Few, if any, saw it coming: the recent goodwill visits by former presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, along with religious leaders Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz and Brother Eddie Villanueva, to detained Pampanga Representative and former president Gloria Arroyo, under hospital arrest at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC). Accompanying the Pangasinan prelate was Arroyo’s former vice-president Noli de Castro, who went back to his ABS-CBN broadcast job after his VP stint.
No doubt the VMMC callers got many a political analyst and their canines puzzling and pondering, trying to figure out the angles, agenda, and other assumed motives behind the sudden spate of conciliation and sympathy shown to the incarcerated leader.
Is there a concerted effort to make President Benigno Aquino 3rd seem lacking in Christmas kindness, or worse, brimming with vindictiveness? Are there discussions or devices afoot to swing public sentiment against the administration, especially in the past season of harmony and mercy? Is there a plot brewing among a supposed troika of former Chief Executives, about which the Palace had reportedly cautioned?
What’s the agenda?
This writer is privy to no power play schemes with the Veterans visits as part of its unfolding. Nonetheless, all the bigwigs who had trekked to the VMMC presidential suite were hardly lacking in political savvy. They knew that the separate meetings with Arroyo would stir media and public interest, especially coming one after another.
And they probably figured that their acts of Christian kindness toward the ailing 66-year-old grandmother and spinal implant patient would be hard for President Aquino to replicate, judging by his past actions toward her.
Sure enough, Malacañang promptly insisted that there was no reason for its current occupant to visit the previous one. That reticence to share in the harmony gestures could further sour the sentiment of ordinary citizens toward him, already adversely affected by corruption and calamity controversies in the past year.
Those negatives over pork barrel and the woefully inadequate Haiyan/Yolanda response have significantly diminished President Aquino’s public opinion ratings, though they remain at good levels, according to survey entities. For our part, this column has argued that he will weather moves against him, considering that his predecessor survived far greater challenges with much less resources, media, public and political backing.
Nonetheless, with Palace favors sharply diminished due to the voiding of pork barrel funds and the squeezing of politicians’ bagmen in the Bureau of Customs, some quarters may be wondering if the man in Malacañang may be sufficiently weakened to be either lameducked or even ousted. And the laughable claim about a purported conspiracy among the three ex-presidents only betrays the administration’s own sense of vulnerability.
The real lesson from VMMC
But really, if all that the nation, its leaders, and its political watchers can glean from the VMMC visits is more of the same machinations roiling Philippine democracy, then the laudable and remarkable gestures of Christmas mercy and harmony are grossly distorted and totally wasted.
For the paramount meaning and, indeed, miracle at Veterans is not just a political one, but a moral and spiritual one first and foremost. And getting the real point in the actions of Ramos, Estrada, Cruz, Villanueva and de Castro, is crucial not only in appreciating what truly happened at VMMC, but more so, addressing the eternal problem that corrupts and perverts politics in the Philippines.
What has bedeviled democracy in this country, despite two People Power uprisings and the best efforts of well-meaning citizens and politicians? In a word, take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred conflict. This is the greatest bane undermining governance, spawning sleaze and bloodletting, and impoverishing and endangering millions in the country.
Buying votes, rigging counting machines, amassing campaign funds through graft, smuggling and jueteng; getting undeserving supporters into plum, powerful posts; bribing media, maiming and killing opponents, and denying life-saving assistance to their communities —nothing is spared in the quest to win and win again and again, because losing means being persecuted and squeezed by victorious rivals.
This truism of Philippine politics continues to this day. That is why Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas warned Tacloban’s beleaguered mayor, “The President is an Aquino and you are a Romualdez.” It is seen in prosecution of opposition stalwarts over pork barrel, while the disbursements by administration allies are spared official audit.
And it is unmistakably demonstrated in the dubious cases against Arroyo, where a purported electoral sabotage witness was induced by immunity from prosecution and freedom from incarceration, and a preliminary investigation finding no evidence of plunder is disregarded and kept from the scrutiny of the Sandiganbayan court.
In sum, the problem with Philippine politics is its vindictive, ubusan or wipeout drive. And at VMMC, we saw the miracle of political rivals showing forgiveness and making peace — the very quality that many leaders must learn for our democracy to truly thrive and serve the people.
The equality of mercy
What’s ironic is that many, if not most Filipinos favor forgiveness and reconciliation, thanks to the doctrine of mercy central to the majority Christian faith. If an erring compatriot demonstrates real contrition and makes amends, he is forgiven, as Ramos and Marcos-era defense chief Juan Ponce Enrile were when they joined the Filipino people in standing up to the dictatorship.
As for those who wrongly argue that showing kindness to Arroyo would mean reining in the steeds of justice and due process, her own administration’s treatment of Estrada is proof enough that civility and kindness toward the accused are not incompatible the rule of law.
While allowing her predecessor the dignity and comfort of house arrest in his Tanay resthouse, as well as backing his petition for knee surgery in Hong Kong, Arroyo saw the plunder case against Estrada prosecuted to the full, resulting in his conviction. She then pardoned him, citing his septuagenarian age, a just and humane basis for executive clemency.
That Estrada has now made peace with the successor he accused of deposing and unjustly jailing him, shows that Philippine politics can break out of its destructive ubusan obsession. The other VMMC visitors equally underscore the crucial quality of mercy and reconciliation. And that is what the republic, from Batanes to Basilan, sorely needs.