Bongbong’s revolution

Twenty-nine years ago, nobody would have thought that anyone named Ferdinand Marcos could ever be considered for high office in the Philippines. Yet today, the dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., is a viable candidate for vice president, hinging his campaign on a call for a “revolution.” He is polling second based on latest surveys.

The return of the Marcos family to the national stage is a very interesting development, to say the least. There is no doubt that many observers, especially those that experienced the People Power euphoria that swept the world in the early years of the first Aquino presidency, find it bewildering. For me, I think Bongbong’s candidacy calls for some reflection on how things have gone since the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in 1986.

In December 2009, while reading a blog by Malacanang mandarin Manuel L. Quezon III, I came across a very interesting essay by Timothy Garton Ash on velvet revolutions, a label he applies to all modern, generally bloodless uprisings that democratized autocracies in the late 1980s, including, presumably, the Edsa Revolution of 1986. I find his central thesis instructive.

According to Ash, one fundamental difference between traditional revolutions– those class-oriented mass actions led by the republicans in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China– and the modern velvet revolutions is that the latter did not produce a winner-takes-all situation where the losers lost not just their influence and properties but also their lives. Instead, the members of the ruling elite got not the guillotine but a seat at the round table. Unlike in old-style revolutions where “the angry masses on the street are stirred up by extremist revolutionary leaders – Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Mao – to support radicalization, including violence and terror, in the name of utopia; in new-style revolution, the masses on the street are there to bring the powerholders to the negotiating table. The moment of maximum mass mobilization is the moment of turn to negotiation; that is, to compromise.”

The reason for this is that proponents of velvet movements generally adhere to two important values: non-violence, in the Gandhian style, and democracy. Hence, they adopt a non-confrontational, sometimes even embracing, attitude towards the old elite and their constituents in the name of stability and of respect for basic human rights. The result is that erstwhile members and supporters of the old regime are absorbed in the new political set-up.

In theory, this is good because it makes the national psyche forward-looking. Unity of the people is valued with the view of building new institutions that will make the nation stable, if not stronger. “Heal the wounds of Edsa,” as Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo liked to say. But in reality, according to Ash, this produces a “post-revolution pathology.” “As the years go by, there is a sense of a missing revolutionary catharsis; suspicious talk of tawdry deals concluded between old and new elites behind closed doors; and, among many, a feeling of profound historical injustice,” he wrote.

But in my view, the fact that apologists of the old regime are allowed by the post-revolutionary dispensation to participate in the national discourse in itself constitutes that “post-revolutionary pathology.”

Antonio Gramsci once postulated that the reason worldwide socialist revolutions that orthodox Marxists had once called inevitable did not occur is because capitalism has become a hegemonic culture; the values of the bourgeoisie have been adopted by the masses as common-sense values. Therefore, the challenge for Marxists is to come up with an alternative culture with alternative sets of values that would topple the prevailing cultural hegemony. Robert Cox applied this theoretical framework in international relations, arguing that the battle for hegemony is not between states but between ideologies and political perspectives. In a way, this paradigm can be stretched further to frame an analysis of the context of post-velvet political conditions. The relaxed attitude of the post-revolutionary dispensations towards the old elites enables the latter to present an alternative political narrative that challenges the ideologies, sometimes even the legitimacy, of the revolution and its post-revolutionary set-up.

And so we see two political narratives competing for hegemony in the post-Edsa arena: one that upholds the ideals of the Edsa Revolution and, corollary to that, the legacy of the Aquino family; and another that states that the Marcosian way of governance is good for the Philippines and that the Marcos era was in fact a golden age for the country.

While both local and foreign press have painted Marcos as the epitome of evil and Cory Aquino as the saint of democracy— and this narrative has been adopted officially by the state—the alternative political perspective offered by the loyalists of the Marcos regime continues to present a major ideological challenge. In 1992, Marcos votes would have handed the presidency to a Marcos loyalist had they not been split between Danding Coujangco and Imelda. In 1998, a Marcos loyalist was elected president. Joseph Estrada’s machine was, to some extent, manned by many old guards of the New Society and while he failed in his quest to give Marcos a state burial, the fact that the issue was not even taboo already indicated that the narrative of Marcos the villain and Aquino the hero has never been a hegemonic political narrative in the neo-Gramscian way.

Ironically, any attempt to hegemonize the anti-Marcos, Edsa narrative is constrained by the democratic framework which that narrative itself upholds. This framework allows, even encourages, all alternative narratives to compete, legally, in the political arena. Ash hinted that putting up a South Africa-style Truth Commission that would identify and assign blames might be the antidote to this. Perhaps he’s right. As things stand, however, the rule of law allows legalistic forces of the Marcos machine to prevent a satisfactory closure to the abuses of the dictatorship while simultaneously re-fashioning the Marcos family as victims of vindictive regimes. Little wonder then that Miriam Defensor-Santiago could get away with her assertion that the Marcos family does not owe the nation any apology.

Those who lament Bongbong’s emergence as a national figure, and now a viable candidate for vice president, should realize, therefore, that this has been a long time coming. There is more to it than being just a case of political amnesia or neglect by the educational system in teaching about the abuses of Martial Law. It’s the direct result of Edsa’s embracing attitude toward the old elite in the name of democracy and the rule of law. By giving Marcos apologists the opportunity to join the national discourse, the post-Edsa regime has given them the license to mount a counter-revolutionary come-back. The effort to rehabilitate Marcos, therefore, started even before the post-Edsa regime could consolidate its institutions. In a way, it’s the price we have to pay for having gained democracy with little bloodshed.

There are two things that are fueling this rising tide of pro-Marcos revisionism. First, the post-Edsa regime is not perfect. The initial chaos of the post-Marcos democracy that stagnated the economy, for instance, made many of those belonging to the generation that experienced Marcos look back in nostalgia to the stability that characterized much of the early years of the New Society. Meanwhile, many of those belonging to the generation that has not experienced Marcos are captivated by the Marcos narrative partly because of their cynicism of the post-Marcos conditions. In the process, they all tend to de-emphasize the dark aspects of the Marcos regime. Secondly, there is a natural constituency for any political narrative that emphasizes strongman rule. This constituency propelled the unsuccessful but nonetheless impressive presidential campaigns of Alfredo Lim in 1998, Panfilo Lacson in 2004, and now the mounting calls for the presidential candidacy of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao. It is clear that Bongbong has succeeded in harnessing these two factors.

Of course, there is no doubt that Bongbong has a solid record as Governor of Ilocos Norte. He also knows how to tap the pool of policy advisers and technical aides that his resources can afford, thereby enabling him to become one of most prolific of the country’s senators. A superb public speaker, he is able to package himself as an effective politician, which, really, is all that matters for many middle class voters. Obviously, however, his work is driven, more than anything, by his strong revisionist agenda. I think the total rehabilitation of Ferdinand Marcos and the de-legitimization of Edsa is what Bongbong’s revolution is all about. So far, he is succeeding.

How should defenders of Edsa counter Bongbong’s revolution? It should not be through condescendingly taking the moral high horse, but rather through a sophisticated messaging that would convincingly persuade voters that, at the end of the day, the Marcos way had been proven to be a failed experiment and that the post-Edsa regime, while not perfect, works.

