HONG KONG — There was a largely unseen symmetry underlying two political bombshells that recently exploded in the northern Philippines, one after the other: Early on Dec. 29, the effigy of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, seemingly carved into rock in northern Luzon, was at long last blown up. Then, early on Dec. 30, there was a more immediate explosion as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced, out of the blue, that she would not be running in the presidential election due in 2004.

The two bombshells symbolized the political failures of what ought to be one of Asia’s most successful democracies. Taken together, they posed questions: Can Arroyo at least start to undo what Marcos did? Or is Philippine democracy beyond repair like Marcos’ carved face?

Only Marcos’ widow Imelda, still propagating the Marcos myth, mourned the destruction of her husband’s mountainside face, saying it had been “a loving offering from local residents” to her husband. It was nothing of the kind.

For a start, like so much that Marcos did, it was a deception. The explosion revealed what had long been suspected — the face was not “lovingly” carved, but a shallow concrete cast imposed upon on the cliffside.

Marcos’ attempt to duplicate Mount Rushmore (the place in South Dakota where four revered American Presidents are carved on the rockface) was one more Marcos extravaganza aimed at sustaining a dictatorial dynasty. No other presidential effigies were planned before Marcos was overthrown in 1986.

Given the abysmal Marcos record, it is amazing that irate Filipino nationalists have not blown up the Marcos effigy much earlier, as the nation sought to recover from the depredations of his one-man rule. The alternative would have been to quickly set about carving likenesses of truly revered former leaders, such as assassinated Sen. Ninoy Aquino, on that mountainside. Neither option was chosen.

Instead, the face has been belatedly blown up, either by treasure-seekers believing that Marcos loot was stored behind the face or by remnants of the communist New People’s Army, only capable of making this long-delayed gesture.

The explosion was a reminder of what Marcos really destroyed: a viable two-party system that had given the old Philippine democracy an institutional base. Arroyo’s bombshell is one more sad indication that no one has so far been able to put Humpty-dumpty together again, by restoring what Marcos then destroyed.

“Ours was the first Republic in Asia, but over the past three decades it has become one of the weakest,” she said, speaking on the day when Filipinos commemorate the martyrdom of nationalist Jose Rizal. “The fundamental reason is the persistence of an outdated social system wherein vested interests and traditional politics have stunted development toward a strong and modern society.”

Great hopes were aroused two years ago when People Power drove the inept and corrupt former President Joseph Estrada from office and elevated then-Vice President Arroyo in his place. The daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal, she benefited from the widespread nostalgia for his pre-Marcos presidency. Well-versed in economics, she seemed capable of focusing political attention on much-needed growth and development. In the 2000 election, Arroyo had won more votes as vice president than Estrada won for the top job.

Arroyo’s elevation to the presidency meant that she could finish Estrada’s term and then win a 6-year term of her own. Since she was capable of being in power for nearly 10 years, the expectation was that her administration would concentrate on longer-term priorities rather than short term considerations.

It has not yet worked out that way. The rare moment of national unity that accompanied her elevation to the presidency quickly evaporated. The possibility of her being in power for a decade aroused elite fears as well as popular hopes. The personal power-seeking factions, which today pose as political parties, sought to limit her ability to govern.

Worst of all, Arroyo herself, far from concentrating on long-term impersonal policies, was widely seen to be mainly motivated by winning the presidency in 2004. As the president seemed to behave too much like a candidate, she further aroused the other factions. Philippine politics was further ensnared in a negative spiral of personal power politics.

As the president herself noted in her withdrawal speech, the Philippines was beset by national divisiveness rather than national unity. “There is a feeling of too much negativism and conflict in our society,” she said. So she has withdrawn from the 2004 race in the hope that it will be a less bitter contest, and that she can accomplish some positive achievements in the 18 months left to her.

Whether her withdrawal will change things, and enable her to govern more effectively, remains in doubt.

On the one hand, Arroyo is now seen as a lame-duck president to whom factions may no longer pay deference. It does not help that she has strongly denied being a lame duck — that only convinces many that she is exactly that.

On the other hand, opponents quickly condemned the withdrawal as a “shrewd Machiavellian diversionary tactic intended to neutralize the opposition and get sympathy from the public.”

In the superheated Philippine political circus, it is already suggested that the president will return again as a candidate in the 2004 election if her promised new initiatives succeed and gain popular approval.

All this superbly illustrates how difficult it can be to get Philippine politics positively focused on problems and policies, not personalities. Negative postures too often prevail.

Veteran politician and Foreign Minister Blas Ople spoke for many when he suggested that all Filipinos should “quickly dispel the miasma of hubris, paranoia and division that has clouded the political system and impeded economic recovery. We should all close ranks behind the president.”

If only Filipinos could, at long last, do just that.

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