Will Arroyo win the Cha-cha war?

LAST SUNDAY, I POSED TWO QUESTIONS TO BE answered today: Will our Congress, Supreme Court, Commission on Elections and people allow Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to stay in power after June 30, 2010? Realistically, can GMA—unlike Ferdinand Marcos (FM)—extend her reign without martial law?

Marcos precedent. First, a little history. When FM declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, the Constitutional Convention (Con-con) of 1971 was still meeting. But it was obvious that the Con-con was not minded to extend his term, which was ending on Dec. 30, 1973.

However, after FM imposed martial law, the Con-con—with stirring dissents from a courageous few—obligingly approved the 1973 Constitution changing the then presidential system to the parliamentary form. The Charter change (Cha-cha), done under martial law, extended Marcos? rule indefinitely.

FM, the wily lawyer, was a stickler for legalism. He took extreme pride in boasting that his Proclamation 1081 imposing martial law was issued pursuant to the then Constitution. To stress his claim, he labeled his regime “constitutional authoritarianism.” He knew that the two anchors of his regime—the military establishment and the international community, especially the United States—would support him as long as he showed a veneer of constitutional legitimacy to his iron fist.

“Oppositors” and issues. Now fast forward to the present. To extend her reign beyond 2010 through a parliamentary shift, GMA would probably choose—as I wrote last week—the constituent assembly (Con-ass), not the tedious Con-con. However, most of the presidential wannabes like (alphabetically) Joseph Estrada, Panfilo Lacson, Loren Legarda, Mar Roxas and Manuel Villar would surely besiege her. So would the various oppositionists like Jejomar Binay, Alan and Pia Cayetano, Francis Escudero, Jamby Madrigal, and Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

Too, the militants, party-lists, civil society, labor unions, business organizations (like the Makati Business Club) and student groups would escalate their “political noise.” Expect print and broadcast media to intensify their attacks.

However, I think that the swing group would be the middle forces, those who, to preserve our democratic institutions (or what’s left of them), were willing to wait for GMA to serve her term but who would now be confronted by the specter of her continued stay. These forces will include the bishops, Catholic laity, El Shaddai and other religious groups.

As vital as the personalities opposing GMA are the bread and butter issues: the soaring prices of food, transportation, petroleum and energy; the deteriorating peace and order; and the corruption scandals. A march of the hungry and the angry, aggravated by their “most corrupt” and “most unpopular” perceptions, would be invincible.

GMA’s weapons. To win the Cha-cha, GMA will probably rely on her two big weapons: the resources of government and her vast political machinery: the Lakas-Kampi monolith plus her firm grip on the House of Representatives and the governors, mayors and barangay leaders.

Unlike Marcos, GMA may not be a wily lawyer, but she is a shrewd politician. She has perfected patronage as a political weapon. She adroitly uses the budget, Pagcor and PCSO earnings and other public money, and personally inaugurates school buildings, housing projects, new roads, bridges and other infrastructures. She justifies VAT as a tax on the rich and dispenses its “katas” in terms of low-cost NFA rice, lifeline electricity subsidies and other doles.

During an unprecedented meeting of the controversial Judicial, Executive and Legislative Advisory Council (Jelac) held right in the Supreme Court’s inner sanctum, GMA committed a P3 billion largesse for the judiciary next year. To pacify the bishops, she uses her social funds to contribute to their favorite charities.

She has appointed choice candidates to critical offices, like the Supreme Court and Commission on Elections, and has anointed a formidable network of generals, admirals and superintendents in various levels of the armed services.

People’s victory. But Marcos too had all these—political sycophants, friendly justices, compliant election officials and fat pork barrel, plus the charm of Imelda, to no avail. He had to impose martial law to subdue the opposition and to get an indefinite extension of unlimited power.

Holding the balance now are the middle forces. Once they join Erap’s teeming “masa,” the opposition and the media, GMA may think of iron rule. However, to prevent a repeat of Marcos, the present Constitution extracted the teeth of martial law. It may be used only to quell “invasion or rebellion” and only for a “period not exceeding 60 days” after which it is automatically lifted. Neither does it suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus nor the operation of the Constitution, the Supreme Court and Congress. Because of these and other limits, martial law may not help GMA the way it did Marcos.

How then will GMA win (or lose) the Cha-cha war? To quote Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita’s mantra to the SWS survey showing his boss as the “most unpopular leader” since 1986, “Let the people be the judge.” So be it, provided the Comelec counts the votes accurately.

Should the enraged middle forces pour into the streets and plazas in massive numbers during the Con-ass debates, the Cha-cha express may not reach the Supreme Court, the Comelec and the plebiscite. Rather than risk a new type of people power revolt, GMA’s allies may just bugle an early retreat.

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