MANILA, January 30, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - That wasn’t a coup attempt last Wednesday. It was a hiccup of protest from a bunch of disgruntled junior officers. When and if the real thing happens, we’ll all know it.

As for the huffing and puffing of the old generals, they’re probably just letting off steam. Kudetas, as the Indonesians demonstrated in 1965, are not mounted by elderly soldiers who can’t get it up any longer; they’re instigated by younger firebrands with fire in their belly, idealism even if misplaced, a messianic complex, or the ambition to grab at power.

Our preoccupation with "coup threats" and all that destabilization talk, naturally, sinks the peso and our economic viability. But let’s not put the chicken before the egg (no pun intended on the seriously escalating bird flu virus). Coup tries or loose cuckoo talk don’t destabilize a society. It’s the other way around. An unstable, politically chaotic society "invites" intervention from one of the most organized agencies of power – the military.

As my old professor is SAIS, Johns Hopkins, Ambassador George Kennan used to stress again and again, "Power abhors a vacuum." When a vacuum of leadership exists, another "power" rushes in to fill it. Physics, metaphysics and politics often operate along similar rules.

Our peso has hit as all-time low of P55.90 to the dollar. Today, it’s probably past the P56-mark. The "coup" hiccup had nothing to do with it. We’re really facing a fiscal crisis. We mustn’t miss the real significance of Moody’s Investor Service lowering our long-term sovereign rating by one notch. This means that the Philippine Government, as it has been doing so – even so much recklessly in the past two years – can no longer "borrow" funds overseas to feed our deficit.

The peso’s tumble can also be attributed to uncertainty over the conduct and outcome of next May’s elections. For instance, FPJ looks like a sincere guy, and is obviously the idol of many, not just the masa. But, the international markets are asking, what does Fernando Poe Jr. (alias Ronnie Poe) know about business and economics? Will a Poe victory signal the return of Erap and his Gang? Hasn’t FPJ, being a political nobato or novice, already been surrounded and is now being manipulated by the old farts who are TRAPOS, i.e., traditional politicians in the most putative sense of that term? For that matter, FPJ may speak about the businessmen and economic "advisers" with big names who’re now backstopping him. What I see are smart alecks who greedily fattened their pockets during the FVR, the Estrada, and the GMA times, and are now hedging their bets by attaching themselves to the "new meteor" they see blazing through the night sky: Gullible "Gee whiz" Ronnie the Poe.

FPJ is an old friend, and I certainly don’t wish to sound insulting; and perhaps he’s got something up his sleeve. Right now, however, he looks like a man hemmed in by all the wrong suspects, who’re catching what they believe will be a free ride to the top, riding sassily on the coat-tails of his "populism". If Ronnie doesn’t watch out, they’ll sink him instead.

When February 10 – the formal beginning of hostilities – comes around, the real Poe had better stand up and speak for himself. Looking pogi, smelling good, funnily smiling, may project "winnability", but, in the end, we need a President, not a matinee idol.

As for President Macapagal-Arroyo, she’s got her work cut out for her. She’s got the edge as the incumbent, but her pursuivants, camp followers, courtiers and squires are fumbling and bumbling all over the place. And every "dirty trick" – rightly or wrongly – is being traced back to the Palace. What her officials and Rasputins suffer from, alas, goes beyond hubris; it’s self-destructive arrogance.

The perception people have of GMA, however, is her own worst drawback. The impression has been created that she intends to utilize every means at her government’s command – not the least "influence" in the Commission on Elections itself – to win in May. The buzz is that GMA is determined not to suffer the fate which befell her father, the late Cong Dadong, Diosdado Macapagal. DM was a one-term President for all his idealism and good works. Although he was the incumbent President, with all the levers of government at his command, he was swept out of Malacañang by the charisma and cunning tactics of the challenger Ferdinand E. Marcos. "Not for me daddy’s fate!" This is seen to be GMA’s resolve and war cry – whatever it takes.

Probably this assessment is unfair. Yet, this is what everybody seems to be saying. Worst of all, it seems to be believed by her subordinates, who take it as carte blanche to act accordingly.

The President’s designation of National Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita to be the virtual CEO of her campaign is a case in point. As his title indicates so clearly, General Ermita’s job is "National Defense", which means he must defend the entire nation, not merely his Commander-in-Chief. The President has her own proficient Presidential Security Guard contingent. The DND and Armed Forces thus are not supposed to be her praetorian guards – they must protect us all. A President may be Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief, but in a democracy the last command comes from the people. Salus populi est suprema lex.

* * *

Last Tuesday, when I addressed the National Defense College of the Philippines in Camp Aguinaldo, one colonel, during the Roundtable Discussion which followed, was outspoken in asking why no qualifying exam or professional license is required of persons who want to become journalists and work in media.

He testily pointed out that in order to get a commission as an officer of the Armed Forces, a man or woman was required to undergo military training, pass exams and physical tests, gain a degree (as in the Philippine Military Academy or Reserve Officers Training, i.e. ROTC). To become a lawyer, to cite another example (he said) one has to pass the Bar. Et cetera. Yet, he griped, to become a media person, journalist or newsman, no licensing or qualification is demanded.

I quipped, in response, that the colonel had just proved the point I had stressed in my assigned topic, "Defense and Media Partnership". I had said that the attitude of most military men is that no "partnership" truly exists, and their not-too-well-concealed instinct would be to shoot the media, just as readily as to shoot the enemy. This had elicited, of course, an appreciative chuckle from my audience of generals, commodores, colonels, majors, and civilians working in defense and military matters.

The point raised by the colonel, seriously speaking, was very well taken. Personally, I wish all of us in the media had been required to go through a period of "cadetship", not merely practicum, before being invested with media work, but, thus far, no organization has managed to conceptualize – much less implement – this kind of vetting and testing.

In our own time, we went through months of apprenticeship as "cub reporters", and a kind of cadet training (those were more disciplined days in both the newsroom and on the beat) but today, it’s a sort of free for all.

In any event, my retort was glib enough, but sad as well. I underscored that nobody has to pass an exam or earn a college degree, or acquire a license, to be elected President of the Philippines – and thus become "Commander-in-Chief" of the Armed Forces. This was my reply to the colonel.

In our democracy we leave it to the wisdom of the people to choose our leaders, including the President. Democracy as we practice it, however, is a bit like Russian roulette. You know the trick with a half-loaded revolver. Sometimes the gun-hammer clicks on an empty chamber. Sometimes there’s a live round in it.

Sometimes, our people are not wise. Sometimes, Bar topnotchers, leaders with excellent degrees from Ateneo. La Salle, PMA, Wharton, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Oxford, etc., betray our people. A diploma may guarantee ability, but this ability can be used for wrong, lustful or avaricious ends.

This is democracy’s drawback. Nobody can peer into the hearts of men and women. And if we entrust the vote to automatic and electronic machines, what happens if somebody malicious and devious inserts a "Trojan Horse" chip?

Democracy is a difficult proposition all around. But, under Marcos we tried dictatorship, and it didn’t work either.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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