Manolo Quezon is #TheExplainer Newsletter — Issue #12: Omens and Portents “When an Aquino dies…”
This is very delayed. At first I’d decided not to do the usual Electoral Merry-Go-Round Monday edition, but in the end I felt what follows below is relevant.
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Omens and Portents
The passing of the former president lead to many variations on the thought. “When an Aquino dies…” We are a people and a nation who believe in omens and portents and where the mighty and the powerless all traffic in methods to try to court or deflect the inscrutable interventions of the Fates.
Back in 2008, after a devastating typhoon in Burma, and great earthquake in China, I wrote about omens, and I posted an excerpt in my blog, from a book about Burma. The author wrote on the fall of the last King of Burma:
The Burmese forces in the area were told to lay down their arms, but the lord of Myothit (the fort commander) refused to accept the authenticity of Kyauk-myaung’s message and insisted on a direct order from his king…
Only when a telegraph in Burmese Morse code was received at Ava, signed by Thibaw himself, did Myothit agree to stand down. His men then melted away into the surrounding villages, leaving behind piles of Martini rifles. Myothit himself stayed and wept as he saw the steamships slowly make their way the ten miles to the royal city itself.
The Burmese remember that the entire evening, from around seven o’clock until dawn the next day, the sky was filled with thousands of shooting stars and meteors, falling in all directions, appearing and disappearing as people wondered what these clear omens could mean. These were actually the Andromedids in one of the great meteor storms of recent times, seen all over the world. Those learned in astrology prophesied that the country and the Buddhist religion would soon meet hard times.
In that entry I pointed out: So it was that a meteor heralded the Norman Conquest, and an earthquake shook Bataan on the night of its surrender to the Japanese.
In another 2008 blog entry on numerology and politics, I reflected on omens and portents:
When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, Josef Goebbels whipped out an astrological chart and confidently informed Hitler that the tide had finally turned in favor of the Third Reich. Nancy Reagan consulted astrologers. Aguinaldo supposedly had a potent anting-anting, Time Magazine reported in 1944 that Quezon was somehow convinced he would never die in the daytime (he died in the morning) and of course Ferdinand Marcos adorned his room with mystical pentagrams and had a great faith in the significance of the number seven. President Arroyo has had the presidential palace exorcised several times, she consults mystical nuns (one independence day celebration involved little flags adorned with some sort of slogan being dropped from a helicopter, apparently upon the prophetic exhortation of one such nun), while Feng Shui principles are applied to the layout of the Palace and so forth. Former Speaker de Venecia decided to support the last impeachment because he was receiving letters dictated by his dead daughter from beyond the grave. And Romulo Neri, apparently, does nothing without consulting the I Ching.
If, as Randy David says, the real crisis confronting our country is what he calls A Crisis of Modernity, then you have to despair of a political class that determines its political actions not according to a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis or anything else, but according to omens and other efforts at divination. Not least because this prevents any real, rational, analysis of political events and trends. Or then again, if numerology and divination helps us cope with an increasingly complex world, maybe it’s no big deal?
Or perhaps, thirteen years after the observations above, it remains a big deal. “When an Aquino dies…” crossed many minds simultaneously, though the conclusions varied; but it would be no exaggeration to assert there was and will be, a continuing, lingering, doubt among many minds — in all quarters — that an unanticipated event will have unanticipated effects.
Yesterday Randy David said as much — without prognosticating as to what.
So I felt this edition of Electoral Merry-Go-Round should explore the question: since everyone expects there to be political fallout from the passing of Benigno S. Aquino III, is it happening, or is it in the process of taking place?
A new starting line for 2022
What the unexpected passing of the former president did, was derail the current narratives that were being cultivated.
On one hand, the story of the impending elimination of Manny Pacquiao from PDP-Laban, the striking coincidence of a lawsuit against him being filed, the possibility the NPC would take him in, was swept off the table.
So, too, was the emerging story of a formidable Duterte-Marcos-Romualdez-Arroyo alliance, contrasting with the decision of some possible candidates to decline consideration by 1Sambayan, the effort to have a Convenor’s Group for the opposition.
In terms of the opposition, aside from administration fostering the impression (partially self-inflicted) of an assemblage unable to coordinate among its disparate parts, the narrative of a brewing coalition of formerly antagonistic forces, the Left and the Middle, was interrupted.
