The similarities between George W Bush and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and the electioneering underway in both countries are both surreal and striking.
The Philippines, a former US colony, goes to the polls on May 10. Americans vote on November 2.
Born only nine months apart, Bush and Arroyo are children of former presidents. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal was President from 1961-1965.
George and Gloria came to power not through winning elections, but on the basis of Supreme Court decisions in their respective countries. Both were sworn in to the presidency on January 20, 2001. George had some special assistance in the last election from his brother Jeb, Governor of Florida. Former Vice President Arroyo took power after President Joseph â€œErapâ€ Estrada was toppled in a popular uprising.
Both Bush and Arroyo hope to stay in power past the 2004 elections. Both have made the â€œwar on terrorâ€ and free market capitalism their central concerns. She claims that her market reforms and the nationâ€™s security are at risk in the election. So does he. He used the capture of Saddam to halt his falling popularity, albeit temporarily. She has tried, unsuccessfully, to use the domestic â€œwar on terrorâ€ 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 neoliberal economic policies, ignoring the growing social, ecological and economic injustices which they fuel.
Bush claims: â€œAs free trade expands across the earth, the realm of human freedom expands with it â€. His administration charges on with bilateral and subregional trade and investment agreements in an attempt to build from below what the WTO has thus far failed to deliver for corporate America. Domestically his policies ensure corporate welfare for the rich, and poverty and injustice for millions of Americans.
The Philippine government is a key US ally in Asia â€“ politically, economically, and militarily. Declaring it the â€œsecond front on the war on terrorâ€, the US has poured military aid â€“ including troops, into the country. Over the next month, some 2500 US troops will take part in the latest round of joint military exercises in the Philippines.
The Philippines was one of the first countries to commit troops to Iraq, and was awarded â€œmajor non-NATO US allyâ€ 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 war on Iraq and in policing South-East Asia against groups like the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang and Jemiah Islamiah.
Last May, Arroyo became the first Asian head of state to be 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 â€œeither with us or against usâ€ doctrine. She charged that anyone who opposed U.S. military intervention in the Philippines was “not a Filipino”: “If you are not a Filipino, then who are you? A protector of terrorists, a cohort of murderers, an Abu Sayyaf lover.”
Bushâ€™s love for capital punishment, first as Texas Governor, now as President, is well-known. In December 2003, Arroyo reneged on a promise she made on assuming office, and lifted a 4-year old moratorium on the death penalty, announcing that convicted kidnappers and drug traffickers should be executed. She claims that planned executions are â€œour act of love for those who are looking for jobs because in order to have more jobs, investors should not be scared to pour in investments due to kidnappings.â€
They share a common contempt for human rights and civil liberties. Bush has the PATRIOT Act, Code Orange, Homeland Security, Guantanamo Bay, countless detentions and disappearances of immigrants and an endless, borderless war at home and abroad. Last November, $8.5 million from the $87 billion Iraq â€œreconstructionâ€ package financed the paramilitary assault on FTAA protests in a militarized Miami. Dubya detests dissent.
Arroyo is promoting a draconian anti-terrorism bill, a PATRIOT Act clone. This would frame legitimate political activity like pickets, strikes, and rallies as terrorism, and allow arrests and detention of suspects up to 30 days without charges. In her self-styled offensive against â€œterroristsâ€ and â€œcommunistsâ€, she has deployed 6000 troops to reinforce police in Metro Manila. Other regions remain militarized warzones. KARAPATAN (Alliance for the Advancement of Peopleâ€™s Rights) 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.
Both claim divine endorsement. Born-again Bush believes God wanted him to be President and is on his side in a â€œconflict between good and evilâ€. In November 2000, Arroyo told Time Magazine: â€œI will follow my father’s footsteps by doing what is right, and God will take care of the rest.â€ With a higher power onside, who needs a piffling thing like a popular mandate?
In an October 14 NBN TV4 interview, Bush predicted that the Filipino people â€œwill make the right decision. I know my friend is running again, and she’s got a strong agenda to run on.â€ Arroyo may be more popular in the Whitehouse than at home.
Election-related scandals haunt both Presidents. In the Third World these are dubbed â€œcorruptionâ€. In the â€œcivilizedâ€ USA they represent business as usual. For example, Dubyaâ€™s top financial sponsor remains Enron, the bankrupt energy corporation mired in accounting scandals. Enron ex-chairman and CEO Ken Lay had co-chaired Daddy Bush’s 1992 re-election committee and chaired that summer’s Republican National Convention.
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 â€œJose Pidalâ€. 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 election will be fair and free. Prior to the last US election, thousands of peopleâ€™s names â€“ mainly black, and mainly Democrat-voting – were electronically purged from Floridaâ€™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.
The planned introduction of computerized voting in the Philippines sparked 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 â€œKa Rogerâ€ Rosal, spokesperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines predicted that in order to hold on to power Arroyoâ€™s camp would cheat, saying: â€œThe elections will be high-tech, the cheating will also be high-techâ€. Then, in January, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commission on Elections did not abide by 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 will be back to low-tech cheating as usual in the Philippines.
Then thereâ€™s the celebrity factor. Terminator-Governor Arnie should boost Bushâ€™s presidential campaign, and Republican campaigning in the biggest state. Arroyo has popular TV newsreader-turned-senator Noli De Castro as her running mate. The background of Arroyoâ€™s most serious rival perhaps attests to the disdain with which many ordinary Filipinos hold â€œtraposâ€ â€“ traditional politicians. Like his friend, the deposed Estrada, Fernando Poe Junior – â€œFPJâ€ – 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.
Is this what â€œdemocracyâ€ looks like in 2004?
Many of my American and Filipino friends are wary of investing much hope and energy in electoral politics as a way to bring about positive change. Many look beyond voting and believe that real work for change must happen in communities and on the streets. Notwithstanding the desperation felt by many at the Bush regime, an â€œanyone-but-Bushâ€ politics which places hopes on one or other Democratic candidate fails to confront the fundamental injustices which underpin US imperial politics at home and abroad â€“ including the Philippines. 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. Perhaps that is something which progressives in the US might reflect on in this election year.