Views expressed on this blog are strictly the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect official positions of organizations that the author is a part of.

President Poe in 2016?

Perhaps the most notable result of this year’s midterm election is the emergence of former censors chief Grace Poe as the top-notcher in the Senate race. That’s not because it was surprising, but because it makes her the strongest contender against Vice President Jejomar Binay, the early favorite to succeed President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Binay got his break when he was appointed by President Corazon Aquino as officer-in-charge of Makati City during her post-Edsa revolutionary government, and he has hinged his political career partly on his ties with the Aquino support base since then. In 2010, he ran under the banner of deposed President Joseph Estrada, whose populist support base remains strong, while still harping on his Aquino association. His surprise victory in that race was in large part a result of the underground Noy-Bi campaign.

But this election marks Binay’s coming-of-age, so to speak. When he fielded his daughter Nancy, who, as most observers point out, have almost zero experience in public service, as a senatorial candidate, the Vice President was testing the national viability of his own name. He was no longer banking on his association with the Aquinos and the Estradas; he was building his own house, so to speak. The fact that Nancy has garnered more votes than Bam and JV seems to show that he has succeeded.

In a previous blog post, I drew on Professor Randy David’s discussion of the three different types of post-Edsa presidents: the moralists (the Aquinos), the populist (Estrada), and the technocratic (Ramos and Macapagal-Arroyo).

These three leadership templates have their respective constituencies. The masa base, for instance, has remained intact through the years and, despite Senator Manuel Villar’s vigorous attempt to court it in 2010, under the command of former President Estrada.

The Aquino constituency, meanwhile, cuts across social classes, united in adhering to good governance and moral leadership as exemplified by personal incorruptibility, but is not as compact as the Edsa Tres crowd.

The constituency of the technocratic leadership template, on the other hand, is composed mostly of the middle class. Unfortunately, this constituency has never enjoyed coherence: It was split between Ramos and Defensor-Santiago in 1992, Roco and De Villa in 1998, Roco and Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004, and Gordon and Teodoro in 2010.

Just as the Vice President is building his own name in the national political consciousness, so is he consolidating his hold on the masa bloc as the undisputed successor to President Estrada. The elite and the middle class, which the masa perceive to be smug, publicly dread the specter of a Binay presidency, just as they had dreaded the inevitable rise of Estrada before 1998. The Binays, for instance, are being demonized in the social media just as Estrada was bashed through short messaging system (SMS) prior to and during the 1998 campaign. But while this consolidates an anti-Binay middle class constituency, it also enhances Binay’s image among the masa, due in part to the elitist tone of most anti-Binay propaganda. The way the social media derides Nancy Binay’s complexion, for instance, helps the Binays in the way Erap jokes helped Estrada in 1998– and Reli German reportedly works for the Binays too.

But as the Vice President gains the masa crowd, so is he losing in the yellow constituency. His decision to challenge the President by fielding his United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) slate has diminished his credibility among the President’s supporters. He maintains personal connections with the apparently marginalized Peping Coujangco branch of the President’s clan, as well as with the Aquino sisters, but his pragmatism has led many to question his adherence to Daang Matuwid. In other words, Binay has shed his yellow feature and, like Estrada, is now emerging as a purely masa candidate in 2016. The key to his undoing, therefore, would be the dilution of his hold on the masa bloc.

It might be too premature to say, but the ruling Liberal Party’s favored heir apparent, Secretary of the Interior Manuel Roxas II, appears to have no chance of at least gaining a fraction of the masa constituency. He’s not even trying. The President’s endorsement will only get him so far; the Aquino magic is difficult to bestow on a non-Aquino, as proven by Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim’s failed bid for the presidency in 1998. Ultimately, he will split the middle class vote with someone like Richard Gordon. Unless he repackages himself, and only if the Aquino administration’s gains begins to trickle down in the next three years, he would be no match for Vice President Binay.

Poe, on the other hand, could be a game-changer. The national consensus is that his father, the late Fernando Poe Jr., won the 2004 elections but was cheated by the unlamentable Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. As Professor Nicole Curato pointed out, she was a consensus candidate: Her being her father’s daughter gave her a formidable masa support base, and her subtle repudiation of the UNA has strengthened her Daang Matuwid credentials among the yellow crowd. For personal reasons, it would be difficult for President Estrada to disown her in favor of Binay; and the FPJ for President Movement  (FPJPM), which supports her, can be said to be capable of causing a split within the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP).

This early, Poe is revealing a populist streak that could endear him to the masa: She wants to thoroughly study the possibility of including free lunch meals for the poorest elementary school students in the K-12 education policy. And for the middle class and yellow crowd, she has expressed support for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

If the President and the Liberal Party want to continue Daang Matuwid, they should build Poe up as the alternative to Binay. On her part, the Senator-Elect should solidify her masa appeal and challenge the Vice President within his new turf. At the same time, she should appeal to the middle class by utilizing her credentials and talents to be a truly progressive senator in the mold of, say, Pia Cayetano. That would consolidate the anti-Binay coalition under her leadership, shake the foundations of the pro-Binay coalition, and make her, like President Aquino in 2010, a truly consensus presidential candidate in 2016.

Kim’s legitimacy

In the past few days, the United States and the Asian neighborhood have once again been abuzz with the recent bellicose rhetoric coming from Pyongyang. Some, like the editors of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, think that North Korea’s saber-rattling is a result of paranoia common to many authoritarian regimes. Most, on the other hand, think that the current escalation is merely an exercise of tactical brinkmanship on Pyongyang’s part. The general analysis is that this is just a way for the North Korean regime to test the mettle of the newly-installed administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and to consolidate its bargaining position in order to leverage for foreign aid. I generally agree with this prevailing view, but my opinion has a slightly different nuance.

North Korea is unique in the sense that it is probably the only country in the world that experiences famine after undergoing industrialization. It started out with an economy much bigger than South Korea’s during the early post-war period, but its government stubbornly pursued Songun, or military-first policy, at the expense of building adequate infrastructure that could have facilitated growth in the agricultural sector and in other industries. Making matters worse, the Democratic People’s Republic shunned post-war international trade and, during the 1970s, lost access to credit after it defaulted on its enormous foreign debt, much of which were used to fund the regime’s many wasteful white elephants. Deprived of a steady source of foreign exchange, North Korea has been treating foreign aid as a form of income since then.

This is why the regime of the late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il used the country’s nuclear weapons program as a leverage to gain aid, cleverly escalating tensions every now and then to extort concessions from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. There is no doubt that his son, Kim Jong-un, sees saber-rattling as a way to gain “income” too, and that part of the reason behind the on-going provocations is to do exactly that.

However, as I have consistently stated on this blog, the main motivation of Kim Jong-un– or more accurately the ruling clique that props him up, which is reportedly led by his uncle Chang Song-taek–  seems to be slightly different from that of his father’s. More than leverage for aid, the goal seems to be the consolidation of the boyish dictator’s two-year rule. This probably explains why Kim went ahead with his satellite launch in March last year despite the fact that doing so entailed the cancellation of a generous American offer, painstakingly negotiated by his Foreign Ministry just the month before, of 240,000 tons of grains.

