THE PHILIPPINES: Weak State, Resilient President

By Abinales, Patricio N. | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

THE PHILIPPINES: Weak State, Resilient President


Abinales, Patricio N., Southeast Asian Affairs


Shortly after government forces tear-gassed their way into one of Manila's finest hotels on 29 November 2007 to flush out thirty-odd "rebels" and their civilian supporters, Philippine-focussed e-groups began debating the significance of what became known as the "Makati stand-off".1 Among the most popular messages was a joke patterned after American late-night host David Letterman's "Top Ten List". Purporting to be an "Intel Info" released by the government's National Intelligence Security Agency, it lists the "Top Ten Reasons Why [Navy Lieutenant Second Grade and Senator Antonio] Trillanes and Company Packed Up" and surrendered:

1. Not even his mother joined them.

2. Oakwood [the plush apartment complex Trillanes and comrades took over in an aborted 2004 coup] had a better lobby.

3. CNN was not there to cover it.

4. The hotel had run out of ice cubes.

5. The APCs [armed personnel carriers] were parked in the lobby, not in the parking lot.

6. Trillanes realized that being tear-gassed was not part of his mandate as senator.

7. [Former Vice-President Teofisto] Guingona [a civilian participant] thought it was an anti-Erap [former President Joseph Estrada], or pro-Erap pardon rally, whatever...

8. Surrender was better than the company of Father Robert Reyes [another civilian participant].

9. Trillanes noticed that people were crying, not because of the tear gas but because of him.

10. Even GMA [Gloria Macapagal Arroyo] was beginning to look better the longer they stayed.2

This joke and its variants were notable for the way they turned Filipino political humour against the opposition, which is already struggling to prove its viability. In making fun of the small numbers and triviality of the Makati standoff, the joke highlights the opposition's inability to gain traction despite major exposés against Arroyo and her close associates. Further, where it was once treated deferentially, the opposition here is put on the same level as the ruling elite led by President Gloria Arroyo.3 The joke's popularity also showed how popular sentiment pushed the anti-Arroyo forces off their moral high ground and onto the same level as those in power. In that corrupt, patronage-driven, opportunistic cesspool, Arroyo was capo de tutti capo (boss of all bosses) by virtue of her longer residence and knowledge of how things and people operate. This point was really the most humiliating for the opposition: having been sent into the political netherworld by public opinion, it was forced to play by the regime's rules and was expected to lose badly.

This essay explores the imbalance between the ruling administration and its opposition and attempts to decipher a particular puzzle of contemporary Philippine politics: the extraordinary resilience of President Gloria Arroyo. It suggests that Arroyo's staying power has to do with the nature of her political coalition. I do not refer here to her alliances with the military or the support she receives from international actors like the United States. Instead, I suggest we focus more on her relationship with provincial governors, city and town mayors, and village councillors, whose confidence Arroyo has maintained through her adept handling of state funds. With these local officials backing her up, and with the secondary support of the leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Arroyo has been able to deflect fierce criticism and ride wave after wave of opposition attacks on her presidency.

Equally, I will argue, it is the absence or brittleness of links between most anti-Arroyo forces and local political actors that accounts for the former's lack of success. Without such parallel networks, the opposition is limited to options with immediate propaganda impact but little mobilizational value. Or it must resort to elitist attempts to remove Arroyo surgically (for example, the coup or mutiny). Given the historic limitations of such strategies, each failure has diminished the opposition's standing in the eyes of the public, as demonstrated by the jokes following the Makati stand-off. …

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