THE WINDS OF CHANGE IN THE PHILIPPINES: Whither the Strong Republic?
The year 2002 saw the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo facing an almost unending list of problems and controversies. She had been installed President in January 2001 after the tumultuous "People Power 2/Edsa II", a popular uprising that overthrew the administration of former President Joseph Estrada. From a controversial and rocky start and weak political support, Arroyo seemed to have finally found her bearings after a year and half in office. She even managed to score a relatively high popular support rating in the middle of July 2002. However, her popularity began to ebb in the later part of 2002, culminating in her unexpected year-end announcement that she would not contest the 2004 presidential elections.
The revised Philippine Constitution of 1987 had effectively set the limit of a Philippine President's term to a single six-year one. Arroyo's case was different however. She took over from Joseph Estrada after he was implicated in a series of corruption scandals that resulted in a controversial impeachment trial. The trial and the series of turbulent events that followed climaxed in the "People Power 2" uprising on 20 January 2001, ending the two years of Estrada's presidency. Hence, Arroyo's current four-year term was only to complete what would have been Estrada's six-year term as President, making her technically eligible to run again as President for a full six-year term. As the incumbent President, Arroyo's chances of getting re-elected -- until the middle of 2002 -- were actually quite strong. They were buoyed by her achievement of a modicum of political stability and her relatively successful management of the country's economic challenges.
Thus, President Arroyo's announcement took the country by surprise. Apparently even her closest allies were left in the dark until she delivered her year-end speech on 30 December 2002, which coincided with the country's celebration of National Heroes Day. The significance of the timing of the announcement was not lost on observers and political commentators. National Heroes Day is also a time when the Philippines commemorates the life of the national martyr, Dr Jose Rizal, whose own sacrifice led to the independence of the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule in 1898. Her decision not to contest the 2004 presidential polls was therefore perceived as, in Arroyo's own words, a necessary "sacrifice". Arroyo declared that a sacrifice was needed to enable the country to move forward and to heal the deep divisions that have marred the administration's efforts to embark on much needed structural reforms. The decision seemed to reflect her deep frustration in not being able to move ahead with her policy agenda. Yet, at the same time, it signalled her resolve to make the most of the remaining eighteen months of her administration. According to Arroyo, "relieved of the burden of politics", her government could now focus squarely on the task of reviving an ailing economy by creating more jobs, encouraging business activity, and healing political divisions.
President Arroyo's decision to bow out of the 2004 presidential race has set the pace for a re-drawing of the country's political landscape. An end to the bitter rivalry between the pro-Estrada and pro-Arroyo forces that had driven a deep wedge in the country's politics will open the field for new political players to enter the contest for the country's top leadership. However, at the end of 2002 the burning question was: Can Arroyo, in the remaining months of her administration, succeed in healing the divisions of the past and build a "strong republic"?
The Goal of a Strong Republic
After coming into office, President Gloria Arroyo had to struggle to cement her position. The foiled EDSA 3 revolt in May 2001, staged by the supporters of former President Joseph Estrada just a few months after she assumed office, starkly reminded Arroyo of the fragility of her political power base. …