Political scientists would often tell us that to remain stable, regimes need political legitimacy, which is usually derived from sovereign mandates. For autocratic countries, identifying sources of legitimacy is tricky, since there are no elections. In North Korea, for instance, being a Kim is not an automatic basis of legitimacy.  Kim Jong-il had to prove his worth: He worked as a senior official for ten years before succeeding his father, yet he still had to face at least one coup before he could consolidate his rule during the first few years of his term. In contrast, Kim Jong-un never had the experience his father had prior to taking the reins of government, and so it is likely that his legitimacy in the eyes of the ruling elite has not yet been established. More that that, the ruling elite can only prop up the Kim dynasty for so long; sooner or later it would have to come up with something to reinforce its legitimacy in the eyes of the North Korean people, in the same manner that the Chinese Communist Party has taken to fanning nationalist flames to justify its rule.

Unlike his grandfather the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, who hyped his wartime exploits, and his father Kim Jong-il, who encouraged popular mythology about his birth, Kim Jong-un seems to be humanizing his position to endear himself to his people. For instance, he has been regularly seen delivering speeches, sporting his gorgeous wife, and smiling in public– things his aloof predecessors never deemed worth doing. As he tries to reach out to his constituents in an apparent attempt to win genuine mandate, he seems to see the need to unify his subjects by invoking a foreign threat, and to show the ruling elite that, despite his smiling demeanor, he is as tough as his forebears. This seems to be his idea of gaining political legitimacy and keeping the elite in check and, as we shall probably see in the next few months, it is not without great cost. The question is, are people in Pyongyang buying it?

Sabah: Rewarding violence


President Benigno S. Aquino III has spoken out against conspirators as the ones at fault in the violence in Sabah. He has threatened to charge Jamalul Kiram, pretender to the throne of the defunct Sultanate of Sulu, for his actions that caused his followers to invade Sabah to assert the ancient claim of his family to the vast territory.

But is it really about the Kirams? Is it about the claim to Sabah? Is it about Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? Or is this incident merely a product of the traditional myopia of successive Philippine administrations, sacrificing long-term perspective for political expediency in developing policy?

Peace framework for continued violence

The government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has sought peace with the MILF as one of its cornerstone policies. To this end, it signed a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domains with the MILF that served as the capitulation of the Philippine government to demands of the MILF to autonomy. This agreement was struck down by the Supreme Court, and thus President Aquino was able to present the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro as his own legacy of peace in Mindanao.

This policy followed by two successive governments, and the Ramos government before them, was a vindication of the method of armed rebellion chosen by the MILF as its instrument of forcing policy change in the government. It was incongruous that the government chose to accede to peace talks when the stated goal of the MILF was not independence, but rather a substate. That is rather unusual for an armed rebel group, who usually ask for independence and then concede to autonomy. Given that they already demanded autonomy, then it means that the MILF conceded recognition of the legal mandate of the government of the Philippines over the lands they claim and thus its subordination to Philippine laws. Even criminals who do not bother themselves to think of the legal mandate of the government are still prosecuted and then incarcerated, so why didn’t the government respond to MILF acts of violence with vigorous police action?

Even more curious, the government can recognize their grievances by simply encouraging them to participate in the ARMM elections. The ARMM has enough power to change its own system if the MILF’s endorsed candidates can win and implement their proposals within the already existing framework. The fact that the government entered into peace talks with the MILF and then decided to reorganize the autonomy of Muslim Mindanao based on these talks has shown a picture of government concession to violence. Even worse, it was the government agreeing that its own laws and structures, built with legitimacy derived from elections and plebiscites, are insufficient and can be changed only with violent action against such institutions.

This framework also nullified the loyalty shown by many Muslim Filipinos who did not participate in the MILF revolt. They fought with the Republic against the rebels, but ultimately they would live under a government crafted to the wishes of the rebels. This does not count the thousands of Filipino soldiers who died in defense of the same Republic, even as the MILF continued to flout its immunity from laws that bound all other citizens, such as the incident in Al-Barka. The framework’s contents might be valid, but their validity becomes irrelevant when the Constitution remained in force, and it was not respected by either the government or the MILF. Force has won over the law.

But then again, the 2012 Framework Agreement requires the MILF to participate in the electoral process. Does it not nullify the objections raised above? The answer is no. It might require voter approval, but then again the government has already shown its support for the MILF position. What happens if voters reject the framework agreement? Does the MILF go back to the hills? If yes, then what was the reason for the peace talks to begin with? If not, then why should we let the MILF’s decision to rebel slide? Other groups take to Constitutionally protected forms of political agitation, but why is the MILF special? Why are they getting away with violating the Constitution?

Incomprehensibly, even if the argument boiled down to force, there was no reason for the government to concede. Erap has proven that the AFP can defeat the MILF. The fact that the MILF could not even bluster for the rest of his abbreviated term showed that the power of the MILF has been broken, and it can only crumble in the face of sustained assaults from the AFP and PNP. The lull afforded by the peace talks allowed the MILF to establish camps and settlements that it was not able to win by force of arms. And they immediately showed their contempt for Philippine laws inside those enclaves.

As violence continued, the MILF claimed “lost commands” when it suited them to deny responsibility. Given that they cannot control their own troops, or at least they cannot guarantee complete peace even after all concessions granted by the government, there was no reason to sign the framework, but sign the government did.

And so at the end of the day, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had its way. By exploiting talk of peace, it was able to gain government support for enforcing their way of life on people who never voted for them, in territories they could never win by force of arms. And those who remained loyal to the government and the democratic process looked on.

The Kiram Dynasty

The Kiram Dynasty once ruled over Sulu, Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, Sabah, and various other islands that comprised the Sultanate of Sulu. The Sultan of Sulu’s warriors plundered coastal villages under the rule of Spain, carting off slaves to be sold in the slave markets of Borneo.

But as time passed by, the Sultanate’s fortunes began to wane. Battered by continuous wars, the Sultan had to submit to the King of Spain in 1881, and to the Americans in 1916. To his credit, the Sultan became a Filipino, never again challenging the authority of the Americans  of the Philippine Republic. Indeed, one of his kin was a member of the 1935 Constitutional Commission.

But now, Jamalul Kiram III saw himself becoming sidelined in Mindanao affairs. Although the Sultan of Sulu hasn’t mattered that much for some time, it is probable that poverty and old age is driving him to more desperate measures. The government did promise to honor the Sultan as a spiritual leader of the Moros. The government also promised to uphold and protect the claim over Sabah.

And he has become so irrelevant that even his letter to the President was not deemed worthy of the personal attention of Pnoy. Now left with the pittance that is the annual rent, and facing competing claims over the title of Sultan, he has most likely seen how the MILF, and before them, the MNLF, achieve power and respect from the government through force. And so perhaps he was approached by opposition forces from both the Philippines and Malaysia, perhaps not. But one thing is clear – he had nothing to lose from the venture and everything to gain.

