Four Presidents and a Rumor Mill

Ezra Acayan / NurPhoto / Sipa Press / AP Philippine President Benigno Aquino III waves to a crowd in suburban Caloocan City, north of Manila, in November.

In the Philippines, ex-leaders don't fade away — they engage in extreme feuding

A hybrid variety of politics, combining hothouse and fun house, is cultivated in the Philippines. The latest example emerged toward the end of last year and received a flourish of attention at the beginning of January. The previous President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is suffering from complications of spinal surgery and is under “hospital arrest” while awaiting trial on charges of plundering the national sweepstakes authority, received visits from two other former Presidents. They were Fidel Ramos, who ran the country from 1992 to ’98, and his successor Joseph Estrada, who occupied that office from 1998 to early 2001. The feverish Filipino journalistic imagination — with perhaps help from fervid political agitators — immediately speculated that the three ex-Presidents were planning a united front against their bête noire, current President Benigno Aquino III — popularly known by his nickname Noynoy. The alleged alliance itself was quickly branded by the media as the Triple X.

The melodrama and the enmities and hatreds involved might as well inspire a reality-television series. Arroyo, the daughter of a Philippine President, once served as Vice President to Estrada but joined forces with Ramos, a former general, to stage a “constitutional” coup against Estrada, a former action-movie superstar. They were allied in that endeavor with Corazon “Cory” Aquino, another former President and the mother of Noynoy. Eventually, Cory and Arroyo had a falling out, and when Noynoy became President in 2010, his administration pursued “plunder” charges against his predecessor. And did I mention Arroyo used to be his economics professor in college? The plot points are all there for a political potboiler. Each is the enemy of an enemy. Can’t they all be allies then?

The goings-on in the land of my birth are entertaining from my perch over 13,000 km away in New York City. But for Filipinos, the situation is just more depressing evidence of a seriously debilitated political system, where ego and family trump collegiality and statesmanship. Two anniversaries, 15 years apart but falling close to each other on the calendar, illustrate the problem. On Feb. 25, 1986, Cory came to power at the head of a People Power revolution that combined civilian and military uprisings to overthrow, with hardly any bloodshed, the autocratic regime of Ferdinand Marcos. It became the inspiration and template for populist rebellions around the world in the tumultuous second half of the 1980s.

Filipinos, however, came up with a sequel — never a good idea. On Jan. 20, 2001, after Arroyo, Cory and Ramos joined with the military and the Catholic Church to stage an uprising of questionable constitutionality, the country’s Supreme Court vacated Estrada’s presidency. Vice President Arroyo then assumed office, and judicial watchdogs went after Estrada for, of course, plunder (allegedly for skimming profits off an illegal form of street gambling).

Arroyo would eventually pardon Estrada, but by then, the 1986 and 2001 uprisings — inspiration and parody — had congealed into a single paradigm. In the Philippines today, ex-Presidents are rarely elder statesmen to be consulted and revered. How can there be prestige in retirement when the person who replaced you could well go after you? Political gamesmanship is serious business in the Philippines because the moment you stop politicking, you may not be able to survive in the style to which you are accustomed. Hence, Arroyo and Estrada have managed to regain political office: she represents a district of her home province in Congress; he is now mayor of Manila. You have got to remain in the game.

This being the Philippines, there is counterspeculation that rumors of the Triple X alliance were manufactured by Noynoy’s camp — to make his predecessors look like plotters! In any case, getting the alleged trio to collaborate will be difficult if not impossible. Estrada has not forgiven Ramos for his role in the coup. And Ramos’ punctured ego over Noynoy’s snubbing his advice is not likely to trump his low opinion of Estrada’s intellect. As for Arroyo, she is probably enjoying the attention, which reminds the country that she wields enough influence to merit such visitors (plus former First Lady Imelda Marcos, now a Congresswoman). Who knows? Noynoy may just drop by the hospital as well. Fun house. Hothouse. Madhouse.

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