To be a holdover president, Arroyo needs the US

MANILA, Philippines—The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US-based think-tank that works in 110 countries and is associated with US President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, sent a five-person delegation to monitor and assess the preparations for our May 10 automated election.

Cautious initial report. After consulting 30 organizations in 27 meetings, the NDI team left our country with an 11-page, single-spaced “Statement,” dated March 13, 2010, summarizing that it “recognizes the enormity of the challenge facing the Philippines in organizing its first nationwide automated election…”

At the same time, however, it warned, “…suspicions and lack of trust among the political competitors and toward authorities, combined with insufficient inclusiveness and transparency, have inhibited public confidence in the elections and generated anxiety about the automated election system.” Then, it cautiously concluded, “…concerted efforts are required to increase transparency, build in needed safeguards, heighten security and develop public trust in the process.”

Clearly, the NDI used cadenced diplomatic language, lest it be accused of interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. But it is clear to me that the think-tank rated the election preparations as far from satisfactory as shown by its “recommendations,” among them:

Comelec should “undertake a major effort to bolster public confidence in the new AES system and the impartiality of its decisions.” Can Comelec still win public confidence, with election day less than two months away?

The Random Manual Audits (RMA) mandated by Republic Act 9369 should “be conducted prior to the proclamation of the results. Any other approach will undermine rather than bolster public confidence.” It thereby debunked Comelec’s decision to conduct the RMA after the proclamation of the winners.

NDI “viewed with concern” Comelec’s refusal to accredit Namfrel, which it praised as “the country’s most well-known domestic monitoring organization.”

Comelec should make public “a continuity plan in case of a system breakdown or any eventuality which shall result in the delay, obstruction, or non-performance of the electoral process.” Stripped of diplomatese, this means that Comelec should now bare its contingency plan—if any—to avoid a failure of election (no-el) that could lead to a failure of proclamation (no-proc) of the presidential winner and to a holdover for President Macapagal-Arroyo.

Underlying message. Beyond this formal statement is the underlying message that—like the earlier Republican administrations—the Obama team is closely watching the political events unfolding here. While the NDI claims to be “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide,” it is known to be associated with the ruling US Democratic Party. It is chaired by no less than former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and led by a board of trustees and advisers composed of current and past US cabinet officials, senators and congressmen.

Remember that Ferdinand Marcos left the presidential palace during the Edsa I revolution only after he called up US Sen. Paul Laxalt, who advised him to “Cut and cut clean.” Remember too that the Americans provided Marcos with a helicopter to escape Malacañang for his eventual airlift to Hawaii via Clark Air Base. Yet, prior to that, on June 30, 1981, then US Vice President George Bush Sr. hailed him for his alleged “adherence to democratic principles.”

A member of the NDI delegation, Dr. Jamie F. Metzl, visited me at my home. Educated at Oxford and Harvard, he impressed me with his keen grasp of the vagaries of Philippine politics and current events. We discussed my writings on the unnerving delays, logistical nightmares and technical lapses in the election preparations and how GMA could extend her stay as holdover president due to a failure to proclaim the new president.

In sum, I have no doubt that, as in the past, the United States will play a key role in our political directions. In previous columns, I wrote that to continue her reign, GMA needs (1) legitimacy via the Supreme Court, (2) power via the Armed Forces, and (3) the people’s trust, which she is courting via her barnstorms around the country. Now, I add a fourth essential reality: she needs US help to keep her afloat in a sea of political uncertainties.

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Arroyo Court. Voting 9-3, the Supreme Court authorized President Macapagal-Arroyo to appoint the next chief justice after Reynato S. Puno retires on May 17. It reversed earlier jurisprudence (In Re: Valenzuela, Nov. 9, 1998) that junked midnight appointments in the judiciary. This earlier decision was written by former Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa, concurred in by all the justices, three of whom eventually became chiefs, Hilario G. Davide Jr., Puno and yours truly.

The present Court also defied the no-midnight appointment stance of the leading presidential bets, a Senate resolution signed by 12 incumbent senators, the Philippine Bar Association, several chapters of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the Philippine Association of Law Deans, the Philippine Association of Law Students and the major media opinion makers.

As a former chief justice, I grieve at the majority’s decision. I wonder how the Supreme Court can survive the tsunami of protests inundating its independence, integrity and credibility. How can it peel off the nauseating, sticky label “Arroyo Court?” More on this later.

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