As inflation continued to erode the value of the annual rent and the government continued to express indifference over the Sabah claim, he has fallen far, but can still fall some more.

It is not clear if he actually thought he can invade Sabah and win, or if it was even his intention. But what is clear is that people now consider him Sultan of Sulu and he has obviated the legitimacy of the claims of other people, if only by the standard of being referred to as sultan both in the media and private conversations. He has also succeeded in forcing the government to take another look at the Sabah claim and consider its status.

And most importantly, his letter to the President was miraculously found and read by its intended recipient. And that is what violence brought Kiram.

The post-conflict scenario

The Philippines has long had a history of revolts against the government, even after colonization. The Pulahanes revolted against the Commonwealth, there was the Huk rebellion, the NPA, the MNLF, the MILF, RAM, Kato’s Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and recently, the Magdalo. The question is, why, given the liberal democratic tradition of this country, are revolts so frequent? It becomes even more incongruous considering that not a single one of these revolts has been successful. So many people have tried and failed, but still rebels can be found popping out every so often.

Is it the oppressive nature of the government? Perhaps, but Leftist propaganda to the contrary, the Philippine government has never reached the level of oppression seen in Myanmar, even during the Marcos dictatorship. In addition, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has generally had a successful run against these insurgents. Even in the 1980s, when the AFP had to deal with the NPA, MILF, and MNLF all at the same time while combating putschists in its own ranks, the government was not overwhelmed and engulfed. Not one of these rebellions managed to threaten the government center the way the Huks did in the late 1940s. And the Huks were still beaten off. As a disincentive to revolt, this run of success is a pretty powerful one.

Why do rebels continue to risk their lives when a revolt is unlikely to succeed and when it is easier to go to Manila and just picket government offices? It is because violence works. Kiram’s case is unique in the sense that the violence was not directed against the national government, but it is still violence that got results.

The rebels might not have achieved their stated goals, but their resort to violence was rewarded. Joma Sison continues to live in comfort in the Netherlands and can lay claim to belligerency even as the NPA has been reduced to acts of banditry in the countryside. Honasan of RAM and Trillanes of Magdalo are now Senators. Misuari of the MNLF got ARMM before he revolted against the government once more. The MILF is about to get their peace treaty. And none of them had to account for their crimes to the Filipino people.

In the future, another citizen with grievances against the government might consider what happened all this, and once more eschew legal and institutional frameworks for agitating for reforms. The government should consider the costs of seeking peace in dealing with those who use violence to circumvent the legal process.

Readers may indicate their wish to contribute posts in the blog’s comment section.

Thaksin’s other sister

A week before the Philippines achieved its first investment grade status, credit ratings agency Fitch upgraded Thailand’s ratings three notches higher than non-investment levels. The said upgrades were in recognition of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ability to maintain political stability just a couple of years after divisions created by his brother Thaksin almost succeeded in tearing Thailand apart.

A farang expert on Thai politics once described Thaksin as a Thai Mussolini. The erstwhile mogul and former police chief built a patronage system that rivals that of the monarchy’s. His strong support base, composed mostly of the rural poor in the kingdom’s Isan region, made him a formidable alternative power pole to King Bhumibol Adulyadej‘s circle. His populist economic policy– dubbed by ex-Presidet Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as Thaksinomics– gave Thailand its first economic turn-around since the Asian Financial Crisis; but his tenure was marked with alleged corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarian tendencies. In 2006, he was ousted in a military coup that was widely believed to have been engineered by the President of His Majesty’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda.

Since then, Thailand has been in a protracted political war between the Thaksinite forces and their Red Shirt street army on one hand, and the coalition among the Palace, the royalist mandarins that make up the ammart and their allies in the military, the Bangkok elite, and the Yellow Shirt middle class activists on the other.

When the post-Thaksin junta was forced to call for elections in 2007, the Thaksinites succeeded in getting Samak Sundaravej to rule as Prime Minister on Thaksin’s behalf. The ammart responded by having him impeached for appearing in his cooking show on TV. Just the same, the Thaksinites replaced him with Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, prompting the royalists to resort to a judicial coup: The Constitutional Court had Prime Minister Somchai and the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party banned from politics, and the military brokered an anti-Thaksin minority government led by British-born Abhisit Vejjajiva. Meanwhile, Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests became a constant sight on the streets of Bangkok, culminating in destructive occupation of public buildings like the Suvharnabumi Airport and violent riots that, at one point, caused the evacuation of heads of state in town for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The ruckus subsided with the landslide election of Thaksin’s sister, the charming Yingluck, as premier in 2011. Aware of the enormous costs of the paralyzing street protests that embarrassed the kingdom and turned investors away, the Thaksinite forces and the Yellow coalition seemed to have agreed on what I’ve called a testy truce, under which the Prime Minister and her allies would keep Thaksin abroad and the royalist order intact, and the army won’t launch a coup.

But Thaksin didn’t have to return to Thailand to rule. Observers marvel at how the fugitive ex-premier has employed the Internet to run the government in Bangkok: He presides over Cabinet meetings and give instructions to officials and members of the ruling Pheu Thai party through Skype, and holds court in Dubai and Hong Kong, summoning party leaders and receiving politicians eager to get Cabinet portfolios. Even the parliamentary debates on the controversial two-trillion-baht infrastructure bill is being supervised by the former prime minister via remote control.  As a result, Prime Minister Yingluck has taken to insisting, at almost every possible occasion, that she, not her brother, runs the government.

Meanwhile, political maneuverings continue. Every now and then the Thaksinite government would introduce bills that aim to change the military-imposed 2006 constitution and issue a blanket amnesty on all offenses prior to the coup, while the royalists would have the Constitutional Court thwart the said actions. Last year, in an interesting ploy, the Thaksinite forces had former Prime Minister Abhisit indicted for murder in connection with his government’s handling of the Red Shirt protests of 2009. It was obviously designed to get the opposition Democratic Party to support the blanket amnesty bill– after all, Abhisit, not just Thaksin, would benefit, too.

Perhaps in retaliation, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) started this month an inquiry into allegations that Prime Minister Yingluck had misdeclared her financial statement. The message from the ammart is clear: If we could boot Prime Minister Samak out of office for cooking on TV, we can boot Prime Minister Yingluck out over false financial statements, too. This is classic political brinkmanship, to which Thaksin won’t succumb: One of his minions, Kasem Nimmonrat of Chiang Mai, has resigned from parliament, paving the way for Thaksin’s other younger sister, Yaowapa Wongsawat, wife of former Prime Minister Somchai, to run for the seat.

Since Chiang Mai is a Thaksin bailiwick, Yaowapa will surely be in parliament by this month, ready to replace Yingluck should the NACC oust her. Thaksin’s other sister, therefore, is also his spare tire.

The post-Edsa presidents

In November, right after the President of the United States was re-elected, I wrote the essay “What Kind of President Would Obama Be?” In that piece, I drew on the works of professors Jack Balkin and Stephen Kowronek, the renowned scholar of American presidential history who classified his country’s presidents into four kinds: reconstructive, affiliated, pre-emptive, and disjunctive. The said essay elicited some reactions from both friends and readers, and at least a couple have asked if a similar classification of Philippine presidents can also be made.

