Middle-of- the- Roaders

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, December 10, 2007 edition, pages S1/4 and S1/6.

This is obvious: the Peninsula affair has divided the opposition to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA).

The post-mortem is abundant with expressions of criticism and censure.  But as Raul Pangalangan wrote in his Inquirer column, A nation of Sancho Panzas (7 December 2007): “Had Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim and?Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV succeeded last Thursday, would we be hearing today from all the naysayers??Indeed, success has many fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

But even counting out the opinion of those who are pro-GMA, some quarters critical of GMA opposed ab initio the action taken by Mssrs. Trillanes and Lim.

I take as sample a couple of statements originating from Ateneo de Manila. Ateneo seems to be a safe place for middle-of-the-roaders.

The first statement comes from the Ateneo de Manila Sanggunian (Student Council) president, Karl Vendell M. Satinitigan:

“Democracy, as we say, is the best option left. And we chose that in 1986. The Manila Peninsula siege is a threat to democracy. It was a ?sequel to the failed Oakwood mutiny in 2003. Same plot, with added ?twists. It was certainly a continuation of a power grab. Will Trillanes, Lim, Guingona (a fellow Atenean), Bishop Labayen, Fr. ?Reyes (also an Atenean), among others, go to trial? They should.”

He also declared: “Rule of law should prevail.”

Meanwhile, let’s move to the other statement, written by Pugadlawin, titled “A Renewed Call to Political Reflection, Formation and Action for Genuine Democracy: A Statement on the Manila Peninsula Incident.”  Pugadlawin describes itself as an organization that was formed “amidst the threat of both a military coup and martial law in February 2006.”  It said “that in the face of looming political polarization, what was needed is a new force to reclaim and rebuild the political center.”

Here is passage from the Pugadlawin statement that is relevant to this essay:

“There are continuing and grave threats to our basic political freedoms and the constitutional order both from those who seek a forcible removal of the present government by provoking a military ‘withdrawal of support’ and foisting a ‘transitional revolutionary government,’ and those who in the name of defending the “rule of law,” violate it themselves in their equally militarist response and wanton disregard of civil liberties.”

Another section of the statement reads: We believe inviting a military solution to the present crisis will only increase the potential for violence, repression and authoritarianism.  It will not also necessarily resolve the question of legitimacy and corruption that besets the Arroyo government.”

The train of thought from these two statements troubles me. My fear is that the ideas they disseminate can be more dangerous to democracy and its institutions than the action taken by Mssrs, Trillanes and Lim and their civilian supporters.

Let’s return to the Satinitigan statement that the rule of law should prevail.

In invoking the rule of law against Trillanes, Lim, Guingona,  et al, he reveals his bias.  His concept of rule of law is no different from GMA’s rule of law.  And why not state explicitly that GMA has to be punished for breaking the law?

The action taken by the Peninsula actors cannot be separated from the stark fact that GMA has broken the rule of law—the Garci tape speaks for itself.  GMA, too, has committed numerous impeachable acts.  But the impeachment attempts could not prosper because of sinister reasons:  the insidious filing of weak complaints by shady characters like Lozano and Pulido and the overgenerous bribes given to the members of the House of Representatives.

To quote the psychologist Steven Pinker, “we frame a situation in different and incompatible ways.”  For George Bush, US presence in Iraq is to liberate the country.  For the majority of peoples all over the world, it is an invasion.  For neoliberals and conservatives, higher taxes are confiscatory.  For progressives, higher direct taxes are redistributive.

For some, GMA is the president of the Philippines.  For many, she is an illegitimate leader who should be made accountable for impeachable offenses.

It was GMA who committed the original sin of flagrantly breaking the rule of law.  It is her illegitimacy that leads to militant acts of defiance like the Peninsula episode. And GMA has continually violated the rule of law.  By doing so, the rules of the game have changed.   Anyone is justified to pursue his own set of rules.

And it is this frame that GMA opponents can invoke what my colleague Manuel Buencamino describes as the “fountainhead of modern democracy,” found in the American Declaration of Independence.  Mr, Buencamino, in his BusinessMirror column (Unbowed and undefeated, 5 December 2007) quotes an important passage in this Declaration: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

I asked a recent Ateneo graduate, an intelligent, articulate and charming youth leader, about the Satinitigan statement.  His response was polite and kind, for after all Ateneans are like fraternity brothers:  “It was poorly written.”

I also recall the time that Edgar Jopson, or Edjop, was Ateneo’s Student Council president in the early 1970s.  He was a moderate then, a “clerico-fascist,” as the radicals would call him.  Yet, even as a moderate, he was combative and uncompromising vis-à-vis Ferdinand Marcos.  And although he was wary of the radicals, he dialogued and related with them.  He had the political sense that the current Council president lacks.  Edjop knew that Marcos was the main danger. He resolutely and uncompromisingly fought Marcos, and in doing so, he was open to alliances with the revolutionaries. My piece of advice to a middle-of-the-roader like Mr. Satinitigan is to learn from Edjop:  Know your real enemy; criticize others but not at the expense of strengthening the principal enemy.  And please junk your rule-of-law frame; it serves GMA’s interest.  Unless you are pro-GMA.

The Pugadlawin statement also suffers from a weak frame and analysis.  It strongly condemns Mssrs. Trillanes and Lim for their Peninsula adventurism.  And it condemns a “military solution to the present crisis.”

Again, this is an issue of framing:  What Pugadlawin calls “a military solution,” others will interpret it as a military component of an uprising.  The withdrawal of support undertaken by Mssrs. Trillanes and Lim was essentially the same action taken by Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile in Edsa 1 and by Angelo Reyes in Edsa 2.

The point is that whatever misgiving or criticism we have of the Peninsula episode, we should not immutably conclude that a military solution—or to be precise, a military component—should be rejected to resolve the present crisis.  Remember Edsa 1 and Edsa 2.

I hate absolutes; the bloodless Portuguese carnation revolution was a coup d’etat, which ousted the dictatorship and led to what is now a robust democracy in Portugal.  Whether this can happen in the Philippines is a conjecture.  The message nevertheless is that there is a menu options in pursuit of what is said in the American Declaration of Independence: “their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Pugadlawin’s objective to “reclaim and rebuild the political center” in this time of crisis is naïve.  The quintessential centrists like Cory Aquino and Teopisto Guingona had participated in actions that Pugadlawin disdains (that is, the February 2006 “coup attempt” and the Peninsula “power grab”).  In a polarized situation, the equilibrium cannot be found at the center.

Pugadlawin’s  “framework for long-term change” is welcome, though as Keynes said, a cliché now, in the long term, we are all dead. What is missing in the Pugadlawin statement is how to concretely address the many problems created by GMA. It does not explicitly say how to “resolve the question of legitimacy and corruption that besets the Arroyo government.”  It is vague about “the concrete options for political engagement.”  And like the Student Council president’s statement, it is silent on GMA’s original sin and the call for GMA’s resignation.  The statement is strong in condemning Trillanes and Lim but weak in denouncing the main problem, GMA.

Pugadlawin caters to a less political audience. Indeed, it is correct to reach out and win over the middle, but in doing so, the task of activists is to lead, not to tail.

We can learn from Ateneo’s moderate activists of the 1970s.  The overwhelming majority of them junked their “clerico-fascist” credentials and embraced a more radical program, realizing that Marcos’s rule held back moderate politics.

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