Pardoning the mutineers

Brett M. Decker

Posted on July 30, 2008

How President Arroyo outwits her opposition

May 21, 2008

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s pardon last week of the soldiers who plotted her 2003 overthrow at first blush does not seem prudent. The ringleaders used 300 soldiers to seize control of a hotel and shopping center in Manila’s upscale Makati business district. Many in the military’s ranks still seek the President’s removal from office. On closer examination, however, this pardon offers a handy case study to understand how Ms. Arroyo governs.

Since taking power in January 2001 after her predecessor Joseph Estrada was toppled, Ms. Arroyo’s modus operandi has been consistent. Each policy decision is considered for the benefits it can deliver in the immediate term. While this inevitably causes friction when ad hoc tactical moves are not tied to a coherent long-term strategy, the practice has proven successful at keeping her securely in power during eight years of high public disapproval ratings.

Two examples shed light on this governing ethos. First, despite having quashed three serious impeachment attempts against Ms. Arroyo, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Jose de Venecia, was overthrown in February by Ms. Arroyo’s operatives because of a business conflict between the president’s husband and the speaker’s son. Second, after U.S. President George Bush rolled out the red carpet for Ms. Arroyo at the White House, gave the Philippines major non-NATO ally status, and bequeathed more than $250 million in military aid, Ms. Arroyo pulled out the small contingent of Filipino support troops that had been deployed to Iraq because of mild antiwar protests in Manila. In both instances, prominent long-term alliances were sacrificed for considerations of the moment.

Pardoning the mutineers is best considered in this context. Maintaining the active backing of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has been Ms. Arroyo’s most important means to staying in office. The military remains one of the most relevant and most engaged participants in national politics. In the two decades since Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986, every president has been seriously hobbled by coup plots except Fidel Ramos, who was secure because he is a retired general and former military chief of staff. To this day, keeping the boys in the barracks is a never-ending challenge for any occupant of Malacanang Presidential Palace.

Last week’s pardon was a typical Arroyo transaction designed to secure short-term neutrality from an agitated and armed constituency. The current low state of morale in the AFP means that its chiefs do not have a firm grip on the troops under their command. This is evident by the fact that recent intrigues have been led by junior officers. While the generals remain firmly in the president’s corner, she now needs to gain some goodwill down the ladder. The disconnect between the brass and the troops is based on two long festering problems. The first is derived from years of casualties from fighting the Muslim insurgency in the southern islands and Maoist guerilla warfare in the mountains.

The Philippine military’s second crisis concerns endemic corruption in its upper echelons. Unlike in the United States and many countries where military officers are among the most respected elites in society, the Philippines’ senior officer corps has long been regarded as one of the most corrupt classes in a very corrupt social system. There are many examples of officers taking bribes to let rebels escape and of military equipment being sold to insurgents who use the weapons against the soldiers for whom they were intended. In its country report released last month, the U.S. State Department listed low morale, corruption and lack of interagency cooperation as institutional factors that undermine antiterror efforts in the Philippines.

The discontent among the troops is directed at their superior officers as much as at the president. In years past, the University of the Philippines was the incubator for young leaders of the nation’s violent Islamist and Communist revolts. Today, due to disenchantment among young officers and cadets and the radicalism this engenders, the Philippine Military Academy has become an academic breeding ground for revolutionary sentiment. The coup leaders are heroes to many at the Academy because they are outspoken critics of senior military corruption. That the younger generation of officers romanticizes coup d’etat as a legitimate expression for political action promises many more years of instability in the archipelago.

With only two years left in office, President Arroyo has a short time remaining to keep a lid on this bubbling cauldron. Pardoning the mutineers was a move calculated to buy time, similar to her pardon of former President Joseph Estrada last October. Freeing avowed enemies is certainly a gamble, but Ms. Arroyo is a survivor who has proven she can outplay her enemies at political poker.

(This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia.)

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