Professor Kowronek’s classification describes a political cycle of creating and overturning dominant political regimes, which occur through a long period of time. Thus, it might not be applicable to the Philippine presidency, which has a relatively shorter history. At any rate, I don’t know all Philippine presidents well enough to come up with a similarly structured analysis of the entire Philippine presidential history. However– and I think this is obvious to all observers of Philippine politics– all five post-Edsa presidents seem to fit into only three different leadership templates, of which all students of Philippine politics should take note.

Almost exactly a year ago, Prof. Randy David articulated these three templates in a column on the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The first template, wrote Professor David, is the moral leadership brand. It has a constituency that cuts across almost all social classes, projecting an “image of a unified moral community” whose vision is “of a nation that can overcome the complex problems posed by corruption in government through the power of personal ethical example.” The figure of this template is, of course, the Aquino dynasty.

Ironically, the forebears of the Aquino name had not been noted originally for their “personal ethical examples.” They were seen merely as cunning politicians, not moral leaders. The original patriarch and the grandfather of the current president, the elder Benigno, was accused– unfairly, historians now agree– of treason because he worked with the Japanese during the Second World War. The more famous Benigno Jr., commonly known as Ninoy, meanwhile, was seen as an overly ambitious politician who, consumed by his desire to climb the stairs of Malacanang, slept with strange bedfellows until, says official history, imprisonment and exile turned him into the martyr that he was.

It was Ninoy’s widow, Corazon, who truly led by “personal ethical examples,” drawing mandate and political capital from her unassailable moral character. But while she successfully restored constitutional democracy and defended it from threats from the Right and the Left, she failed in terms of addressing poverty and inequality. Alas, that seems to be the limitation of the Aquino template: “Its approach to the problem of mass poverty,” says Professor David, “owes less to any structural analysis that prescribes redistribution than to the spirit of charity and sharing that leaves the unequal social order untouched.”

The second template, on the other hand, is the populist leadership brand, which presents a vision of “an inclusive society where no one gets left behind.” This brand draws its mandate and political capital from its ability to, firstly, validate the ways, and, secondly, articulate the hopes and frustrations– sometimes with dangerous rancor that invites class war– of the urban and rural poor, which it glorifies as the masa. Former President Joseph Estrada symbolizes this leadership brand, while Vice President Jejomar Binay, the strongest contender in the 2016 presidential elections, currently bears its banner.

Estrada, known by the masa affectionately as Erap, was the most maligned candidate in 1998. The Makati elite, the middle class, the Roman Catholic Church, and the mainstream media did everything they could to stop his rise to power, but to no avail. They had reasons for doing so: After six years of political stability and economic growth– the country was dubbed as an economic “tiger cub” ready for take-off– under President Fidel V. Ramos, the elite and the middle class doubted if movie star Erap, who never even had any pretensions to sophistication to begin with, could carry the torch onward. This concern was amplified by the eruption of the Asian Financial Crisis during the last few months of the Ramos administration.

The Catholic church, meanwhile, was scandalized by Erap’s philandering, gambling, and drunken lifestyle, and the fact that he was even flaunting it. But by making no apologies about his all-Filipino macho lifestyle, Erap was able to pass himself off as a genuine man of the masa. For some reasons, this kind of transparency– of not being a hypocrite who panders to the guardians of Catholic morality– appeals to the lower class. This probably explains why Vice President Binay, when confronted with rumors that he had an affair with another woman, readily admitted it, and, when asked if he is aiming for the presidency in 2016, made no effort to demure.

Erap’s strongest argument in 1998 was that, after six years of impressive economic growth that didn’t trickle down to the poor under President Ramos, the time had come for the masa to enjoy the fruits of an emerging economy. However, unlike Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, who improved social services and economic livelihood for the rural poor of the Isan region, President Estrada, as far as I know, did not pursue a comprehensive pro-poor economic program comparable to Thaksinomics.

In other words, while it is good at articulating the masa‘s woes, the Erap-style populist template’s record on actually doing something about those woes is unimpressive at best. “Its choice of programs,” says Professor David, “betrays a fixation with patronage.” Look at how the Binay dynasty in Makati spends almost a billion a year on frivolous programs like birthday and anniversary cakes for residents and free movie passes for senior citizens, for instance. Moreover, its most glaring defect is its governance: The Estrada years were characterized by the absence of professional and ethical leadership, incompetence, rampant cronyism, and corruption– and all these made it easier for the elite and the middle class to bring President Estrada down in a civilian-military coup in 2001.

This year’s midterm election is a showdown between these two popular leadership templates. The Liberal Party-led coalition is banking on President Benigno S. Aquino III’s moral appeal, while the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) is banking on President Estrada and Vice President Binay’s populist appeal.

The leaders of UNA know how popular President Aquino is, while the President knows how formidable the support base of President Estrada and, by extension, Vice President Binay, is, too; which is why all three figures are careful not to directly attack one another.

Still, both sides are harping on the differences of each other’s vision. President Aquino and the Liberals are emphasizing the administration’s gains, claiming that inclusive growth is just around the corner, but will be achieved only if the country stays on the Daang Matuwid. The triumvirate of President Estrada, Vice President Binay, and the politically-savvy Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile, on the other hand, is claiming that the gains of Daang Matuwid are practically meaningless since they are not being felt by the masa.

Finally, the third template is the technocratic leadership brand. This brand projects itself as being more concerned with meeting the challenges of a highly-competitive modern world than the parochial demands of the electorate. Thus, it draws it mandate and political capital from its ability to deliver good results, as opposed to its charismatic appeal or popularity. Two presidents fit this template: Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

A West Point-educated soldier with a degree in engineering, General Ramos was the first non-politician and non-Catholic to be elected president. He owed his victory in 1992 to the endorsement of the icon of moral leadership, President Corazon Aquino. As president, he reformed the bureaucracy, controlled the restless Armed Forces of the Philippines, pursued peace with Muslim rebels, dismantled monopolies, and opened the economy. Allegations of corruption hound his name to this day, but he is generally regarded as a good president, if not in fact one of the best the Philippines has had.

On the other hand, Macapagal-Arroyo ascended to the presidency after President Estrada’s ouster in 2001, and was re-installed amid massive evidence of fraud in 2004. At first, she projected herself as the successor of President Ramos, hinging her political vehicle Kampi to the General’s political party, Lakas. Well-educated and articulate, she traveled around the world and, speaking in French and in Spanish aside from English, tried to pass herself off as a “modernist leader” of an emerging economy.

To be fair, the economy did recover under her watch, although critics say it did so despite her. Unfortunately, “all her pretensions to modernity collapsed” when, faced with recurrent legitimacy crises, she became a transactional president, stretching the limits of the post-Edsa presidency; corrupting political and social institutions, including the Catholic church; and violating many political taboos, including the declaration of martial law. In the end, her term was marked with kleptocracy and human rights violations reminiscent of the Marcos years.

