Sunday, August 17, 2008

A woman dictator in the making

Have you ever heard of a woman dictator? Is there such a thing as a military strongwoman?

Throughout history, there have been a number of great women rulers, from Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt during the 15th century B.C. to Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of England of the modern day era. We could mention the names of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France, 122-1202, Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Macedonian dynasty of ancient Egypt, Isabella I of Castille, Queen of Spain, 1451-1504, who together with Ferdinand of Aragon, became joint rulers of the whole of Spain, or Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, 1729-1796, who deposed her husband and proclaimed herself as sole ruler of Russia. Perhaps a number of these women, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher, could be considered female tyrants, but all of them have been monarchs from centuries ago.

The closest the modern world has ever had to a female despot perhaps was Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India. Gandhi suspended India’s democracy in 1975 during the infamous “emergency period” when she adopted dictatorial powers, including the ability to rule by decree. In that two-year emergency period, Gandhi almost wiped out all her political enemies by sending them to jail on false charges, imposing censorship of the press, dismissing state officials perceived to be hostile to her rule, while at the same grooming her sons Sanjay and Rajiv to succeed her. Believing the emergency period brought economic recovery to India, Gandhi called for new elections in 1977, but she miscalculated and was soundly defeated by her opponents. Her return to politics produced disastrous results to her party before she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984.

Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto’s stint as leader of her country that was notorious for dictatorships pales in comparison with Gandhi’s dictatorial rule in India. Although she seemed to recapture her popularity upon returning from exile, she was gunned down before she could regain the top post she used to occupy in Pakistan.

Not even Hillary Clinton could come close to Gandhi’s stature, assuming she had won her party’s presidential nomination and the presidency of the United States of America. Ridiculous as it seems to imagine a female dictator rising from American politics, Hillary had no chance to fill in Indira’s shoes.

The only female head of her country that seems to be following in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the fourteenth president of the Republic of the Philippines. Could this diminutive political dynamo become heir to Gandhi’s throne?

The Philippines is not a stranger to dictatorial rule. Ferdinand Marcos, who was elected to the presidency in 1965 continued to rule the country for almost 20 years, way beyond the constitutional two-term limit or eight years by imposing martial law in 1972. He ruled the country by issuing letters of instructions, general orders and presidential decrees, which still have a significant impact on the minds of the current crop of Filipino politicians whose sense of civic duty and political responsibility has been shaped by the ideals of the New Society envisioned by Marcos. Many of today’s politicians in the Philippines grew up and were nurtured with the values of the New Society under the Marcos regime. These politicians also belong to the same families who benefited from the Marcos dictatorship, the same families that continue to control the levers of economic power and political authority in their local fiefdoms. Nowadays, their loyalty has shifted to the current occupant of Malacanang.

Every pundit in Manila seems to agree that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is hell-bent to continue beyond her tenure as president which ends in 2010. There are at least two clear indications of her desire to stay in power. First, a resolution was recently initiated in the Senate seeking to convene Congress as a constituent assembly in order to adopt a federal system of government which will overhaul the structure of government, thus giving Arroyo the opportunity to hold on to power as leader of her party in a federal political system. It is not a secret that Arroyo has always desired a constitutional change that will allow her the opportunity to stay in power. Marcos did the same thing by adopting a new Constitution in 1973, which, to his eyes and to his loyal supporters, gave legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Arroyo’s opponents see her attempt to change the present government into a federal form simply as a ploy for her real objective, which is to remove the present provision in the Philippine Constitution that bars her from re-election. Just like the earlier failed initiatives to amend the Constitution, the current attempt in the Senate to convene a constituent assembly among the members of Congress to accomplish this task will surely not pass. So, Arroyo needed another ruse.

This brings us to the other sign of Arroyo’s desperation to stay in power. By signing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Moro National Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) creating the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (JBF) in Mindanao and Palawan, Arroyo has planted the seed for national division, thus renewing hostilities in Southern Philippines. In effect, Arroyo signed in to something that is doomed to fail, without regard to the present Constitution, a recipe to bring the whole country into a state of war, thus giving her the legitimate cover to declare a national emergency and martial law, just like what Ferdinand Marcos accomplished in 1972.

Arroyo’s desperate political move to appease the MILF is tantamount to fanning the flames of Moro-Christian conflict and renewed armed hostilities in strife-torn Mindanao. While the Philippine Supreme Court ruled earlier in favour of a petition that prevented the government and the MILF from signing the Memorandum of Agreement, it still has to make a decision on whether to allow the signing of the agreement. There is already a massive refugee exodus in the south, indicating the renewal of hostilities between government forces and Islamic separatists in the region. Social welfare officials have warned of a potential humanitarian disaster as the fighting between government troops and elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front threatened to spill over to other areas.

It looks like the events in the Philippines are unfolding the way Arroyo exactly wanted them. Arroyo is creating the biggest crisis of her leadership in a country that has been plagued by graft and corruption, a government that has continuously betrayed the interests of the Filipino people – and a crisis that would precipitate declaring a national emergency, and eventually another dictatorship. This time, for a woman dictator who has emulated the leadership set by her own father Diosdado Macapagal when he was president of the country in the 1960s.

In her speech before the Manila Overseas Press Club in April 1997, Arroyo said this of her late father: “He believed that a primordial requirement in the drive against corruption in government was to set the example at the top.” Indeed, Arroyo has set the bar for the most corrupt president in the history of the Philippines. This was confirmed by a survey conducted by Pulse Asia that found Arroyo beating former strongman Ferdinand Marcos for being the most corrupt leader in the country’s history.

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