Noynoy’s most vexing problem

MANILA, Philippines—Great victories spawn great expectations. Instead of massing in our streets to oust disgraced leaders and to install new ones, our people overrode technical glitches and human frailties in our first automated national election to hand Noynoy Aquino the most convincing electoral mandate since the new Constitution took effect in 1987. They want him to use this new genre of People Power to transform our country.

Prosecution of grafters. Verily, our people expect Noynoy to solve their gnawing problems. They are hungry for food, for justice and for peace. They want him to cleanse the cesspools of corruption, poverty, ignorance, criminality and separatism. For too long they have been deprived. They cannot wait too long. They want immediate action, from Day One of his presidency.

To do this, he needs to choose exemplary subalterns; to expand his congressional base and push necessary legislation; to reform the police and the military; to improve tax collection and local governance; to beef-up education and health care; to straighten up the bureaucracy; to clean up the environment and to elevate ethical standards.

But the most vexing problem is the prosecution of grafters. His mantra of “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” was the most clapped portion of his campaign. He promised to investigate and prosecute the alleged excesses and ill-gotten wealth of the Arroyos. This is easier said than done.

His mother, Cory, had one year of revolutionary rule—undeterred by legal niceties—to dismantle the Marcos machine, to name a new Supreme Court, to change the Constitution and to reorganize the bureaucracy. Then, she had five more, or a total of six years from 1986 to 1992 (equivalent to Noynoy’s own six-year term), yet these were not enough. Up to now, the chase for the allegedly fabulous Marcos wealth has not ended.

In this sense, Noynoy faces more daunting odds than his mother did because he would not enjoy that one year of free rule to scrape the barnacles of government. Right off, he has to face the gridlocks of democracy and the many constitutional checks that could be misused and abused to stymie his reforms. President Macapagal-Arroyo carefully selected all the members of the Supreme Court and the Office of the Ombudsman to be sure—so goes the public perception—that she and her cronies would be beyond the reach of our laws.

Early confrontation. Noynoy has publicly criticized GMA’s appointment of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, saying that he would break tradition and refuse to be sworn in by the new chief magistrate. This early confrontation is symptomatic of the difficulties he would be facing.

Noynoy’s anti-corruption campaign would surely flounder without the cooperation—worse, with the enmity—of the Supreme Court, which reversed half a century of jurisprudence banning midnight appointments to usher the coronation of its new chief. The creation of a commission to investigate the Arroyos’ alleged ill-gotten wealth, similar to that created by his mother for the Marcoses, would amount to nothing without a cooperative Ombudsman and an unbiased judiciary.

Surely, Noynoy’s crusade would grind to a halt if he cannot win over the indispensable prosecutor (the Ombudsman) and the final arbiter (the Supreme Court) of corruption cases. The Constitution has given these agencies fixed terms of office and formidable fiscal and administrative independence from the President and Congress.

His problem though is not unique. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered office in 1933 at the tail of the Great Depression. The American electorate gave him an enormous mandate, which he used during his first 100 days to convince the US Congress to grant him carte blanche in bringing America back to its feet. However, the US Supreme Court frowned upon and declared unconstitutional much of his New Deal program.

Roosevelt retaliated by proposing to increase the number of Supreme Court justices so he could “pack” the Court with members sympathetic to his cause. The proposal generated massive protests and was defeated. But Roosevelt prevailed anyway because one SC justice (Owen Roberts) switched positions and effectively created a liberal majority that carried his initiatives.

Courage, innovation, passion. A current example is President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Rising as the leader of the leftist Workers’ Party, Lula met strong opposition to his radical reforms. After moderating his ideas, he used his political capital to lift Brazil from the brink of bankruptcy.

His country now belongs to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the most economically progressive nations in this planet. Recently, Time Magazine named Lula one of the most influential leaders of the world. During the G20 Summit in London last April 2009, US President Barack Obama fondly greeted him, “That’s my man right there… The most popular politician on earth.”

Like in the United States, our media give new presidents 100 days of honeymoon. If Noynoy must succeed in transforming this nation, he must immediately seize the momentum and deftly use his huge political capital, the new form of People Power, to win over the constitutional structures that are dominated by appointees of the predecessor he has promised to bring to justice. This calls for courage, innovation and passion. Does he embody the gravitas to be hailed later on by our people (and, maybe, Obama too), “That’s our man, our sword of justice and our liberator from poverty”?

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