Philippines: Opportunities Lost?


Mark Turner

For weeks the attention of the nation has been fixed on attempts to remove President Arroyo from office. There have been accusations of the President's and her family's involvement in corruption, obtaining earnings from illegal gambling and cheating in the presidential election. A coalition of interests ranging from opposition senators to leftist groups have combined forces in an effort to unseat President Arroyo while the Roman Catholic church has weighed in with criticism of presidential behaviour but not gone as far as recommending resignation or dismissal. The influential Makati Business Club has urged the President to resign but the military has remained steadfastly neutral. Meanwhile the anti-Arroyo coalition has failed to mobilise large people power demonstrations despite the leader's popularity ratings plummeting to an all time low. The 'net satisfaction rating' for President Arroyo declined to minus 33 per cent (per cent satisfied minus per cent dissatisfied) in the Social Weather Station's (SWS) regular national survey. No other president has reached such depths of unpopularity or even been in negative territory. Furthermore, there is widespread cynicism about the President's declarations of innocence and actions to restore her credibility. For example, 66 per cent of SWS respondents thought the cabinet revamp was simply a means to stay in power and not a serious reform. Impeachment proceedings have been initiated in Congress but delaying tactics will ensure that they drag on for months.

One of the potential casualties of the political tumult currently gripping the nation is President Arroyo's initiative for changing the country's political institutions. During her State of the Nation Address on 25 July the President called for a shift to a parliamentary form of government. Federalism was also suggested. However, the timing is unfortunate as the Arroyo proposals are becoming overshadowed by the impeachment dramas and are in danger of not being examined seriously and objectively. This helps to explain why the public remain sceptical of the proposals. Thus, SWS surveys reveal that 70 per cent of Filipino adults believe that there are no constitutional provisions which need changing at present while there were 'lukewarm sentiments' over the creation of regional governments which would administer the provinces, cities and municipalities in their territories.

In Mindanao, however, there may be growing support for such federal arrangements. A recent meeting secured widespread support from pro-administration Congressional representatives, numerous local government officials, and diverse organizations such as the Bishops-Ulama Conference, the Mindanao Business Council and the Mindanao Coalition of Development NGO Networks. The August election for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) also seemed to suggest some disillusionment with current arrangements. The ARMM was established as a result of the 1996 peace agreement between the Philippines government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). However, it has failed to make an impact in the few poverty-stricken provinces which elected to join and voices are being heard in the region questioning ARMM's utility. Voter turnout was well down on previous elections with only 50 per cent bothering to cast their ballot. There are additional indications of political dissatisfaction and instability in Mindanao. There have been bombings in Zamboanga City, the Abu Sayyaf's leaders continue to evade capture, Indonesian terrorists are alleged to have entered Mindanao, and the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are still far from signing a peace agreement. Such factors indicate that the 'Mindanao problem' is far from resolution. Whether a federal alternative is the answer will be worked out over the next few months but even if there is strong support in Mindanao the distractions of presidential impeachment in the capital may well draw attention from the vitally important issues of what form of government best suits Philippine democracy and development.

WATCHPOINT: Will the potentially lengthy impeachment process mean that proposals for changing to a parliamentary and federal form of government are not given serious consideration?


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