—were a factor in the negotiations. Why invest so much time to win the President’s understanding, if he will lose clout and become politically ineffective anyway?
The answer to both questions should be clear to anyone who knows how the government truly works: It is deeply authority-centered, and the President remains the most powerful authority, retains the biggest bully pulpit, until that hour his successor takes the oath.
Again, Arroyo is an excellent example. Despite suffering a lingering legitimacy crisis, reflected in the lowest approval and satisfaction ratings for a president in Philippine survey history, she remained, indisputably, in charge, until her last day in office. Her 2005 Sona had the effect of galvanizing her allies in Congress, and (at least in my view) led directly to the defeat of the first impeachment complaint filed against her. (The rousing reception must have made an impression on her allies, and steeled their resolve.)
Until the turnover, she continued to dictate the policy agenda. (Control of the public agenda was another matter altogether; ceding it was a consequence of her crisis of legitimacy.)
But, if only because of the potential for mischief, a president’s powers even in the last year in office should never be underestimated. Again, Arroyo is the perfect case in point. She appointed Associate Justice Renato Corona chief justice despite the election-period ban on appointments (and the clear language of the Constitution). The high court backed her, but her decision damaged the relationship between the succeeding administration and the judiciary’s leadership and led, almost inevitably, to Corona’s impeachment and conviction.
Three more considerations:
First, President Aquino is presenting a P3-trillion budget, double the amount he inherited from Arroyo. Regardless of the exact nature, and the precise placements, of the lump sums now alleged to line the proposed budget, we can be sure of one thing: Mr. Aquino will not want to be accused by his predecessor the same way he accused Arroyo in his first Sona, of using up the next budget by the halfway point, and leaving very little for the next administration to use.
(It is apropos to repeat an argument I raised before: That in fact one of the Aquino administration’s strongest assets is budget reform. I realize this flies in the face of the controversy over the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP); but, as I have tried to show in this space, I understand DAP precisely as an effort to reform the budget process.)
My point: Anyone who controls such a budget cannot blithely be written off as a lame duck.
Lame-duckery comes to us as an American political tradition. But our presidency, even after the disastrous experiment with authoritarianism and the new limits imposed by the post-Edsa Constitution, retains much of the centralized authority of the original occupants of Malacañang, the Spanish governors-general. In other words, and in terms strictly relative to a polity’s system of government, the Philippine presidency is actually more powerful than its American counterpart.
Second: Mr. Aquino has just survived the worst crisis in his presidency, in the aftermath of the Mamasapano tragedy. Now his approval and satisfaction numbers are back up; for the political class, nothing succeeds quite like resilient success.
And third, I hold to what I wrote here last year: The 2016 elections will be about continuity, not change. That’s an advantage for Mr. Aquino.