Cebu is unique in the Philippines for having voted overwhelmingly for GMA, as opposed to FPJ. We explain why this is so, and the consequences for the nation.
Surprisingly few people comprehend the political tides pulling at this nation, so we will take this opportunity to explain why things are as they are. Why did Cebu vote overwhelmingly for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? Why did GMA almost get toppled out of power? Why did she refuse to resign? Why did People Power III fail?
In this article Wa'y Blima! will try to answer these questions and more.
It is assumed that you are already aware of the basic facts, but here's a quick refresher. The presidential contest of 2005, between incumbent Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Ferdinand Poe, Jr, was as close as the 2000 election in the US between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Vote counting dragged on, and the opposition never ceded the election.
On the surface, the election was about a clash between two individuals. And what an epic clash it was. One the one hand, we had an urbane technocrat educated in the US, the daughter of a former president to boot. On the other hand, we had a popular actor universally loved for his portrayals of strong, silent heroes on the silver screen.
They were equally matched not just in their advantages, but also in their shortcomings. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's major shortcoming was that she was born without any sense of personal integrity. As a result, in 2004 she declared that she would not run in the elections, yet a scant six months later changed her mind; this turned many against her. Meanwhile, FPJ was said to lack intellectual curiosity, debate skills, managerial competence, and any sort of political experience.
But the 2005 election was not about a clash of individuals. It was about a clash between classes.
As is the case in Brazil and most countries of South America, almost the entire wealth of the Philippines is controlled by a tiny minority, leaving the masses with little more than scraps to fight over. (Which is why a good proportion of the masses goes abroad to find work.) It is often said that the Philippines is controlled by the top 100 richest families; this is exaggeration, but true in essence. The top 15,000 wealthiest families control most of the wealth and political power of the Philippines.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo represented the rich, and FPJ represented the masses.
(It should be noted that while the Philippines has its share of filthy stinking rich families, not all of the rich Filipinos are actually that rich. Social inequality and corruption have stifled economic growth to such an extent that, even though the wealthy control almost the entire economic pie, the pie itself is not that big - and not all "rich" families fly around in privately owned choppers. Nonetheless, the "rich" want not for quality (i.e. private) medical care, quality (i.e. private) education, and all the other basic rights and creature comforts most people take for granted. The poor have none of these. So here the term "rich" will be taken to mean "filthy stinking rich" as well as "fairly well-off.")
Would FPJ become only the second president to originate from the masses? The first, Joseph "Erap" Estrada, elected in 1998, turned out to be an incompetent drunkard, and was booted out of power by street protests known as EDSA II (i.e. People Power II). Then serving as vice president, GMA took over and the country reverted to the rich. The 2005 showdown would be a test whether the masses would make a comeback, or whether the rich would hang on to the most influential office in government.
Now, it so happens that the class difference between rich and poor is less evident in Cebu than in other parts of the country. Being a thin island consisting mostly of mountainous territory, Cebu lacks the vast, open, flat tracts of land that made hacienderos in other parts of the country rich beyond reason. And the lack of absurdly rich haciendas and hacienderos allowed the Chinese community to muscle into the economy to an unrivalled degree in Cebu. This is why Cebuanos are less aware of the clash between classes than other Filipinios. Even the wealthy Spanish families in Cebu aren't the traditional landowners; the most promiment clan, the Aboitiz family, have their hands in shipping, land, and finance, but were founded by a Basque trader, a relatively recent immigrant who happened to have a knack for business. In other words, in Cebu, even the Spanish are Chinese.
Compare Cebu with, for instance, Tarlac, where an insurrection by workers at a sugar cane hacienda resulted in more than a dozen deaths. This happened not in 1804, but in 2004.
Such feudal disputes reminiscent of the Middle Ages are unthinkable in Cebu, and perhaps this is why Cebu voted overwhelmingly for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It was reported that GMA won by about one million votes, which represented her margin of victory in Cebu, and Gloria held her inauguration in Cebu as a gesture of appreciation.