What the death did not change, was the quandary of the main forces: they were all having difficulty finding a viable standard-bearer.
The administration must first purge its ranks of formerly potential standard-bearer, Pacquiao, while gambling on betting everything on the President’s daughter which in itself will cause complications in local Davao politics and Mindanao as a unified bloc.
The existing ruling coalition has many potential vice-presidential candidates but also has the problem of the one with history, and thus motive, and definitely, means, to pursue a national run, having the same history and thus time, demanding he seek the presidency now, and not later: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. whose interests would best be served having the President’s daughter as his running mate: but it is the time of that daughter’s family, and not Marcos Jr.’s.
By default the opposition, such as it is or considered to be, has the incumbent Vice-President and a former senator as a possible tandem; but it is unclear if they would attract the undecided/uncommitted to their ranks. Politics is addition and it hasn’t been clear at all if they have expanded their constituencies since 2016.
What the death has changed, is the trajectory that had been expected or being sustained, by some of those forces.
“Out from some timeless wintry fog shambled the hairy old beast — history — big with memories.” — Simon Schama, on Churchill’s funeral.
For radicals, their efforts at building a United Front are in shambles. The demands of dogma and the elimination of a generations-spanning target which justified the sacrifice of so many lives, was too infuriating to meet news of the death of an Aquino with any sort of strategic patience. There will still be time and opportunity and possibly some successes, in forging coalitions with more ambivalent groups, but it will not just remain, but once again become increasingly, confrontational with some parts of the “opposition.”
The slogan that emerged with the deaths of Ninoy and Cory was of course, “You are not alone,” and there were echoes of this as what was supposed to be a humiliated because repudiated man was both reconciled and rehabilitated with his public. What astounded people, it seemed, wasn’t only that despite the pandemic and the ferocious social media and political environment of the past five years, people still showed up to condole and mark his passing, but also that the numbers on media and other sites apparently impressed.
But this still means the old Aquino coalition, what’s left of it, reenergized and vindicated though it might feel, still has a profound identity crisis. It cannot seek restoration — because no one can forget there had been a repudiation. It cannot seek a repeat of the past, because the political line has ended, regardless of whether anyone tempts the former President’s sister to seek office.
What is reenergized, however, and which places the old coalition in a position to seek common cause with others, is to foil a Marcos restoration. And that the old Aquino coalition’s survivors are still a factor to consider.
As for the ruling coalition… The political momentum of the ruling coalition was rudely interrupted; it’s five year momentum — “panahon na namin” — that traditional boast which includes the gloating presumption the defeated are has-beens, stopped dead in its tracks, at least for three days (both a blink of the eye and an eternity in politics).
The problematic nature of this — and here, we must include speculation as to what the current chief executive is or isn’t, a believer in omens and portents — was demonstrated by the President’s decision not to condole in person with his predecessor’s family, though in all other respects he behaved with correctness and discretion.
The best defense is of course a good offense (see next topic below), but what has intruded into the triumphalist narrative of the past five years is that it turns out not only was the former regime and its chieftain not thoroughly defeated, he may have won a posthumous victory or at least rehabilitation, making him less satisfying as a target and less useful for summoning coalition solidarity.
A funeral wreath of bullets
There is no coincidence in politics, some argue. So when the President, during remarks in the Police National Headquarters, said friendly vigilantes should be armed, you can be sure he knew it would galvanize his supporters. More than that: it aggressively expands not just the implicated but deepens their ties to the President firming up and expanding his constituency going into an electoral battle with the highest stakes not just for him but all his people. It is their response to three days of disruption.
The President during his mayoralty had a long association with civilian vigilantes, a relict of the Marcos years repurposed and rebranded during the post-dictator years and retained to this day. See this extremely interesting contemporary account from 1988. It explores the “Alsa Masa” from three angles and includes a profile of then-mayor Duterte. See this briefer on “Alsa Masa,” including this relevant closing passage:
In September 2017, police in Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) said they were building a network of spies to target criminals, drug suspects and communist rebels, but composed of civilians with barely any formal training in intelligence operations.
This article published on state media provides the government-authorized rebuttal against criticisms of the President and his association with vigilantes: in connection with the 1988 account above, it also puts forward the framing of the President’s campaign for the mayoralty as a defeat of President Aquino’s preferred candidate at the time.