The emergence of these three leadership templates characterizes the political history of post-Marcos Philippines. The moral leadership of President Corazon Aquino restored democracy, while the technocratic leadership of President Ramos restored stability and revitalized the economy. In an emerging country whose economic growth is uneven and non-inclusive, populism is very attractive, hence President Estrada rose to power in 1998. The mismanagement and corruption of the Estrada years led to the questionable rise of yet another technocratic leader, Macapagal-Arroyo, whose term went out so badly it necessitated the rise of another President Aquino.

In 2016, assuming Secretary Manuel Roxas II is the preferred bet of the ruling Liberal Party, the Philippines will see a battle between the technocratic leadership brand and the Erap-style populist brand, whose charges will be led by the formidable Vice President Binay.

If President Aquino is able to consolidate his administration’s gains before he steps down, then perhaps Secretary Roxas will have a fighting chance. But, if the masa feels that, once again, they have been left behind, then it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to top the rise of Binay — for unfortunately, having endured Macapagal-Arroyo for nine years, the masa has become naturally wary of non-charismatic technocratic leaders, which Roxas is.

Umwelten and the Sabah crisis

The mind, neuroscientists say, operates in a very small subset of the world that its eyes are able to see. This subset forms a restrictive cognitive environment that makes it extremely difficult for the mind to understand the wider world; in other words, a set of biases that makes the mind myopic. This subset is called the Umwelt.

Professor Randy David once wrote that those who live in an Umwelt are, in a way, color-blind– and usually unaware of it.

There is no doubt that the biggest security issue facing both Malaysia and the Philippines, even eclipsing the South China Sea disputes, is the escalating situation in the disputed region of Sabah. And perhaps the biggest bar to a proper resolution of this conflict is the inability of all the actors involved to think beyond their respective umwelten.

There is, for instance, a nationalist Umwelt: a world where advancing the interest of the nation-state, no matter how costly and destabilizing, is the ultimate value. We see this in Malaysians who think that their government’s response to the crisis has been weak and in Filipinos who think that their government’s failure to support the invasion is an act of treason. There is also the historical Umwelt, which insists that events of the past should still be the arbiter of present disputes, despite the fact that realities on the ground have changed. We see this in those who still cling to old titles to claim territories, oblivious to concepts like sovereignty and values like the right to self-determination. Still, there are those who live in an academic Umwelt that sees little value in the modern international system based on nation-states, emphasizing identities that precede modern national boundaries instead.

Even Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Benigno S. Aquino III seem to live in a restrictive Umwelt, too– one that does not compromise the concept of sovereignty or state authority. Prime Minister Najib, for instance, doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the political realities that compel Manila, a government friendly to his, to request access to Sabah on humanitarian grounds. For him, the crisis is strictly a police issue for Malaysia. Similarly, President Aquino doesn’t see the importance of giving the so-called sultan an opportunity to save face. He only sees the Muslim leader’s insubordination.

Resolving the Sabah crisis requires understanding all these umwelten– that is, understanding where the different actors are coming from. We should take note of all the cultural issues involved, and understand and appreciate the history behind the dispute. But, as columnist John Nery said, history can only go so far. At the end of the day, we will have to act in accordance with present realities.

We can of course argue how arbitrary the current national boundaries are, and how older identities are more enduring than modern nationalities. But realistically, these current boundaries and nationalities are here to stay, and the only way to resolve international disputes is through the framework of the current international system, which recognizes these geo-bodies and nationalities, not old kingdoms and identities.

We can also argue all day about the merits of the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim over Sabah, but the following realities will not change:

Firstly, that despite its long history and the Philippine government’s recognition of its importance to the Moro people’s cultural identity, the Sultanate of Sulu is not a juridical entity, much less a sovereign one. It cannot maintain an army, since militias are prohibited under Philippine laws, and it cannot defy the Philippine government and press an international claim by itself.

Secondly, that Sabah is not merely a piece of private property but a territory whose people have been granted the right to self-determination. While the United Nations-sponsored commission that found that the Sabahans desired to federate with Malaysia in 1963 may have been questionable to the Philippine and Indonesian governments then, the fact remains that Sabah has chosen to be part of the Malaya-Singapore-Sarawak federation and that the people of Sabah see themselves today either as Sabahans or Malaysians and not as Filipinos or Sulu subjects.

Thirdly, that historical titles usually mean next to nothing in international law– otherwise, Spain and Portugal should own the world– and that, finally, there is a clear distinction between sovereignty and ownership: the former trumps the latter. And while the Philippines has legislated its sovereignty over Sabah, Malaysia exercises actual sovereignty.

However, despite the inherent weakness of its claim to Sabah, domestic considerations make it extremely difficult, if not in fact impossible, for the Philippines to drop the claim. This is a practical reality that Malaysia should understand, just as Manila understands that Kuala Lumpur will never cede its sovereignty over Sabah.

Similarly, both Malaysia and the Philippines should understand that the Tausugs, the former subjects of the old Sultanate of Sulu, will always see Sabah as part of their homeland. No amount of Philippine admonition or Malaysian crackdown would change this. In this regard, therefore, the nation-state configuration must be flexible enough to accommodate extra-political nuances that are cultural and historical in nature; for given the fact that the Tausugs have historically been a warrior people, any attempt by both states to force their orientation on them will only result in sustained violence. This is why the current crackdown by Malaysia on the Tausugs in Sabah, assuming it is true, is dangerous for Kuala Lumpur– if Prime Minister Najib is not careful, this might become for him what the Jabidah Massacre was to Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in the 1970s.

It will be best for both the Philippine and Malaysian governments to break out of their respective umwelten and understand the nuances of the current realities. Good faith between the two Southeast Asian powers is important, as this would create wiggle room for both to end violence in the immediate term and to solve the dispute in the long term. This, not nationalism, is what patriots on both sides should be fanning.

The situation in Sabah is obviously a Malaysian police issue, and there is nothing the Philippines could do but to call on Kuala Lumpur to respond to the Sulu intrusion in a proportionate manner, and to treat Filipinos in Sabah humanely. President Aquino is paying a steep political price domestically for recognizing this. But while he should remain stern towards the self-proclaimed sultan for provoking this crisis, he should also be flexible enough to allow his group a face-saving way to withdraw from Sabah.

On the other hand, while it is understandable for Prime Minister Najib to show his resolve in defending Malaysian sovereignty against the self-styled sultan’s followers, he should also appreciate President Aquino’s political will and help the President minimize the flak he’s getting from Filipino nationalists. For starters, perhaps he should exercise restraint in deploying the armed forces at his disposal, and grant Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s request to send a Philippine humanitarian team to assist the Tausugs in Sabah.

It would be unfortunate if the Prime Minister would exploit the situation to strengthen the Barisan Nasional’s position ahead of the coming general elections in June at the expense of the Philippines. That would be a myopic path that could lead to long-term instability in the Sabah-Sulu corridor, something that would not be in the interest not only of Malaysia and the Philippines but also of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in general.

