Column: A hollow victory

Published on August 18, 2015.

FOR A couple of seconds, right at the end of the President’s annual address, I thought I saw her hesitate—as if the waves of applause that greeted her had stirred a familiar thought, as if she half-wanted to say something more.

She certainly seemed pensive at the very end; it was a triumphant speech, but from where I sat, she did not seem to bask in the final, uproarious standing ovation. She waited for the applause to wind down, and then said, very simply, almost inaudibly, ‘Thank you.’

Perhaps she felt, at the end of the briefest of her five State of the Nation speeches, that she had not done enough, that in spite of all the staff work and President’s time that had gone into the speech, she had nevertheless come up short.

For a couple of seconds, I thought I saw all that. Or maybe it was only because, for a speech that started with great promise, today’s Sona ended up being decidedly underwhelming. I wanted the President to go on, to speak to the scandal that has all but consumed her presidency, but there was nothing more; there was nothing more there.

In sum: a triumphant speech, but a hollow victory.

The speechmaking stars were aligned: a friendly environment (no small thanks to Speaker Jose de Venecia’s skill in issuing strategic invitations); a dramatic entrance (almost three minutes of continuous applause; I counted four distinct waves, all before the President even said a word); a recognizable villain (Senate President Franklin Drilon, who was teased and booed and heckled; the first time it happened inside the Batasan’s session hall, he tilted his head and smiled like some tame sheep); not least, a well-written, well-tempered speech.

But the almost-giddy reception aside, the President did come up short. She did fail to do enough. She should have said something more.

Borrowing a leaf from John Edwards, Mrs. Arroyo told a tale of two countries. I thought it was a simple but effective way to put the message across: This crisis may have started with me, but it goes way beyond me.

But the President stopped short of telling the truth about her own role in the crisis. Mrs. Arroyo had the signal opportunity to tell her own part of the story today, about how we had come to this pass. Today’s Inquirer editorial had looked forward to just such an act of catharsis:

At the same time, she must speak honestly, and speak without fear, about her own role in the political crisis; to discern deeply, as the bishops had enjoined her, to what extent she might have contributed to the erosion of effective governance and whether the erosion is so severe as to be irreversible.

By keeping quiet, the President tore a hole in her own reform agenda.

* * *

I took to blogging 10 years ago. President Gloria Arroyo’s crisis of legitimacy was what drew me to the new platform. Writing posts like the one above, on the day of the Sona (that year it fell on July 25), or the one below, seemed very much like an adventure—a way to join the discourse, immediately and on my own terms. Ten years later, I find myself looking for bloggers for Inquirer.net. A writerly adventure, anyone?

* * *

I had occasion to raise the following in a meeting with fellow journalists last Wednesday: Is it possible that, in analyzing the present political crisis, we are like generals fighting the last war?

For the longest time, we have been using the People Power paradigm to understand the strength of the opposition to President Arroyo and gauge the threat to her presidency.

The assumption was that, to force the President from office, the same confluence of factors behind Edsa I and Edsa II would need to come together. We are all familiar with the logic of change: moral outrage implies massive street protests, popular discontent implies regime implosion and the withdrawal of support of the military. If p, then q, then (eventually) r.

Central to this assumption was the role that the so-called middle forces would play. The events of the last four days have been dramatic, with leading icons of the middle forces calling on Arroyo to resign. But other leaders in the political center have stood fast behind the President. The crowds marching behind the heirs of Joseph Estrada and the usual phalanx of red banners continue to be paltry, inspiring pity rather than awe. And Gloria herself seems ready to do battle until the inglorious end.

Can the Edsa framework explain this strategic stalemate? I suppose it still can, especially if the main effect of the bishops’ statement was only to buy the President more time and thus, as others have said, delay the inevitable.

But a related perspective, an improvement on the framework, seems to promise more explanatory power. This holds that the key factor is internal dissension. In this view, the noises from the traditional opposition are nothing more than static; what we should be listening out for is the sound of cracks appearing in the Palace wall.

This best explains, if not all the events surrounding the resignation of the Hyatt 10, then at least the political analysis that led to it. As many others have already pointed out (I’ll include myself here), the dramatic resignation was calculated to force the President’s hand.

But does this tweaked version of the People Power paradigm help us to predict the next stage in this high-stakes political chess game? It, too, relies on the central role that the middle forces play. But if, for the sake of argument, the business community, the church, and the leaders of Edsa continue to be divided, and the soldiers continue to remain in their barracks, what happens then?

It is quite possible we haven’t seen this particular end-game before.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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