Dubbed “Community Mobilization Project (CMP)” the network has been compared to Alsa Masa.As for CAFGUs — Citizen Armed Force Geographic Units or civilian militias — (see Executive Order №69 and Executive Order №110) the President has been assiduous about their welfare. Another briefer from September, 2016 points out the “Alsa Masa” model was one being studied by the authorities.
Therefore: the President’s latest scheme is no mere trial balloon, but a belated effort to accomplish a long-planned expansion.
The President, February 9, 2019:
Q: One more question, Mayor. The Lumads of Mindanao who just went home after the conference but two of them were killed and they are asking you for protection. What should be done in their plight?
PRESIDENT DUTERTE: In the meantime, they would just live near the camps of the military.
Or if they want, if they are well trained enough, give me about three months, I will train them as CAFGU and give them firearms and go out and hunt for those who killed their comrades.
If you got 1 NPA, I said also, I will pay you. I’ll [unclear] a reward. Isang NPA mapatay ninyo, kayong mga Lumad na maging CAFGU, I’ll pay you… you want money? I’ll give you money.
I will make it 20,000 per head. Sige. Marami mang pera ang gobyerno. Kung magbayad kayo ng tax ninyo mas lalong marami ako.
Q: Thank you sir.
The President, by making his proposal, returned the national conversation back to himself, and rejuvenated the hardline approach that helped gain him the presidency.
The President’s proposal came at the heels of efforts to frame the passing of the former president, as the ultimate, final repudiation of the Aquinos and the democratic center; all sorts of angles were pursued but the one that ended up being most noticed was the allegation the former President had been neglected and then used to political purposes. Efforts were made to soq intrigue about the manner of his death.
As the Tweet below suggests, this not only seems to have failed — provoking indignant pushback — but exposed the waning clout of online personalities who’d previously held tens of thousands in thrall and been widely feared.
Remembering Noynoy Aquino: ‘He abhorred corruption, couldn’t forgive it’ — cnnphilippines.com
“When he spoke about the Filipino people continuing the fight for change, he meant it — his trust in us was all-encompassing.”
I don’t know if this is actually the case, but as important as data is perception, and this is an important perception if it gains traction.
A Continuation Campaign is the hardest of all
In our presidential politics, reelection or continuation by a chosen successor only seems to work very rarely (Quezon, 1941, Marcos, 1969), Aquino (1992), and equally so, only for those who died in office: so it worked for Roxas (1946), for Quirino (1949), and Garcia (1957) in the wake of the deaths of Quezon (1944), Roxas (1948), and Magsaysay (1957), respectively, when the latter two, in particular, were widely expected to be successful in obtaining reelection. A case might be made that it was also as a successor that Benigno S. Aquino III ran and won in the wake of his mother’s death, but as it did for Osmeña, Quirino (1953), Garcia (1961), Macapagal (1965) most presidents failed in re-election bids, while Ramos and Arroyo failed in getting their chosen successors elected.
Until June 24, 2021 what the ruling coalition had going for it was the universal assumption it had uncontested command of the political field; it’s victory in 2016 had been viewed as total, definitive, irreversible. This is no longer the case though no one knows how it will actually play out.
What this means then is the electoral pendelum could still swing one way or another. In which of two possible directions? The presentation below outlines the possibilities. It’s from 2010, but remains valid in many ways.
Cleaving Clientelism Berlin May 2010 | Populism | Politics — www.scribd.com
Cleaving Clientelism Berlin May 2010 — Free download as Powerpoint Presentation (.ppt), PDF File (.pdf), Text File (.txt) or view presentation slides online. Presentation by Dr. Mark Thompson, during the Roundtable on presidential elections on the Philippines, May 28, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.
Here is magnificent piece and not just because it contains a reflection on my 2015 piece. This is a think piece grounded in absolute reality ironically possible because the author is serving the country abroad. A must-read.
I myself believe, and have been toying with the idea of writing a book on, the story of our times is the Rise and Fall of the Philippine Fifth Republic; that the manner it began, in 1986 (the Republic formally dates from 1987 and the ratification of the Constitution) helped define what it came to be — a body politic eventually unable to renew itself.
At the core of this story and process is what Randy David over a decade ago identified as the country’s — and our society’s — Crisis of Modernity. My belief is that at the core of this is the decline of the Old Middle Class, and the rise of a New Middle Class.
