Philippines: Why Arroyo Won?


Patricio N Abinales

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won the May 2004 presidential elections through a combination of an adept handling of a coalition of forces; the incompetence of her nearest rival, the movie star Fernando Poe, Jr.; and, a growing desire among urbanized Filipinos for some long-term political stability.

Hers was - at first glance - the classic deployment of a political machine. But in the era of post-authoritarian politics, where 'civil society' inputs and the developmentalist rhetoric have become part of the game, the old style patronage politics had to incorporate new features. The dispensing of largesse from the presidential office to her legislative allies and officials at the provincial and local levels - a character of old-style machine politics - now had to be complemented by promises of political transparency, and the forging of 'covenants' with non-government organizations (NGOs) and people's organizations (POs) which remain loyal to Arroyo to combat poverty and exploitation.

These latter themes were addressed specifically to a sceptical but insecure middle class demanding stability, efficiency and a less corrupt government; to the representatives of 'the people' who demand government continue to play a major role in social welfare; and, finally to the 'masses' themselves who once formed the mass base that propelled Arroyo's predecessor, the other movie star Joseph Estrada, to the presidency.

This was a fragile machine since it brought together forces that - in other instances - would be on the opposite sides of the barricades. To Arroyo's credit, however, it held enough for her to amass the votes to defeat the popular Poe. Arroyo is going to be the country's president for the next six years, with observers predicting that with a more stable mandate, she can pursue the economic and political reforms she vowed to undertake (she became president courtesy of an urban uprising-cum-soft military coup that ousted Estrada in 1990).

The problem however is whether the coalition that she and her advisers and allies crafted could work in the post-election period. For one, there is hardly any spoil left in government. An external debt to GDP ratio of around 70 per cent and a 30 per cent allocation of the national budget to service the foreign debt have practically emaciated the government. There is nothing to plunder within the state anymore, and this is going to alienate the politicians and rent-seeking entrepreneurs who helped Arroyo.

A withered state means that the government will be hard pressed in addressing the needs of over 80 million Filipinos, 46 per cent of them living below the poverty line (earning US$2 a day). This would mean eventually alienating the 'Left' side of her electoral coalition, and those from the under-classes who supported her.

Arroyo may therefore have gained a mandate, but the next six years will be rough for her. She may end up fighting the development and governance battle on her own - a position she loathed the last two years.

WATCHPOINT: Will President Arroyo be able to rise to the political and economic challenges?


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