Born only nine months apart, US President George W. Bush and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are both children of former presidents. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal, was president from 1961-1965; Bush’s held the office from 1989-1992. Both also came to power not by winning elections, but on the basis of Supreme Court decisions in their respective countries, and were sworn in on January 20, 2001. Bush had some special assistance in the last election from his brother Jeb, governor of Florida. Former Vice President Arroyo took power after President Joseph “Erap” Estrada was toppled in a popular uprising.
But the surreal and striking similarities between the two, as well as the electioneering parallels, go much deeper. The Philippines, a former US colony, will face a choice on May 10. US citizens vote on November 2.
To stay in power past 2004, for example, both presidents have made the “war on terror” and free market capitalism their central rallying points. Arroyo claims that her market reforms and the nation’s security are at risk in the election. So does Bush, who has used the capture of Saddam Hussein to rebuild his falling popularity. She has also tried, so far unsuccessfully, to use a domestic “war on terror” to bolster her flagging ratings.
In 1994, as a senator, Arroyo sponsored the ratification of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that led to the country’s World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. She remains a staunch supporter of neo-liberal economic policies, ignoring the growing social, ecological, and economic injustices they fuel.
“As free trade expands across the earth,” Bush claims, “the realm of human freedom expands with it.” His administration charges on with bilateral and sub-regional trade and investment agreements in an attempt to build from below what the WTO has thus far failed to deliver for US corporate interests. Domestically, his policies ensure welfare for the rich, and poverty and injustice for millions.
The Philippine government is a key US ally in Asia – politically, economically, and militarily. Declaring it the “second front on the war on terror,” the US administration has poured military aid, including troops, into the country (TF, Spring 2003). The Philippines was one of the first countries to commit troops to Iraq, and was awarded “major non-NATO US ally” status, which confers priority in receiving US military aid. Arroyo needs US support for her war against Muslim and communist insurgencies. Bush needs her support for the Iraq war and in policing Southeast Asia against groups like the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang and Jemiah Islamiah.
Last May, Arroyo became the first Asian head of state granted a formal state visit to the US since Bush took power. In October, Bush became the first US president since Eisenhower to address the Philippine Congress.
Arroyo shares the dualistic worldview of the Bush “either with us or against us” doctrine. She has charged that anyone who opposed US military intervention in the Philippines was “not a Filipino.” Then she asked, “If you are not a Filipino, then who are you? A protector of terrorists, a cohort of murderers, an Abu Sayyaf lover.”
Bush’s affection for capital punishment, first as Texas governor, now as president, is well-known. In December 2003, Arroyo joined the chorus. Reneging on a promise she made upon assuming office, she lifted a four-year-old moratorium on the death penalty and announced that convicted kidnappers and drug traffickers should be executed. Planned executions are “our act of love for those who are looking for jobs,” she claims, “because in order to have more jobs, investors should not be scared to pour in investments due to kidnappings.”
They also appear to share disdain for human rights and civil liberties. Bush has the Patriot Act, Code Orange, Homeland Security, Guantanamo Bay, countless detentions, and an endless, borderless war at home and abroad. Last November, $8.5 million from the $87 billion Iraq “reconstruction” package financed the paramilitary assault on Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests in a militarized Miami.
Meanwhile, Arroyo is promoting a draconian anti-terrorism bill. A Patriot Act clone, it would frame legitimate political activity like pickets, strikes, and rallies as terrorism, and allow arrests and detention of suspects for up to 30 days without charges. In her self-styled offensive against “terrorists” and “communists,” she has deployed 6000 troops to reinforce police in Metro Manila. Other regions remain militarized war zones. The Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (KARAPATAN) charges that under Arroyo, human rights violations have increased to levels last seen during the Marcos dictatorship, including multiple murders, torture, abductions, displacements, and the targeting of progressive activists.
Rigging the Votes
Both Bush and Arroyo claim divine endorsement. The born-again US leader believes God wanted him to be president and is on his side in a “conflict between good and evil.” Less secure but equally pious, Arroyo told Time Magazine in November 2000: “I will follow my father’s footsteps by doing what is right, and God will take care of the rest.” With friends like God, who needs a popular mandate?
Nevertheless, election-related scandals haunt both leaders. In the Third World, these are dubbed “corruption.” In the “civilized” US, they represent business as usual. For example, Bush’s top financial sponsor was Enron, the bankrupt energy corporation mired in accounting scandals, price gouging, and shady partnerships. Enron ex-chairman and CEO Ken Lay co-chaired Daddy Bush’s 1992 reelection committee and chaired that summer’s Republican National Convention.