Finally, once the fighting has subsided, the Philippines and Malaysia should pro-actively seek ways to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Perhaps Secretary del Rosario and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman should meet and issue a joint communique expressing their intention to, once and for all, put a closure to the Sabah dispute. Perhaps a joint exploratory committee should be formed to determine a framework on how both countries can address all issues concerned, leading to a final treaty on the Sabah dispute that would address the grievances of the heirs of the Sultanate without violating the Sabahans’ right to self-determination.

I’m sure there are sober, creative minds among Filipinos, Malaysians, and Sabahans that can come up with a win-win solution. I myself have some vague ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself for now.

Tagle’s place in the coming conclave

Predicting the outcome of a conclave is always a purely speculative excercise. After all, it’s almost impossible to determine what’s on the cardinal-electors’ mind. As in all political events, however, an educated speculation is possible if all variables are carefully examined.

For instance, while the election of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla in the second conclave of 1978 had been very surprising to most; it was, in retrospect, not that improbable. At that time, there had been a bitter battle between the reactionary clerics, led by Guiseppe Cardinal Siri, and the liberals, led by Giovanni Cardinal Benelli. This bitter rift ensured that there would have been a gridlock — since neither of the blocs could have attained the required two-thirds majority — and that a compromise candidate would have had to be found.

Cardinal Wojtyla was not very well-known outside Poland then, but he had been widely-respected by cardinals and prelates in Rome and elsewhere. A philosopher and charismatic pastor, he had been a rising star in the Church, having first gained attention in Synods of Bishops and in several speaking engagements, particularly in the United States. Pope Paul VI even asked him to deliver the papal Lenten retreat in 1976. Vaticanologists should have considered him a papabili then, but they assumed that a non-Italian cardinal had little or no chance.

This blog was among the first, if not in fact the first, to point out that the popular Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, could become the first Filipino papabili. Almost all Vatican observers– from the relatively liberal American John Allen to conservative Italians Andrea Tornelli and Sandro Magister– now agree that the Cardinal is indeed a papabile in this year’s conclave. But how big, or slim, are his chances?

In many ways, the coming conclave is similar to the one that elected Cardinal Wojtyla. As in 1978, the conclave this year is completely unexpected, and there is no clear favorite to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, just a myriad of papabiles. Cardinal Tagle, too, is in many ways very similar to John Paul II. Like Cardinal Wojtyla, the Filipino archbishop is a rising star who has a serious reputation as a heavy-weight thinker and a charismatic pastor. Like the Polish pope, he gained fame for his performances in Synods of Bishops and in several speaking engagements, most notably his electrifying performance at the International Eucharistic Congress in Canada back in 2008.

There are several variables that must be considered in analyzing a conclave. The first of these would be the alignment of coalitions within the Church in general and the College of Cardinals in particular.

Pope Benedict XVI’s reign is in many ways a continuation of the Wojtyla regime. Having served loyally as the doctrinal enforcer of Pope John Paul II, this German pope is committed to preserving his predecessor’s theological legacy, which is relatively conservative. Most of the cardinals are part of this Wojtyla-Ratzinger coalition. Even within the Wojtyla-Ratzinger coalition, however, there seems to have been a lot of rifts and confrontations, most notably on the issues of the Pope’s attempt to reform the Vatican’s financial system and the sexual abuse scandal.

There have been reports that a conservative coalition led by the Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, and his predecessor, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, have been at odds with the Pope himself on how to handle the sexual abuse scandal. Pope Benedict XVI’s long-time student and assiduous “campaign manager” in the 2005 conclave, Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, for instance, has even publicly castigated Cardinal Sodano for dismissing the abuse scandal as mere rumors. The Pope, said Cardinal Schonborn, had wanted to deal with the abusive priests aggressively when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, but cardinals Bertone and Sodano, who seem to have the entire Curia behind them, undermined him. There were also allegations that Cardinal Sodano, as John Paul II’s Secretary of State, protected his disgraced predecessor, Hans Hermann Cardinal Groer, who had been accused of molesting seminarians.

Cardinal Schonborn had since been gagged by Rome and his comments has led to the unofficial promulgation of the so-called Sodano Rule, which prohibits cardinals from publicly criticizing their fellow cardinals. The Sodano Rule, however, did not apply to Archbishop Jose Horacio Gomez of Los Angeles, who publicly censured his predecessor, Archbishop Emeritus Roger Cardinal Mahony, for coddling sexual offenders.

Another issue that divides Rome is the allegedly growing influence of Cardinal Bertone, who had been the target of the Vatileaks scandal. Critics say that he has been abusing his influence as the papal prime minister, undermining the Pope, who in turn had been too busy with his theological writings he has neglected his duty as Rome’s foremost administrator. Cardinal Bertone, for instance, is widely believed to have been behind the first consistory of 2012, which created twenty-two cardinals from Europe, dramatically altering the demographics of the College of Cardinals in favor of Italy and reversing the trend of internationalizing the College, ostensibly to pave the way for an Italian restoration in the papacy. Pope Benedict XVI tried to reverse him by calling for a surprise second consistory, the star of which, most agreed, had been Cardinal Tagle.

Another variable that must be considered is the crossroads in which the Church finds itself at the moment of the conclave. The challenges facing the Church would certainly affect the opinion of the cardinal-electors on what qualities the next pope should have.

For instance, the cardinal-electors picked Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005 partly because he was seen as the only person with the gravitas to fill the big shoes left behind by John Paul II. But more importantly, while there had been widespread talk then of a non-European pope– some say that Archbishop Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires placed second to Cardinal Ratzinger in that year’s conclave– at that time, as in now, the Church’s biggest concern was the rising tide of secularism and the erosion of Christian cultural identity in its own backyard, hence the need for a pope who knows Europe inside out (and true enough, most of Benedict XVI’s trips throughout his papacy have been in Europe).

Things are not much different this time around. The Catholic Church is still losing ground to secular forces in the West, and it needs someone who can continue Pope Benedict XVI’s drive to win it back. Aside from tackling issues like the clerical sex abuse scandal, engaging the secular world and leading the so-called New Evangelization, which was widely discussed in the Synod of Bishops last year, are being given importance. Therefore, perhaps the cardinals would look for someone capable of doing either, or both, of these.

The third variable would be demographics. The composition of the College of Cardinals definitely affects how it votes. The overwhelming majority of the cardinals have been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI, although some may insinuate that many this majority can perhaps be characterized more as Bertone babies rather than Ratzinger fans.

The biggest bloc comprises the Italians, who form around 17% of the total vote. The Americans, with 11 votes, are the second biggest national bloc. In terms of continents, Europe has 62 votes, Latin Americans has 15, Africa and Asia have 11 each, while Oceania has one.

As many in the media have already pointed out, many among the cardinals should by now already be exchanging views with each other, and looking up some of the candidates’ profiles. Cardinals who have had their moments in the spotlight, and those who have had regular correspondences with their fellow electors, have an obvious advantage. Media reports, both from the secular press and the Vaticanologists, are probably a factor, too.