It is encouraging to see in this essay, that others can see the glimmer of these themes; it encourages me to go on and pursue my explorations. I am including the text in full below this, in case it’s more convenient for you to read on instead of clicking the link below.
President Aquino’s imperfection — OUR GUY IN GENEVA
Date: June 27, 2021
It is unfortunate that those spontaneously paying tributes to former president Benigno S. Aquino III upon his recent passing have to preface their eulogies with the caveat that he was “not perfect.” They are, of course, technically correct. Nobody is perfect; not even saints. Yet mentioning this truism when singing paeans to the dead is usually avoided in any culture, unless the deceased’s imperfections are so glaring as to render their mention unavoidable.
In usual times, therefore, such caveats are invoked only when eulogizing disgraced but rehabilitated figures, and only out of respect to the victims of their shortcomings. You hear such caveats, for instance, in eulogies to Richard Nixon, who subverted the election process at Watergate — hence, imperfect — but also revolutionized U.S. foreign policy by engaging China and was therefore, in hindsight, a statesman. You also hear it in the Chinese Communist Party’s official pronouncements that Mao Zedong’s legacy was “forty percent bad” — an acknowledgement of the untold suffering caused by his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution — but also “sixty percent good.”
But Aquino was neither a Nixon nor a Mao. He was, by all accounts, one of the best Filipino presidents in recent memory. The alleged blemishes in his record that people often mention were merely the occasional miscalculations or uninspired decisions that are expected of any administration, including the best ones. They pale in comparison to the transformative policies his presidency oversaw, and are eclipsed by the superior personal virtues he demonstrated as a public servant.
I do not think, therefore, that these acknowledgments of the late president’s imperfections were meant to state the obvious about the nature of human frailty. I think they were simply a nod to current political realities: the Aquino dynasty has become divisive, if not unpopular. Everybody knows that the late former president was a virtuous man who served his country with honor, but nobody wants to be accused of having drank the so-called Aquino Kool-Aid.
I think this speaks of the extent of the slander that Aquino — and indeed his entire family, to whom Filipinos owe the democratic space they now enjoy — had to silently suffer as forces of both illiberal populism and Marcos restorationism perpetuate false narratives to undermine the legitimacy of the liberal values that the Aquinos represent.
But this also comes from something deeper than the proliferation of vicious trolls. The hostility of the current political environment towards anything “yellow” is also a historical signpost: Aquino’s death came at a time when the nation’s schizophrenic emotional pendulum is once again swinging, to paraphrase a leading commentator, from a yearning for a democratic liberator to a pining for an illiberal strongman. In other words, we are seeing the unraveling of the EDSA Republic.
How did we even get here? This is a question that, I think, is best left to detached historians to study years from now. There are many factors that led to the recent unraveling of the national consensus behind the progressive and liberal values that heretofore governed the parameters of mainstream Filipino politics for the past three decades. I suspect, however, that future historians will conclude that the demystification of the Aquino dynasty helped hasten it.
In the era of EDSA, the Aquino family personified modern Filipino democracy. Of course, this is a simplistic narrative that has never squared entirely with reality. But social contracts are forged through myth-making. The people’s faith in common values is often predicated on their belief in the stories that underpin them. In the case of the EDSA Republic, these stories revolve around Aquino’s parents, Ninoy and Cory.
To understand this is to recall how the Marcos dictatorship used fear and intimidation as a lid over the pent-up frustrations of Filipinos, how this lid was blown away by an explosion of national emotions made possible only by Ninoy’s martyrdom, and how these emotions were channeled into unity by the widowed Cory through her grace, fortitude, and moral integrity. It was her personal dignity that lent legitimacy to the republic that was established on EDSA in 1986.
This is not just historiography; this is actual history. Consider, for instance, that the framers of the 1987 Constitution were all handpicked by Cory rather than elected nationally. Instead of calling for a constitutional convention that could have been hijacked by warlords and dynasts, Cory chose to appoint women and men of integrity to write the new constitution, and what they produced is one of the world’s most progressive charters. The legitimacy of the 1987 Constitution is therefore premised on the personal moral integrity of the woman who led the revolution that produced it, and ratified only by the people in a democratic plebiscite.
All Filipino presidents that followed Cory pledged fidelity to the values that underpin the democratic order she established, even if their actual faithfulness to this pledge varied. It might be hard for most young people today to imagine this, but there was a time when yellow was a unifying symbol of the Philippines.
