After the May 2007 Elections: Discontent and Instability

The dust from the May 2007 elections is settling and the broad contours of the coming post-election period can already be made out. The country is entering another period of political in-fighting and instability, with the possibility of major upheavals in a few years time especially as the economic situation of the people worsens. At the same time the unimpeded repressive trend of the governing elite augurs even worse prospects for Philippine democracy.

Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 19, June 17-23, 2007

The May 2007 elections have come to pass, and the outcome in terms of nominal administration-opposition balance in the country’s elected positions are more or less already clear. At the national level, the opposition’s virtually assured eight winning senatorial candidates gives it nearly two-thirds control of the Senate (half of whose members were up for election). On the other hand, administration and allied candidates took over 90 percent of 219 district seats in the House of Representatives, of 81 governorships, and of 118 city mayoralties, respectively.

The administration puts forward a brave face. It has dismissed its rout by the Genuine Opposition in the Senate elections and exaggerated its House and local electoral “successes” as overall political consolidation for it. However it is certainly well aware that the reality is very different.

For one, the Senate results unambiguously affirmed the widespread public dissatisfaction with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in a way that the House and local results cannot refute. The battle for senatorial seats was a genuine proxy battle between pro- and anti-Arroyo candidates with voters nationwide choosing based on sheer preference little influenced by the patronage dynamics found at the local level. The administration’s Team Unity was trounced and the only two of its candidates to enter the winning circle were those least associated with Pres. Arroyo; one worked closely with the ousted president, Joseph Estrada, while the other built a reputation as a “fiscalizer” and sometime critic of Pres. Arroyo. This general dissatisfaction is fertile ground for continued challenges to the President’s hold on power.

The administration and its allied candidates at the House and local level, meanwhile, won despite their association with Mrs. Arroyo and not because of this. Their access to resources and corresponding capacity to dispense projects and other political largesse was most decisive. The opposition was besides unable to field credible challenges to the administration in large parts of the country and virtually conceded hundreds of House and local positions by default. The vagaries of Philippine politics and the opportunism of its politicians, however, underscore how this is a malleable political base that should not be overstated. While patronage politics essentially secured the administration’s victories here during the May 2007 elections, it is these self-same patronage politics that make these tenuous victories for President Arroyo.

In the end, the May 2007 elections clearly did not deliver to President Arroyo a proxy mandate. It did not resolve her administration’s crisis of legitimacy ever since the 2004 presidential elections and the “Hello Garci” election cheating scandal (in which President Arroyo was allegedly caught on tape talking to an election commissioner about being assured of a win). On the contrary, and to the dismay of miscalculating Team Unity candidates, the elections verified just how unpopular she remains. There does not now seem any way for her to reverse this condition since this was her last chance to achieve any kind of mandate, however indirect, before the formal end of her term in 2010.

Indeed, the elections could not have given President Arroyo a mandate even if administration senatorial candidates dominated the results. The polls were said to be marred by such massive cheating – most brazenly in the Mindanao provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur – that the opposition victories become all the more significant. They won despite the best efforts of the administration. It is also meaningful that millions of citizens mobilized to guard the elections and, even if not wholly successful in preventing cheating, were able to expose this in many parts of the country. In any case, Philippine elections remain a dismally elite-dominated exercise despite pockets of challenges with non-elite victories in a handful of provinces.

To be sure, a big gain of the current administration from the elections is averting the entry of sufficient anti-Arroyo opposition in the House to easily muster the numbers to endorse an impeachment complaint to the now opposition-dominated Senate. The breathing space this provides is doubtless something it greatly welcomes. But then, in terms of the struggle to end a questionable presidency, the impeachment process in Congress is just one arena and, while important, is not necessarily decisive. The parliament of the streets remains potent and this is fully recognized by the government which is maneuvering against democratic political forces here.

