The Philippines in a Holiday Mess

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was busy part of this week filming her annual holiday message to the nation. Clad in a pink pants suit, she posed in a life-size manger on the grounds of the Presidential Palace, complete with Mary and Joseph and the Three Wise Men.

Surrounded by Christmas kitsch, Arroyo may be hoping that her sins of commission and omission of recent weeks will be forgiven by an angry public, fuming church leaders and her colleagues in Asean, who saw their annual summit flushed down the drain this week when her government insisted that a typhoon — not much more than a squall really, as it turned out – would disrupt proceedings scheduled for the island of Cebu.

First the summit cancellation drew headlines around the region as it was it all but proven that fear of a terror attack — and, possibly, worries that a domestic crisis would impinge on the summit — was the real reason for the cancellation. Japanese Trade Minister Akira Amari called the typhoon explanation "extremely puzzling" and said the move “surely lowered the credibility of the Philippine government.”

Writing on his blog, he compared the Philippines with Vietnam, which hosted the successful Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last month. “The difference between the Philippines and Vietnam,” he said, “was as clear as daylight.”

The summit flap will pass but her latest domestic foul up may have longer term consequences, as a reinvigorated Catholic church hierarchy masses to flex its own muscle this Sunday with a planned anti-Arroyo rally thinly disguised as a prayer gathering.

All in all she could have used the counsel of wise men — or women — on a number of fronts lately, not least her failed effort to ram a new constitution down the throats of her people before the New Year. That dismal piece of political hocus-pocus had her using her clout in Congress — her party controls the House of Representatives — to try unilaterally to rewrite the 1987 constitution.

The effort had to be withdrawn in haste this week — and there wasn’t even a typhoon to blame.

Arroyo had wanted to change the existing presidential form of government into a parliamentary one and do away with term limit requirements in the existing constitution that bar her from running again when her term ends in 2010. Using her numbers in the House, she could convert that body into a parliament, and have herself declared prime minister. There was even a plan floated to abandon scheduled May 2007 elections to accommodate the changes the President wanted. By doing away with term limits for all office holders, her political henchmen had been able to draw significant support from rural politicians who saw the change as a way to hold onto local power.

An earlier effort by her allies, a shady petition drive calling for a “people's initiative” referendum on a new charter, was shut down in October by a skeptical Supreme Court. The Justices said the signatures were gathered by fraud and that the exercise was out of bounds. Hence the legislative option. By keeping the sleight of hand in the House, the plan could bypass the need for an elected Constitutional Convention to write a new charter and try to avoid consulting the smaller Senate, because that body is not controlled by Arroyo’s chums.

One problem. Arroyo still suffers from the tarnish she acquired when tape recordings were released that caught her chatting on her cell phone with election officials apparently discussing ways to rig the 2004 elections. Her husband and her Congressman son have also both been tied to illegal gambling and various other scandals. Her military leaders have been using death squads to battle leftist opponents. In other words, she has a major credibility problem and her cynical insistence that parliamentary government is all about helping the economy and the people has not gone down well – and it has enraged the Catholic Church.

The Charter Change — Cha Cha as they call it here — campaign by Arroyo seems so far to have served only one purpose – it reminded the Philippines that the Catholic Church remains more powerful than the government, with clerics holding a kind of veto power over civilian authority that George W Bush himself would likely denounce as theocratic meddling if this were a majority Islamic country.

Church leaders from right to left — including Catholic evangelicals — announced their intention to join a massive “prayer rally” this Sunday against Cha Cha and police worried that the crowd could swell to a million. That kind of gathering could topple a government, as Arroyo knows only to well. She came to power herself in 2001 when massive demonstrations calling for the ouster of then-President Joseph Estrada, propelled her from blah vice president to top gun.

Faced with this reality, her main strategist, House Speaker Jose de Venecia, a political survivor since the days of Ferdinand Marcos, announced Wednesday that the initiative to change the charter in Congress "is now dead.” This has been followed by pleas from the palace to halt the prayer rally, which is going ahead as scheduled.

Indeed church leaders seem delighted with the reassertion of veto power over civilian authority. Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the body which organized the rally, said the event was a “call for the purification of reason, for the reawakening of the moral forces, for the just ordering of society.”

Included in the rally are groups like the powerful El Shaddai, a conservative Catholic evangelical movement, and liberal nuns and priests from the more traditional Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines.

“The Constitution is so sacred that it cannot be left to politicians alone,” Brother Manuel de Leon, co-vice chair of the AMRSP, told the Philippine Inquirer newspaper. “It is important for the Church to guide the faithful to be vigilant in ensuring that the fundamental laws of the land reflect the ideals, values, and aspirations of the Filipino.”

By allowing her political reach to exceed her grasp, Arroyo has given the Church firmer control than ever over the political process. “Our answer to the crisis of leadership in our land is prayer: that our leaders may be enlightened and may have moral force also to lead the country toward truth, justice, peace and love,” Lagdameo said in the statement.

Now her administration wants to push for a Constitutional Convention and may try to elect delegates to that body during the May 2007 elections. But don’t look for that to happen either. Bishop Lagdameo urged politicians to put revisions on hold until Cha Cha is “purified from the negative impact” of this latest nonsense.

“May the work of the Con-con (constitutional convention), if and when it is opportunely convoked, be the work of statesmen whose concern will not be to fit it to a pre-determined framework, but who will discern, discuss, debate on what will be the best for our country,” Lagdameo said.

This political soap opera was, of course the last thing the country needed. With the economy showing unusual signs of strength recently, the double-whammy of a domestic political stumble and the botching of the Asean summit combine to make the Philippines look, once again, like a country that cannot get its act together.

And it will take more than photo-ops with the baby Jesus to repair the damage.