Modern political scientists would frown upon such simplistic symbolism and the personalistic paradigm it implies. I argue, however, that the yellow mythology was the necessary glue that held the national consensus together pending the consolidation of democratic institutions. It is therefore unsurprising that powerful forces seeking to dismantle or erode these institutions began by diluting this yellow glue.
These forces sought to consistently discredit the Aquino myth amid the democratic rambunctions that camouflaged the painfully slow but steady economic development that the restoration of democracy jumpstarted. Democratic institutions struggled to cope with the realities that perpetuated persistent social inequities, and their thorough and deliberative nature made them unresponsive to the urgency of expeditiously responding to the needs of the common man. Meanwhile, populists backed by pro-Marcos revisionists consistently offered the alluring proposition that the nation’s complex problems can be solved with simplistic solutions.
In their impatience, Filipinos grew disillusioned with their new democracy, allowing illiberal forces to slowly erode the EDSA edifice. I remember coming to age at a time of intense political divisions emanating from persistent legitimacy crises that began in 2001 and was aggravated from 2004 onwards, and my political awakening being marked by household debates that would sometimes question the very legitimacy of the EDSA Republic itself. It was clear then that a national soul-searching was unfolding. The sense that the era of EDSA was coming to an end was palpable.
It was at that time of political dysfunction that Cory died in 2009. The public grief that ensued turned into national nostalgia for the values she represented. Around a million Filipinos escorted her to her grave, and in so doing renewed the legitimacy of the progressive political order that she created. It was in this context that his son became president in 2010.
Benigno S. Aquino III was therefore elected not only as an economic builder but also as a national symbol. But alas, he lacked the necessary emotion to harness the residual gravitas of his family’s legacy, or even to protect it. This, I truly believe, is the only imperfection about him that is worth mentioning, if only to prompt some national self-reflection.
By now, we have read sufficient explanations of the reason behind his stoic disposition. These explanations are of course valid, and they affirm the high standard of personal integrity that the late president demonstrated. Yet they do not change the fact that Aquino’s refusal to harness or even acknowledge national emotions, while no doubt an asset to a technocrat administering day-to-day governance, was a liability in terms of defending an unraveling social contract.
He was supposed to uphold the EDSA spirit, to stand as a symbol of that spirit, to maintain the subliminal link between him and his people, and to be a pastoral president. Yet he chose to be an aloof technocrat. At times of crises and disasters during his tenure, Filipinos were often left searching for a modicum of empathy from their president, and always to no avail. This led to what a former Aquino official describes as the divorce between the public and the Aquino family.
The same official believes that the final straw may have come in the President’s failure to appear at the Manila tarmac to welcome police officers who were killed in a botched anti-terrorist commando operation in the south in 2015. The late president thought that being there would have entailed logistical problems rather than solutions, and he would rather work behind the scenes to ensure that the martyrs’ families would be taken care of. But the people saw it differently: the Filipino nation had bravely stood with the Aquino family when Ninoy and Cory died, yet their son could not even muster enough empathy condole with the nation as it mourn its martyrs. The subliminal link was therefore broken.
Aquino remained moderately popular after that, but he ceased to be seen as heir to democratic symbols. Instead, he became simply a passing politician. Public opinion started to judge his presidency against the standards of an ordinary administration, rather than a transcendent one. In the absence of an appreciation of a bigger historical context, his administration’s petty failures were magnified, and its perceived ineptitude were exploited by those actively seeking to discredit the yellow coalition. In the end, they amplified a message that was obviously false but nonetheless resonated: thirty years of democracy have spawned nothing but callous incompetence, and the time has come for change.
The tragedy is that all of these resulted from the trust that Aquino placed in his people. He thought that the Filipino has matured enough to be patient, to trust their institutions, and to recognize that complex problems can only be solved with nuanced solutions that, in turn, require thorough and thoughtful deliberations that uphold reason over emotion. Indeed, this was evident in the message of the Daang Matuwid coalition in 2016: we are not there yet, but if we continue on this straight path, we will get there soon. But the Filipino has waited long enough, his needs remain in the here and now, and he simply does not have the time. If a transcendent, pastoral leader in the mold of Cory had made that call, the Filipino might have placed his trust.
But President Aquino did not choose to play that pastoral role. Instead, he chose to be a modern president for a people that remain unready to modernize.
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