Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Political Gambit

First posted 02:20am (Mla time)
July 13, 2005
By Michael L. Tan
Inquirer News Service

THE NAMES of the pieces in chess, that fine game of strategy, tell us it took off from medieval European politics with its pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queens and kings. Victory or defeat will often depend on the gambits, the first moves made during the game, which could include sacrificing first pawns, then rooks, knights, bishops.

Think now of the parallels between chess and Philippine politics, with all the maneuvering and surprise moves of politicians, Cabinet members, the military, the bishops. The power of each of the different pieces will vary. Bishops, for example, can only move diagonally, although this early I'd warn people against underestimating their power. In Indian chess, the equivalent of the bishop is the elephant, slow-moving but formidable.

Although the objective of chess is to reach checkmate by trapping the king so he can't escape, the queens are the most powerful pieces in chess, with their ability to move across the board vertically, horizontally or diagonally. In Philippine politics, we have our share of powerful queens, notably Imelda, Cory, Gloria and Susan.

Gloria's gambits

In the rough and tumble real world of Philippine politics, most of the chess pieces come alive, able to move on their own. I said "most" because, sadly, pawns are pawns, on the chess board or in the real world, there to be manipulated and sacrificed.

As I said earlier, the queens are powerful. Cory Aquino and SusanRoces so far have the disadvantage. It is Gloria Arroyo who has the benefit of being the incumbent president. She has successfully bought time, using her loyalists in Congress to stall the investigations, and preempting a checkmate around the jueteng scandal by "exiling" the king to America.

Let's face the harsh reality: this is a President who will never resign. As the daughter of a president, she is determined to prove herself as great or greater than her father. In other societies, resignation would have been deemed honorable when tendered at the slightest hint of scandal. In our society-and we need to change this-even in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrong-doing, a politician will insist on innocence because this is the "honorable" thing to do.

The President's gambits have been drastic, with many pawns sacrificed. As pressure grows, she will continue to go through motions of token penitence. So expect more billboards with her cold wan smile, reminding Filipinos of her "servant" role (read Corinthians). She could even back track on the highly unpopular E-VAT and sacrifice a few more pawns, maybe even rooks and knights.

Even subjecting herself to the impeachment processes is a gambit; the President knows at this point that an attempt to impeach will not go very far because she still has the numbers in Congress. But what is so scary here is that we could go indefinitely in an end game, forcing us to live with a hobbled presidency for months, even years. We are a nation being held hostage by one woman's pride and messianic delusions.

Bishops' gambit

I look at the recent statement from the Catholic Bishops' Conferenceof the Philippines (CBCP) as a gambit, too. But let me leave, for now, the metaphors of chess, acknowledging that the stakes are much higher. So much of the focus has been on Ms Arroyo's survival when in fact it is the nation's future that is at stake.

It is this understanding of the nation's future, rather than the President's political survival, that should give us the context for looking at the CBCP statement. The bishops' statement declares their pastoral role: "to shepherd people in the light of faith." I can appreciate the bishops' dilemma as they attempt to assume this role, to so many people. In previous political crises, we had either one person (Jaime Cardinal Sin in 1986) or a group of Manila's bishops (as in the crisis around Estrada in 2001) calling on Catholics to act. This time around, theCBCP faced the challenge of having a national statement. They succeeded, and isn't quite as ambiguous and non-committal as some people would take it to be.

Moral gambit

The CBCP statement leaves options open, which is absolutely essential at this stage of the crisis where, using existing legal frameworks, we would have a long way to go before the President can ever be convictedof any crime.

The bishops' statement is a crucial moral gambit, calling on Filipinos "to discern their decisions not in terms of political loyalties but in the light of the Gospel values of truth, justice and the common good. "The bishops help with this discernment, warning us against "those groups who seek to exploit our vulnerable national situation in orderto create confusion and social chaos" either through "juntas or revolutionary councils.

"Conversely, they identify options that could be adopted: "For we recognize that non-violent appeals for her resignation, the demand for a Truth Commission and the filing of an impeachment case are not against the Gospel." These options suggest how we might go beyond narrow legalistic frameworks toward a "moral inquiry" that should guide us to action.

That moral inquiry must, in the long term, look toward "ambivalent cultural values such as palakasan, pakikisama, utang na loob, and family-centeredness." I am very much encouraged by the bishops'recognition of how so many of our problems are based on these traditional values.

But there are short-term concerns as well. I am not surprised that so many of the calls for resignation come from people who take their roles seriously as educators and parents. I was listening to former Peace Adviser Teresita Deles on television, linking her resignation from the Cabinet to her role as a parent. How indeed do we explain to our children, and to our students, that cheating, lying and stealing are wrong, punishable by expulsion from school, and yet allowing a President to get away with an apology for a "lapse in judgement, "translated now into Tagalog as a retrospective "Ay, mali pala," oops, I erred.

Responding to the CBCP challenge will take many forms. Many of us in educational institutions and the mass media will continue with our calls to resign, not because they will make her resign but because our voices, while few right now and in the wilderness, are needed if we are to remain credible with our young.

Our voices, too, might help to embolden those who are waiting, hesitant about coming out with more expos's. And to Vice President Noli de Castro and others waiting in the wings, the louder the voices, the sterner the warning to them: if and when they do assume power, it will no longer be as easy for them to get away with corruption.

In Western chess, as end game approaches, the remaining pieces on the board all become indispensable. What we make of ourselves-dispensable pawns or rooks or knights or bishops, maybe even queens-depends on how we take up the challenge posed by the moral gambits.

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