The political landscape remains threatening for the Chief Executive. The incumbent has vast public resources and the range of governmental clout at its disposal. But these remain finite and not automatically sufficient to ensure an easy grasp on power. The Arroyo faction is ultimately just one segment of the country’s governing elites and President Arroyo’s unpopularity and lack of a solid electoral mandate is a key opportunity for other aspirants to power and its attendant economic spoils. At the same time, the unambiguously deteriorating condition of the majority of the population which faces historic joblessness and poverty is a brewing cauldron of mass discontent. Sustained government hype about rosy economic indicators meaningful only for foreign and domestic big business and distant from people’s everyday needs only deepens the fissure between the struggling majority and prospering elites.

This is a yawning gap that will only grow given the apparent thrusts of the government. It is determined to get the support of big foreign capitalists and segments of elite domestic big business at the expense of the people. This is the reason for the determined drive to open up the country to foreign mining plunder, and to create an ever more liberal trade and investment regime with Japan, the U.S. and the European Union. This is economic aggression against the people who will suffer the loss of its finite mineral resources, wage repression, collapsed industries and joblessness. The Arroyo government has also long been pushing for the wholesale removal of the vital, if underused, economic sovereignty provisions of the Constitution.

The fraudulent and violent conduct of the elections also maintains the undemocratic momentum that has been relentlessly building since the start of the Arroyo administration. This has intensified in recent years and will increase as the regime become more desperate to cling to power. It has already established a track record for putting down protest actions, harassing political opposition, suppressing information about its corrupt governance, and for violent repression. This is most of all marked by over 1,000 Filipinos who have already been killed or abducted by State military, paramilitary and police forces aside from over 400 who have survived assassination attempts.

Aside from being a crackdown against the most organized anti-Arroyo opposition, this reflects an alarming repressive trend of governing elites and augurs even worse prospects for Philippine democracy. The victims of direct attack overwhelmingly come from groups organized and active in grassroots social movements for change in the country. As has already happened twice in the past– in the immediate post-World War II years and in the post-Marcos dictatorship years – Leftist inroads into parliament and the national political scene have been met with State-sponsored violence.

In the May elections the entire government legal, propaganda and armed machinery – including the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) – was reportedly used for partisan political purposes against the progressive party-list groups of Bayan Muna (People First), Anakpawis (Toiling Masses), Gabriela Women’s Party (GWP), Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Moro People) and Kabataan (Youth). Their success in garnering at least 2.5 million votes (likely more when the counting is done) is nonetheless testament to their resiliency and indicates a critical core of dissent against the country’s foreign- and elite-dominated political and economic system.

There are a number of key issues on the national agenda in the coming period, some immediate others less so but looming – all told they may have momentous implications on the Philippines and its prospects for democracy and development. Charter change is stalled but remains on the elite’s political program. It potentially provides a means for President Arroyo to continue beyond 2010, as well as opens up vast opportunities for elite consolidation of their hold on national politics and for foreign plunder of the national economy. Yet intra-elite political in-fighting can only increase as President Arroyo’s rivals jockey for position either in a post-Charter Change parliamentary system or in the 2010 national elections. President Arroyo’s questionable legitimacy, desperation on the part of elite factions shut out from the spoils of power, and the country’s basic economic crisis are a volatile political mix.

There is also the alarming increase in authoritarianism and militarism. There is the assault on democracy and on civil and political liberties with all-fronted attacks on progressive organizations impelled by and according to the U.S.’s global “war on terror”. This can only worsen with the impending implementation of the draconian so-called anti-terror law (mislabeled as a “Human Security Act”) in mid-July. The peace processes with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Southern Mindanao are breaking down with clashes already resuming with increasing intensity; the peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) are all but officially dead.

All these are occurring against the backdrop of a global economy that is in a deep crisis, and amid rising military and economic aggression by the U.S. striving to retain its sole superpower status. The May elections and its aftermath were full of much sound and fury. Developments in the next few years may well show these to have merely been a minor distraction during the start of a new period of great political and economic upheaval. IBON Features / Posted by (

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