Topping Bush in the corporate slime department, Arroyo is linked to serious money-laundering allegations. Her husband, Mike Arroyo, allegedly held 260 million pesos in secret bank accounts under the fictitious name of “Jose Pidal.” His younger brother Ignacio claims that he is “Jose Pidal,” but invoked his right to privacy against answering related questions at a recent hearing. The evasiveness of the Arroyo brothers and the president on this issue has only fuelled suspicions.
There are grave concerns that neither of the upcoming elections will be fair and free. Prior to the last US election, thousands of people – mainly Black and Democrat-voting – were electronically purged from Florida’s voter rolls on the orders of Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. These votes might have swung the state, and the presidency, for Gore. Now, the Help America Vote Act requires that every state computerize, centralize, and purge voter rolls before the 2004 election. Fault-prone, fraud-susceptible touchscreen voting machines and internet-based voting systems are being introduced. There are close ties between the Bush administration and Diebold, whose vote-counting machines operate in 37 states.
In the Philippines, the planned introduction of computerized voting sparked a political outcry. Opposition Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., warned that computerized elections in 2004 could lead to new kinds of poll fraud. Instead of ballot box snatching, there could be “diskette switching,” he said. Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal, spokesperson for the Communist Party of the Philippines, predicted that the Arroyo camp would cheat to hold onto power. “The elections will be high-tech, the cheating will also be high-tech,” he charged. In January, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commission on Elections
didn’t follow the law and public policy in connection with public biddings, so the contract was nullified. US voters are at the mercy of technological tricksters. It’s low-tech cheating as usual in the Philippines.
Then there’s the celebrity factor. California’s Terminator-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should boost Bush’s presidential campaign, particularly Republican campaigning in the most populous state. Arroyo has popular TV newsreader-turned-senator Noli De Castro as her running mate. The background of Arroyo’s most serious rival perhaps attests to the disdain with which many ordinary Filipinos hold “trapos” – traditional politicians. Like his friend, the deposed Estrada, Fernando Poe Junior – “FPJ” – is a popular actor famed for playing action hero and underdog roles. Philippine politics makes the pageantry and posturing of the US primaries seem bland.
It’s no surprise, in such circumstances, that many people in both countries are wary of investing hope and energy in electoral politics as a way to bring about positive change. In the US, notwithstanding the desperation engendered by the current regime, an “anyone-but-Bush” strategy fails to confront the fundamental injustices which underpin imperial politics at home and abroad. If there is hope in the Philippines, it comes from the building and sustaining of vibrant social movements struggling for justice and liberation, not the miasma of electoral politics. Whoever becomes president, it’s something to consider during this election year.
Aziz Choudry is an activist, researcher, and writer working in anti-colonial and anti-globalization struggles.
Apathy: The reason most US politicians are able to achieve and maintain office
Ballot: An object recording a voter’s decision; frequently counted toward an election’s outcome
Campaign: A sophisticated, market-researched advertising initiative in which a candidate is sold to the public like a brand of air freshener, or a fruit-flavored snack-food
Concession Statement: An act of willpower in which the loser lies about the election being well-fought and disingenuously congratulates the victor
Corruption: The most effective and efficient way to produce results in government
Debate: A contest to see which candidate can answer the fewest questions
Democracy: A political system characterized by protected individual rights and liberties for certain lucky countries in the Middle East
Gerrymandering: Some political-type word learned in grade school
Green Party: A ragtag group of can-do ruffians trying to compete in a world that just doesn’t seem to care
Incumbent: The winner in an upcoming election, unless he runs over a pedestrian
Independent: A third-party candidate; offers a second point of view
Politics, Conservative: A school of thought that values limited government authority over the welfare of actual flesh-and-blood people
Politics, Liberal: A school of thought that values the welfare of idealized, hypothetical people over actual flesh-and-blood people
Pollster: A telemarketer with an Ivy League degree
Primary: A special election preview attended only by democracy nerds
Referendum: A legal process by which voters are allowed to make important political decisions; not a great idea, in general
Special Interest Groups: Like-minded individuals who explain to members of Congress what’s important each term
Spin: The art of turning a groping allegation into a testament of character
Underdog: A candidate unlikely to win; often leads a double-life as a mild-mannered shoeshine boy
Voter Turnout: The percentage of the population that votes in an election; dependent upon whether it rains and TV networks are airing reruns or not
– from The Onion