The Folly of Being a Reformer in the GMA Government

Sta. Ana is coordinator of the NGO Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the Yellow Pad column of Business World, 12 July2004 edition.

We commiserate with Dinky Soliman, for she has been sacrificed by
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) for “higher considerations.” That was
balderdash. Soliman had to be removed as Department of Social Welfare
(DSW) Secretary to accommodate Vice President Noli de Castro.

Dinky deserves sympathy even from her fiercest critics. Yes, we did
criticize her for being too loyal to her president. Well, loyalty is a
virtue, and so we have to qualify that we disliked those instances in
which she went out of her way as Social Welfare Secretary to intercede
in other delicate matters, as she acted as the president’s messenger of
bad news. She was Malacanang’s conduit to civil society—either to win
over or pacify the non-governmental organizations.

In one instance, we thought she could have fought more vigorously for
the retention of Mr. Alberto Lim in the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).
Instead, she became GMA’s emissary to convince Mr. Lim’s supporters to
nominate someone else for the post. She was told by GMA that Mr. Lim
had tendered his resignation, a claim that was far from the truth.
Perhaps, Ms. Soliman was unaware that GMA had already appointed a
person to replace Mr. Lim. Dinky probably thought she was doing Bertie,
her comrade in the parliament of the streets, a favor. But in the end,
she could not disobey her boss.

But this was not just a matter of supporting a friend like Bertie. The
resistance to his unjustified removal from the CAB goes beyond the sake
of friendship. GMA’s decision to replace Mr. Lim had a far more
dangerous implication—that is, how shaky the position of reformers is
in the face of the power of vested interests to influence a president
to change the composition and thus affect the policies of a regulatory
body. As we have said before, the fight for Bertie Lim was a struggle
to defend the public interest.

It is indeed a tragedy that what happened to Bertie also befell Dinky.
But the circumstances differ. In Mr. Lim’s case, he was replaced for
being the nemesis of a vested interest whose support GMA badly needed;
but in Ms. Soliman’s situation, no one really asked for her head.

Serving at the pleasure of the President, Mr. Lim and Ms. Soliman
always faced the possibility of being replaced. Bertie Lim was a threat
in the sense that he would not deviate from his mandate of implementing
the liberalization reforms already embodied in law, even if this meant
unsettling the alliance between GMA and Lucio Tan.

But how on earth could Dinky Soliman be a liability to GMA? Even
Dinky’s old-time friends—dating back to their college days at the then
Institute of Social Work and Community Development of the University of
the Philippines—have been amazed at how loyal, faithful and sincere
Dinky was in serving GMA. A regret of an insider at the DSW was that
Dinky spent a lot of time and energy being GMA’s troubleshooter or
being her travel companion. In a word, Dinky was at the beck and call
of GMA, and she responded promptly and dutifully.

That she felt betrayed does not even capture the low depths that mark
the decision to replace her. But GMA’s penchant for dropping, for the
flimsiest of reasons, those who are supposedly her most reliable or
trusted friends in the Cabinet should no longer come as a surprise.
Recall how she unceremoniously removed Dante Canlas as head of the
National Economic and Development Authority even though Mr. Canlas was
presiding over a resilient economic growth. GMA’s insensitivity to Mr.
Canlas was all the more disdainful, considering that he had always been
supportive of GMA, his kabalen. Not known to many, Professor Canlas was
instrumental in GMA’s earning a Ph.D. from the University of the
Philippines School of Economics.

Like Bertie Lim, Dinky Soliman is considered a reformist, and I use the
term in a positive sense. A reformist is either admired or loathed,
depending on one’s viewpoint or ideology. The Leninists have a hostile
view of reformists and reformism, for reformists obstruct revolution.
But in tactical circumstances, communists, to include the most virulent
of the Stalinists, do not mind using reforms to advance revolutionary
goals. Dinky, on the other hand, is the type of reformist who does not
care about ideology and who sees reformism as a value in itself.
Whether Soliman’s reformism in her three years of serving the GMA
administration gained headway, should be the subject of scrutiny or
debate. What it exposes, though, is the limits of reformism under a GMA
presidency.

Dinky Soliman joined GMA’s administration because she believed she
could contribute to putting in place reforms, especially given the
favorable conditions arising from EDSA 2. She represented the reformist
civil component of the EDSA 2 coalition that removed Joseph “Erap”
Estrada from the presidency and brought GMA into power. The irony is
that the cronyism, corruption, demagoguery and populism that
characterized the Estrada presidency can likewise be found in GMA’s
rule. Not even the presence of a handful of Dinky Solimans in the GMA
administration could obscure this fact.

The politics of reformism becomes dangerous in a situation where the
president or the ruling party is not a reformer. Compromises and even
retreats become the daily occurrence. The question is, where does the
reformist draw the line? Or to change the metaphor, what is the bottom
line? The social reformer Ernesto Garilao, a leading member of the
Fidel Ramos Cabinet, faced this dilemma. He once gave an unsolicited
piece of advice to Dinky: That the closer one is to the center of
power, the greater the tendency to wear blinders and thus lose sight of
the longer-term vision.

The unsuspecting reformist gets trapped in the mire of pragmatism and
opportunism. Then, he or she loses the grip to handle the contradiction
between being accountable to his or her own beliefs and to the public
interest on the one hand, and being accountable to the President on the
other. And so, for some who have reformist pretensions, the drawing
line becomes indistinguishable and the bottom line becomes bottomless.
For others—Karina Constantino-David comes to mind—the decision to
resign is not a hard choice.

Notwithstanding the criticisms against Dinky Soliman, there is no
denying that she leaves the GMA administration honorably. And, as
Today’s editorial (7 July 2004) said, in a “class act” as well, for
refusing other positions.

Let this episode serve as a rude awakening to those who still hope that
GMA can be counted on to deliver even modest reforms. The Soliman
episode indicates that for the next six years, we cannot escape from
the same kind of crass opportunism and demagoguery that bedeviled us in
the last three years and in previous administrations.

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