It turns out, though, that, in a wiretap which became known as the "Hello Garci" tape, President Macapagal-Arroyo was taped calling an election official (a Mr. Garcillano) requesting a winning margin of about a million votes. She later apologized for the call as being inappropriate, but did not admit wrongdoing, and - incredibly - held on to power, despite calls for her resignation, a cabinet walkout, and street protests.
Wa'y Blima! had pined for an FPJ victory, even if it would be terrible for the economy and the short-term political stability of the country. An FPJ victory would have shown that democracy works in the Philippines, by putting into power someone truly representative of the people. Yes, like Erap, FPJ would most probably appoint to office his incompetent cronies. Yes, the ubiquitous corruption and incompetence might conceivably become even worse. Yes, there would be bound to be numerous attempted coups d'etat, and the forex rate would spiral out of control. The Philippines might even default, and end up under ignominious IMF supervision for a few years.
But no matter. In the long run, whether cronies or not, more and more members of the masses would end up in positions of power, and eventually the balance of power would tilt, resulting in a cataclysmic seismic shift. This shift would manifest itself in the form of a massive, relentless wave of reforms - the legislative equivalent of the storming of the manor by pitchfork-wielding peasants. Tax laws would be revised, conglomerates broken apart, and holding companies shredded to bits. This would be the painful first step the Philippines would take on the road from de facto feudalism to bona fide modernity.
Most important of all, a far higher priority placed on the quality of public education would ensure that the massess finally have access to the same tools the rich had long used to control the economy. Given the natural industriousness and talent of the Filipino people, within a generation this country, too, would finally joins the ranks of developed nations.
But it was not to be.
So when the scandal erupted over Gloria's phone call, Wa'y Blima! was hopeful that another People Power revolution would force GMA from office, allowing FPJ's running mate Loren Legarda, or perhaps even FPJ's widow, Susan Roces, to take the helm of the government. When Susan, in a superb dramatic performance, accused GMA on national television of having "stolen the presidency, not once, but twice," Wa'y Blima trembled with excitement and tingled in anticipation.
But Gloria held on, and how we wept when, on September 13, 2005, we saw the thick-skinned pretender to our throne become the first Philippine president to chair a United Nations Security Council, in someone else's (Erap's? FPJ's? Loren's? Susan's?) rightful place.
Why was it that GMA managed to hold on to power, despite numerous election irregularities, the public apology, and the widely circulated tapes? Why did GMA refuse to resign even when her entire cabinet ditched her?
What is needed here is an understanding into Gloria's character. What makes her tick? It must be said that the woman has chutzpah, and a very thick skin. With Zen-like serenity, Gloria remained steadfast when a whirlwind of accusations and pressure was swirling around her. It is clear that she never even contemplated resignation. Where does this inner strength come from?
Wa'y Blima! was fortunate enough to speak candidly with a source who knows the president personally, having met with her on numerous occasions. Here's the bottom line: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's driving force is not so much a desire to serve her country, but to fight for family honor and her family name (not Arroyo, that is, but her maiden name of Macapagal.) The desire to see a restoration of the gilt edge to the Macapagal name is the battery that keeps Gloria ticking.
That is why, during Erap's presidency, Gloria simply itched for a chance to take the helm. That is why, for Gloria, losing the presidential election (as her father had done) was simply not an option, and why she pulled out the stops to ensure a win. That is why Gloria knew that as long as she managed to hang on to power, even by a thread, she would have the chance to overshadow the darkest moments of her presidency by future accomplishments. That is why being denied the chance to create a legacy was worse than tarnishing her legacy with the desperate wheeling and dealing that kept her in power.
Can GMA restore her family honor? It is rarely disputed that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is a highly competent leader. Unlike other public officials, she cossets no-one and is feared by everyone; a harsh word from GMA is enough to make even the most incompetent and complacent officials snap to attention. If Cebu's officials squabble endlessly over the construction of a road, all GMA needs to do is show up, and the road gets built: done.
No-matter what her achievements may be, however, it is difficult to think that posterity will remember Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as anyone but the woman who overturned an epochal shift of power in Philippine politics, and managed to stem the tide of the great unwashed masses hammering at the palace gates.
September 17, 2005