Free Press cover story
January 13, 2002 issue
Too early the birds of prey
by Manuel L. Quezon III
MAKING an ass of one’s self should be a basic human right, if only politicians could be denied this right because of the problems it causes other politicians and most of all, the public. To put matters in historical perspective, of the past presidents of this country, two were reelected to office (Manuel L. Quezon and Ferdinand E. Marcos), and only two former presidents ran for the position of president after having served as head of state: Emilio Aguinaldo, who went down in grumpy defeat in 1935, and Jose P. Laurel in 1949, though Laurel was the nobler in at least telling his supporters, who were as angry as Aguinaldo’s had been, not to mount a revolution.
Yet in the case of Aguinaldo and Laurel, there were extenuating circumstances in the cases of their candidacies. Aguinaldo was a political enemy of Quezon from 1922 to 1941, and was pushed by his supporters to run as a symbol of the aspirations of the Revolution; Laurel ran as much to vindicate his name as to achieve a mandate, never having been directly elected by the people to a position he served as a well-meaning head of a puppet government -indeed, it is interesting to note that both Aguinaldo, who ran in the first national presidential elections in 1935, and Laurel, who ran in the elections of 1949, were haunted by a desire to achieve what they never had when they were president: a genuine national mandate at the polls.
But one must consider, on the other hand, the cases of the only two presidents reelected: Quezon in 1935 and 1941, and Marcos in 1965 and 1969. Both tarnished their reputations by clinging to power beyond the terms allowed them by the Constitution under which they were elected. To this must be added the inevitability in the minds of many that had Quezon lived, he would have stepped down for a brief 2 years in order to run again in 1946 to be the first president of the independent Republic, and that Ramon Magsaysay would have run —and won— again, after his first term (and there are even those who suspect that Magsaysay, who imitated Quezon in so many ways, would have found a way to stay in office as long as possible as well). But fate decreed Quezon’s death in large part because of the strain of his final battle with Sergio Osmeña to cling to power, and fate had it in the cards that Ramon Magsaysay, like Manuel Roxas, would die before his first term ended, leaving Ferdinand Marcos to make every liberty-loving and democratic Filipinos’ nightmare come true: scrapping the Constitution, ignoring the laws, setting up a dictatorship that only fell when a country regained its dignity and courage and threw the man out of Malacañang.
Now to these negative examples add the examples of past presidents who could have run for office after the Constitutional limitations passed, and yet did not: the list is long. Sergio Osmena; Elpidio Quirino; Carlos P. Garcia; Diosdado Macapagal; Corazon Aquino. Except for Aquino, all the rest suffered defeat in their quest for reelection to a second term, yet had an opportunity (at least in the cases of Osmena, Garcia and Macapagal) to run for president again if they wished. But they never wished to. None of them ever fully retired from politics; they preferred to be consulted as elder statesmen; two of them, Garcia and Macapagal, chose to run for, be elected delegates to, and then presidents of, the 1971-73 Constitutional Convention. But the presidency, having been denied them in the past, was something they never sought again as a political prize.
The fact is that it should be enough for a former president to have had the honor and privilege of serving the country once, or in the old days twice, and end it at that. The exemplar of how a former president should conduct himself after leaving office is of course, Sergio Osmena, who represented many of the political virtues of the country, anyway; to a lesser extent, there are the examples of Aguinaldo and Laurel, the former reconciling himself to playing elder statesman, the latter choosing to serve in the senate as long as he could and even serve other presidents. There are the examples, too, of Garcia and Macapagal: the former went into quiet retirement until the ConCon and then died 24 hours after being sworn in as president of the convention; Macapagal, after a checkered experience with presiding and eventually losing control over the ConCon at least followed Aguinaldo’s path and quietly learned to enjoy the role of elder statesman; poor Elpidio Quirino lived too briefly after leaving office to accomplish much more than begin his memoirs and reach a touching reconciliation with his erstwhile protégé, Magsaysay.
Enter Fidel V. Ramos, former and, to the minds of too many, including quite possibly the mind of Mr. Ramos himself, future President of the Republic of the Philippines. Enter Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, present president and, almost indubitably, candidate for the position in 2004. What of them?
Of Fidel Ramos, one should note immediately what has been whispered about town almost from the moment he left office -the man has never grown accustomed to not wielding the reins of power. He wanted to amend the Constitution to allow himself either two more years in the manner of Quezon, or transform the country to a parliamentary system which was the original Marcos plan to perpetuate himself in power. This grand design failed in the face of the intransigence of Corazon Aquino (former president who seems not to miss being president at all), Cardinal Sin, a multitude of Filipinos, and one Joseph Ejercito Estrada who would be damned if his sure election to the presidency would be postponed even for a minute by a man he loathed.
