By Ricky S. Torre
Associate Editor
IN WHAT MAY be the last chapter of a long and complicated political career, House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo aims to fulfill what she regards as her mission now, or “our objective…to push for the President’s legislative agenda.”
She will be counting on what she says is the “very good” and “constructive” relationship between the two chambers of Congress (after the political tensions under Pantaleon D. Alvarez’s speakership) as well as between the House of Representatives and Malacañang.
But politics is an unstable theater, and the former Philippine president may still run into controversy — a familiar facet in her decade-long tenure in Malacañang — in what should be her brief term as House Speaker which ends before next year’s midterm elections.
A lot of work needs to be done in that short time left. Two crucial measures being tackled on her watch are the national budget for next year and the tax reform packages being pushed by President Rodrigo R. Duterte.
“The House will certainly do all it can, and I am optimistic we will have a good result,” Ms. Arroyo said in an e-mail reply to questions sent by BusinessWorld. “So I remain optimistic that the legislative branch will deliver on the tax reform packages.”
Yet the rapport between Congress and the Executive that Ms. Arroyo is counting on to pursue Mr. Duterte’s agenda can be disrupted by the strong personalities of all concerned, the Speaker herself in particular.
Recently, Ms. Arroyo became openly confrontational in one hearing, as she took issue with Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez’s articulation of policy by text that the mining tax reform was not his, but her priority instead.
Until then, Ms. Arroyo’s relations with the President’s economic managers had been civil at best. But an ally of hers in the House — and adviser from the time of her presidency — Albay Rep. Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda, had been speaking with more candor about the current state of the economy.
Mr. Salceda came out with a statement early in September that, in effect, flagged the country’s rising inflation under the watch of Duterte’s economic managers. Of the 6.4% inflation last August, Mr. Salceda said, “Ultimately, (this) was really due to the fact that we did little or nothing.”
“Unless we do nothing and do more silly things, 6.4% should already be the peak in this inflation cycle,” Mr. Salceda said. (Inflation since rose to 6.7% as of September.) “But a return to 4% within 2018 is no longer possible especially we are now into the world’s longest Christmas season characterized by higher consumer spending. Returning to 4% is more likely to be achieved by August next year.”
The Speaker was sought for comment on that projection by her fellow economist, to which she replied: “Cong(ressman) Salceda has (a) very strong track record when it comes to economic matters, and this record dates back decades ago to when he was in the private sector as one of the most highly regarded experts in our stock and securities market. When he speaks on such matters, we should pay attention.”
Ms. Arroyo has since been confronted by other complications in the pursuit of Mr. Duterte’s economic program, such as the standoff in the discussions on mining tax reform.
“I don’t think they would be able to beat the time, unless they rush through it,” Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President George T. Barcelon said when sought for comment about his expectations of Congress in its little time left before the midterm elections. “(E)ven the tax reform would be a pending issue,…(before) all of this inflation. (T)hey need to have a quick fix on that first, so Congress, even (former) president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has given priority (to) the cost of living, that inflation is given priority rather than the others.”
With regard to one legislative priority as certified by Mr. Duterte, Mr. Barcelon said, “I hope if the (proposed) security of is drafted, all of these (provisions) will be specified, otherwise a lot of sectors will be affected and they cannot, the businesses would not be viable to maintain all these people when there’s really no need.”
Apart from economic issues, Ms. Arroyo has also become involved in political matters, affirming Mr. Duterte’s claim of a destabilization plot against him.
As it happens in Philippine politics, it is possible she will be embroiled in more controversies in her time left as Speaker. This expectation accords with the pattern, or what Nick Joaquin describes, in his 2002 authorized biography of Ms. Arroyo, as “the guise of the Gloria career: to appear offhand while handing it out blow by blow.”
This guise has been once again demonstrated by Ms. Arroyo’s sudden return to the top last July — in what is supposed to be her political sunset, and at the expense of Mr. Alvarez, her ousted predecessor in the House speakership. But, in an interview with ABS-CBN last August, she said she is more interested in a legacy for Mr. Duterte rather than her own as House Speaker. She stuck to that line in her answers to BusinessWorld: “As congresswoman and Speaker, the President’s agenda was and remains my legislative agenda.”
This is in sharp contrast to her hard campaigning as a reelectionist senator, emerging as the topnotcher in the 1995 senatorial race, and, certainly, to her bolting the Estrada administration to lead the EDSA II movement that saw to its downfall.
What became of EDSA II — the endless controversies and the political instability that weighed on her long presidency — still casts a shadow on Ms. Arroyo’s present role. Sought for comment, lawyer and political consultant Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said, “(K)nowing what happened after EDSA II, I expect many Filipinos will no longer be surprised if next month she announces that she will run for the Senate or for governor of Pampanga.”
Also sought for comment, professor and chairperson Maria Ela L. Atienza of the University of the Philippines’ Department of Political Science, said, “Based on GMA’s past record (saying that she was no longer interested in running for the 2004 elections but later ran) as well as other politicians who say one thing but do otherwise like the current President who initially said he was not running for President in 2016 but eventually ran, we cannot take GMA’s pronouncements at face value. She can run for a local post or a senatorial post in 2019.”
But Mr. Yusingco also said, “I am prepared to concede that she was genuinely sincere and honest when she declared that she will not contest any post in 2019. At that very moment, I think in her heart, she truly wanted to retire from politics.”
He added: “The reality is, these days it is very hard to find a politician who strictly adheres to the principle of palabra de honor (word of honor). Sad to say, but we simply cannot rely on today’s politicians to keep their word. We cannot even be assured of complete candor whenever they speak to us.
Ms. Arroyo was asked about her retirement plans, including the memoirs she said she would write. “I have said that at this stage in my life, I want to make peace with the people I have dealt with, whether friends or enemies. I hope that is possible and that God will guide me. Thus my objective will be to speak more of the good in the people I have dealt with, and less of the bad. Anyway, in the end, what matters will be the historical judgment, not the memoirs.”
When asked if she would be candid about the “Hello Garci” and other “sensitive chapters” (as we politely put it) of her presidency — perhaps more candid than Juan Ponce Enrile was not, according to critics of his A Memoir — Ms. Arroyo said: “Memoirs are a very personal matter to the author, and so long as the events as narrated are factual, then the tone the author takes, I think, reflects his/her perspective in life at that point when he/she sets down the memoirs in writing. I will need to cover so-called sensitive chapters.”
“But beyond what I say in my memoirs, I believe that history and serious analysts will give me, as well as the other presidents, their due credit, irrespective of their memoirs. I tend to take the broad perspective, and so I tend to view the collective and cumulative effort of myself and my economic team, that of President Noynoy (Aquino) and his economic team, as part of a 20-year process wherein we were able to reduce poverty from the 39% level when I became president to, hopefully, the targeted 14% when President Duterte ends his term in 2022. That will be an accomplishment the three of us can be proud of.” — with additional interviews by Charmaine A. Tadalan