Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has known all sorts of coups. She was in the throes of dancing in her pajamas in 2001 when she was told the military chief of staff was willing to see her, just days before the president, Joseph Estrada, was ousted in a withdrawal of military support. That installed her, then vice president, in power. A new kind of coup has resurrected her after years in the wilderness.
She had nine years as the Philippines' president, an administration marred by corruption scandals, attempted mutinies and cabinet defections. Surveys have put her term as the least favorable among presidencies in the past three decades of the Philippines' strange democracy. She left office with only 16 percent of the electorate approving of her performance, which was turned into a carnival with her avaricious husband Mikey, the "first gentleman."
She weathered all the crises until her successor, Benigno S. Aquino III, accusing her of plunder, imprisoned her for four years in a hospital, where she claimed she was suffering from a degenerative back illness.
Macapagal-Arroyo was set free by the Supreme Court and immediately discarded her neck brace under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has warmed to her in an alliance that appears to be reshaping the political scene backwards, as he did when he engineered the burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a hero’s grave. That was despite the fact that Marcos clearly falsified his war record and despite the fact that he wrecked the country through corruption and cronyism during his 21 years in office.
Last week her performance reverberated throughout the 297-member House of Representatives, when, resurrected as congresswoman, she toppled the House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez after a daylong leadership row that delayed Duterte’s state of the nation address.
With 184 lawmakers on her side, that catapulted this diminutive woman, once described by a cabinet member as a narcissist, back into the limelight. The coup’s occurrence on the day of Duterte’s address bore portents the country could do without.
For the first time since the shock and awe of the Duterte presidency, the event playing out in the plenary hall of the Batasang Pambansa outshined the president. Arriving by helicopter, he stuck to a prepared speech that included the usual spiel about his drug war, not once deviating into his chain of invectives that people have grown to expect. He tried to sound fiery but he seemed to have lost his talisman.
Macapagal-Arroyo, now 71 and blooming in style and fashion, went up to the podium to take her oath on the high pitch of her political coup before the president’s arrival. Her opponents had switched off the microphone but there she was, embodying her knack for power –- and this was not missed in social media.
The scene playing out on national television –- of the elected members of Congress bidding their game of maneuvering with total disregard for finesse – swallowed the public in a soap opera that may once again have its repercussions at some point in the future. The affair has shown how the primacy of entertainment undermines the importance of governance.
Rules matter very little.
The latest twist in the political life of Magapagal-Arroyo – once president (and herself a daughter of a former president), once vice president waiting in the wings, once senator, once a cabinet member for her background in economics – will, in the next few months, reveal what was at stake. If the past is any prologue, it won't be pretty. During the years of her presidency from 2001 to 2010, hundreds, perhaps thousands of politicians, activists, journalists, left-wing politicians and clergy "disappeared."
Her term in Congress set to end in fewer than 10 months, analysts are pondering one of two possibilities: that she may find the goodness of her heart to redeem herself from the wrongs of misleading 100 million Filipinos through corruption and vote fraud and varnish her legacy by setting straight the course of Congress, which seems highly unlikely. Or she may just deftly pull the rug from under the current system,, to change the system of government that she had failed to change when she was president. She had then set the motion for charter change to a parliamentary system but failed.
The speaker she had toppled, Alvarez, was too crass and too aggressive in seeking to establish a constitutional assembly to pave the way for federalism, which the president had promised in his campaign and repeated that pledge in his speech. He said he would step down if a new federal government were to be set in place.
The move has so far reached a conflict against the Senate, further reinforced by surveys showing that a majority of Filipinos are not in favor of changes in the constitution of a US-style presidential form of government.
The problem may be in Congress, where dynastic families control 70 percent of the seats. It underscores the years of entrenchment dominated by a culture of patronage – which analysts say will turn the country into virtual fiefdoms as federalism overcomes weaker institutions. The answer belies the irony that leaders elected into office are supposed to govern notwithstanding their families.
The spectacle that erupted in the lower house tells of their intentions, quite nakedly. Everything was out in the open. Alvarez was Duterte’s ally from Davao in the south, but Macapagal-Arroyo had a better ally in Duterte’s daughter, who is mayor of Davao City. This also tells much more of Duterte’s sway in his own party, which appears to be splintering, although switching parties regularly to support the leader in power is nothing new in Philippine politics.
It might lead the country yet again into another disheartening cliffhanger.
Now that she is speaker, Macapagal-Arroyo could revive the minions that she has cultivated in her mesmerizing turns of the different seats of power. Apparently, she isn’t done yet, and she may be prone to following a vendetta against the previous government that had put her in detention. Filipinos will never see the end of their leaders taking them in circles.