Result? A lost kibbitzer, which Mr. Ramos is of the first order, as proven by his most unpresidential behavior during Joseph Estrada’s inauguration at Barasoain. The man tried to steal the limelight every moment he could, and then loftily proclaimed that under Estrada, he would be pleased to play the role of Elder Statesman in an official capacity, much to the amusement of everyone who head Ramos say these things. However, neither public derision, or skepticism, or outright hostility has ever deterred Mr. Ramos from doing what he pleases, and it has pleased him to use the time in between his never-ending globetrotting to keep himself in the limelight, including first, playing a lecturing uncle to Estrada, and then supposed pillar of the opposition when Estrada grew impatient with his “advice,” and now, gadfly and thorn in the side of Mrs. Arroyo. Perhaps Mr. Ramos feels that if Cory Aquino can bring down one government after stopping the attempts at charter change of two other presidents dead in their tracks, he has similar powers.
Perhaps. Although if this is the case, then it only proves that the man has an axe to grind against the woman who broke tradition to attend his inauguration (for perfectly legitimate symbolic reasons, the inauguration of Ramos was the first democratic handover of power since 1965) and put country ahead of her having given him her previous blessings in firmly saying “no” to his obvious desire to prolong his stay in office. One is forced to wonder if Fidel Ramos is not only ungrateful when it comes to Cory Aquino, but whether he actively dislikes her now -which would make him a petty, mean, and small-minded man.
Or could it be Fidel Ramos simply is getting old and too dense to realize the reason Cory Aquino can be an influential ex-president and Fidel Ramos may be influential, but not popular, and lacks what he seems to crave: a nation, on bended knee, begging him to return to Malacanang? Were this the case, then at least one can conclude Fidel Ramos is not petty, mean and small-minded but suffering from well-intentioned delusions: of being an irreplaceable man, of believing as gospel truth the insincere flattery of the sycophants that surround any politician, and the quite human refusal to recognize his own mortality and accept being put out to political pasture, since he is by no means, ancient. The reason Cory Aquino has the influence and respect she has, and Ramos does not, is that she is the only president in our history to say one term is enough, I’ve had it, and left Malacanang without looking back and probably murmuring “good riddance” the whole time. In short, she has what Fidel Ramos has never, ever, had in his life or career: moral ascendancy.
Fidel Ramos is too fidgety, too eager the attention-seeker, too enthusiastic the opiner, too happy the meddler, to be respected or have moral ascendancy of any sort. This is not to say he does not have influence, for he does; this is not to say he does not have political supporters, for he does; but it is to say that as far as the public is concerned, Fidel Ramos is history and had better accept the fact that he belongs to the past and not the future. One need only listen to the verbal abuse he was subjected to by the great unwashed at Edsa III to recognize this; and aside from the usual businessmen who value the illusion of Fidel Ramos being “Steady Eddie,” and who crave a man who will be content to go on junkets and turn a blind eye to anything so long as he gets the perks (a bad executive habit he shared with Joseph Estrada except in comparison to Estrada’s being uncouth about corruption, even Ramos’s most vicious detractors give him credit for being suave when it came to the corruption they are convinced he was a party to during his term).
To be a president or past president is, of course, not to be divine; which means Fidel Ramos is as likely to fall prey to illusions as much as the next man. He probably thinks the can still do good for the country, that the country needs him, and if the country were only given a chance it would fall to the ground in gratitude and kiss his feet were he to have the chance to be president again. This explains the never-ending and, really, tiring controversy of the day, which is the alleged rift between President Arroyo and former president Ramos over an election two years away. Fidel Ramos already suffers from the perception too widely held that he at one point pulled all the strings in the new Arroyo administration, or tried to, which made him as much the object of the poor’s equally deluded wrath in May 2001, as President Arroyo herself. And as for President Arroyo, she suffers from two insecurities: the fact that she was elevated to the presidency by succession and not election, and under the most confused of circumstances at that; and that she is the first child of a president who seems to have a chance to break the long curse, it seems, that has afflicted the children of past presidents -none of them ever make it to Malacanang although the senate and Vice-Presidency have been proven to not be beyond their reach.
For a politician and a businessman and even a soldier, and even for certain members of our uncivilized civil society, Fidel Ramos has the virtue of exuding an aura of dynamism, of calm, of precise, methodical working habits and discipline. How close perceptions are to the truth only those truly close to him can answer; but the fact is that there are those with influence and money who believe there exists a Steady Eddie and wouldn’t mind Ramos back. For the same politicians and businessmen, the problem with President Arroyo is that even if she is equally hard working, she happens to be frugal, as hot-tempered as Ramos but far from being his peer in hiding the fact, and she is a woman who suffers from the idea she has nothing to lose by actually giving the country as honest an administration as is possible given our society’s limitations. That, and the fact there is that onus on presidential children and that they might get stuck with her for nine uninterrupted years. The ramifications of a fairly clean, competent, and hard-working government are simply too frightening for these people to contemplate.
And thus the need to at least obtain leverage on Mrs. Arroyo by way of using Fidel Ramos as a threat. After all, Mr. Ramos is willing and able to be used as such a tool, indeed he may have thought up the idea of using the bogey of a Ramos for President campaign in 2004 as a potential spoiler to exact concessions from the administration, which has enough of a problem on its hands with fulfilling its promises, neutralizing its enemies, and keeping the country together during tough times.
Fidel Ramos would never win another presidential election even if Mrs. Arroyo dropped dead and a way was found to make monkeys run against Ramos the way Marcos engineered his farcical martial law presidential elections. What can happen is Fidel Ramos could ensure that if he can’t win, neither can Mrs. Arroyo, but it wouldn’t be in the interest of either to give away the election in 2004 to the opposition, which is indeed vicious, ruthless, has many axes to grind, and much dirt to dish out against the two.
Hence the view of this writer than Mr. Ramos is either extremely delusional or out to keep himself in the political loop and be a powerbroker of sorts, if not an actual shadow president (the best of both worlds). The fact that Joe de Venecia, who has the biggest chance of being Prime Minister for life were we to go parliamentary, is as usual going out of his way to get into trouble trying to patch things up between former president Ramos and President Macapagal, is no surprise or mystery. De Venecia is simply too nice, too compleat the politician, to give the opposition ammunition when things could all be quietly smoothed out to his party’s advantage.
The spoiler of course is Mrs. Arroyo’s determination not to be anyone’s patsy; she may have, as all presidents have done, tried to pay her dues in the early part of her administration, but she can clearly see, if she has half a brain (and no one doubts she has not just half but quite a complete one), that she needs a mandate, a real mandate, and that her political destiny must be played out as her father’s was -either to a happier conclusion by way of election in 2004, or defeat, as her father endured in 1965. But she has no other option but to stay the course and fight.
That having been said, this is all, then, a testing of the waters. The West Pointer in Ramos is probing the defenses of the administration, looking for its weaknesses. His archskeptics are under the impression his real aim is to simply be done with a Constitution that he could not amend to satisfy his ambitions, and be called upon to trot out on a white horse and restore the lost era of Philippines 2000. No one with any intellectual honesty can deny that Mr. Ramos’s actions to date, down to calling a radio station to muse on the need to file a test case to figure out if he’s entitled to run legitimately in the next election, only serve to reinforce the worst perceptions that exist of the man. Nor can anyone deny the political and even personal imperatives that would drive Mrs. Arroyo to seek election in 2004 come hell or high water, if only to prove her critics wrong, and be remembered not as a woman who inherited the presidential mantle, but who earned it in her own right.
So Fidel Ramos says he is not running —period, period, period. Though the country is used to his three periods being the ellipse that leads to a pregnant pause that leads others to begin to have paranoid attacks (which Ramos surely enjoys). The President, on the other hand, truthfully says she is too busy worrying about the here and now to fuss over 2004, though even in that she is being disingenuous -but then which president entitled to reelection, with the exception of Cory Aquino- ever was anything but disingenuous about the possibility of their running again? Even Cory Aquino, who was not bound by the term limitations of the Charter approved during her term, kept her options open if only to keep from becoming a lame duck. The only president in our history who ever committed political suicide was Joseph Estrada and neither Ramos nor Arroyo are Estrada. There is no surer way to commit political hara-kiri than to say you have no intention of running for reelection when you can -and be believed.
The whole non-issue then boils down to a rift between the Lakas-NUCD people who grew fat and soft under Ramos, and who aren’t pleased that they are expected to stay relatively lean during the Arroyo New Era Part 2. The whole issue is that having abandoned the Liberals, and never having established a cohesive hard-core party of loyalists of her own, Mrs. Arroyo is not in full control of the party she is putatively the chief of, but which recalls its salad days as having been under Fidel Ramos. Ramos may be circulating offering them a chance of reliving the good old days when boys could be boys, businessmen could do business under a regime that was all light and sound, and not hard work as it is at present.
Pie in the sky, Ramos-style, versus the drudgery of the dirty kitchen, Arroyo-style. Were you a politician you would at least give pause to the thought that life would be tough under another six years of Arroyo, and positively miserable if not dangerous to life and limb under a Ping Lacson regime: so why not, indeed, a return to steady Eddie.
We shall have to see who has the last wink. Or who raises her eyebrow last in satisfaction as her opponent folds.