Of course, how each cardinals vote would not be affected solely by geography. Who they interact with will also determine their views on what qualities the next pope should have. In this respect, we can say that perhaps many of the Italians look to cardinals Bertone and Sodano for guidance, although they won’t necessarily vote as a bloc. The Latin American group is also less likely to vote as a bloc, since it has among its midst many cardinals capable of wielding influence, which means no one cardinal can be a unifying force for the group. The same is true with the Africans. Perhaps the Americans, led by their primate, President of the American Bishop’s Conference Timothy Cardinal Dolan, would be more inclined to vote as a group. In Asia, meanwhile, Cardinal Tagle is no doubt the primus inter pares, although the counsel of the elder electors, like Australia’s George Cardinal Pell, would probably be sought as well. In short, the fourth variable to watch are the potential king-makers among the cardinals.

Currently, cardinals Angelo Scola and Dionigi Tettamazi appear to be the candidates leading the charge for an Italian restoration. They will be seen as candidates of the Bertone-Sodano coalition, which favors continuing the Church’s policy on the sexual abuse scandal, among others. Cardinal Schonborn, another papabili, would be the opposition to that coalition, and will favor stronger sanctions against erring priests.

Cardinal Schonborn’s advantage is that he is seen as the continuation of the Wojtyla-Ratzinger regime. However, his public remarks against Cardinal Sodano, which was rebuffed by Rome itself, along with the rebellion of priests he is facing in Vienna, are a bane to his candidacy. At best, we can probably relegate the Austrian cardinal to the role of king-maker.

If it’s true that there’s a rift between the Bertone-Sodano clique and those who think like Cardinal Schonborn, then there would probably be a need for a compromise candidate to emerge. Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi comes to mind.

Cardinal Ravasi’s role as the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, where he tried to constructively engage the secular world, including the agnostics and atheists, has gained attention. While the Church is just beginning to learn how to engage the youth through social media, the Cardinal already tweets to tens of thousands of followers. He also led the papal Lenten retreat this year, a sign that he might have Pope Benedict XVI’s nod– the previous two popes were chosen to lead the retreat prior to their elections, too.

Reports alleging that Cardinal Ravasi is a vain man, however, might not sit well with some cardinals. Similarly, his being an Italian could be a bane, especially if enough voices in the conclave clamor for a non-Italian, or even a non-European, pope. If that’s the case, then the most viable candidate would be Canada’s Marc Cardinal Ouellet.

I’ve argued on Twitter that if the next pope would not be an Italian, then he will most likely be Canadian. Cardinal Ouellet has worked in the Curia long enough to be considered by the Italians as one of them, but still obviously not an Italian for everyone else. He has, willingly or unwillingly, developed a formidable power base as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which selects candidates to be archbishops and bishops all over the world. Demographics works well for him too, since he has cultivated intimate relationships with Latin American cardinals as President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. In other words, not only is he amenable to the Italians because of his Curial background, he could easily secure the support of the North American bloc, which has 14 votes, and the South American bloc, which has 13, too.

So, where is Cardinal Tagle in all these scheme of things? Unfortunately, his chances are very slim; but, then again, so were Cardinal Wojtyla’s in 1978.

Cardinal Tagle’s biggest disadvantage, it has often been said, is that he is the youngest among the Latin rite cardinal-electors and one of the six most junior members of the College. But this attribute could in fact be turned into an advantage.

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation due to his advanced age may prod the cardinals to seek a younger and more energetic pope. There is, of course, a concern that electing a young pope would lead to a papacy that is too long; but, as Magister has pointed out, Benedict XVI’s precedent, which makes resignation an option for future popes, mitigates this. Moreover, there might be those in the College who feel nostalgic about John Paul II’s pontificate and would want to elect a charismatic pastor with a photogenic smile. It’s hard to find a cardinal now who’s more charismatic and photogenic than Tagle.

Moreover, as one of the leaders of the Synod of Bishop last year that drafted the Vatican’s policy of New Evangelization, Cardinal Tagle can be seen not only as a charismatic pastor who can lead the Church into the new world dominated by social media, but also a high-caliber thinker who knows where the Church is in the midst of growing secularism, and where it should go.

Polish priest Mieczyslaw Melinski, a friend of then Cardinal Wojtyla, once argued with the future pope that he would be elected in the 1978 conclave, which the then Polish cardinal naturally laughed off. But the priest’s arguments then were telling: Noting that the time had come for a non-Italian pope, he said, “the Archbishop of Krakow is not a bureaucrat, but a pastor and an intellectual who became known during the Council and then during the Synods of Bishops. You’ll be the next Pope!” He could have been talking to the Archbishop of Manila.

But there is one difference between Tagle and Wojtyla. The Polish cardinal was seen in 1978 as an acceptable compromise candidate because he was seen to be neither too liberal nor too conservative. Cardinal Tagle, on the other hand, has strong progressive credentials. His connections with the School of Bologna, a group known for its liberal interpretation of the Second Vatican Council– I argued last year that this had been the reason he was bypassed in the first consistory of 2012– have been a source of controversy, something that the eminent Filipino theologian, Father Catalino Arevalo, dismissed as merely a politically-motivated attempt by some in Rome to paint the Filipino as a “super-ultraliberal,” when in fact Tagle and Ratzinger have pretty much the same theological views.

In numerous Synods, Cardinal Tagle was unafraid to speak out on issues such as the shortage of priest, which was the premise of his call for the Church to debate celibacy. He also pointed out the need for the Church to address not only the issues of child abuse scandal, but also of priests who keep mistresses, particularly in the Philippines. Finally, in the last Synod, he called for a “humble, listening Church,” saying that the Catholic Church is turning people off because of its arrogant, “know-it-all attitude.” These could endear Cardinal Tagle to those who understand where he is coming from, but alienate him from those who are still conservative, if not in fact reactionary, in their orientation.

Some recent praises for the Filipino cardinal, however, could balance this. For example, popular conservative Vaticanologist Sandro Magister, who once criticized Tagle’s elevation to Manila in 2011, is now singing a different tune. He now says that the Cardinal, the only viable Third World papabili, is very balanced in his theological orientation and has the confidence of the Pope himself.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, the patron of the traditionalists, seems to treat the young Filipino as a protege of sorts. Some even say the surprise consistory last year was done precisely because the Pope had wanted the Archbishop of Manila to be in the College before his abdication. Like cardinals Schonborn and Ravasi, therefore, Cardinal Tagle may be seen to be enjoying the esteem of the departing pope.

But I suspect that Cardinal Tagle’s candidacy could only be seriously considered if, like Cardinal Wojtyla’s candidacy in 1978, someone in the College, a king-maker if you will, pushes hard for it. In 1978, Franz Cardinal Koenig of Austria pushed for Cardinal Wojtyla as an alternative to cardinals Siri and Benelli, personally talking with individual cardinals to convince them that the Polish archbishop was the right guy. Cardinal Wojtyla was already well-known among the cardinals then, but it was Cardinal Koenig’s maneuvers that truly propelled him to front-runner status during the conclave.

This time around, the potential king-makers are Cardinal Dolan, who leads 11 American cardinal-electors and could therefore swing the vote for a particular candidate, assuming he is not himself in the running;  Cardinal Schonborn, who would probably look for a candidate who subscribes to Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy but is not part of the Bertone-Sodano axis; and Cardinal Ouellet, the front-runner himself, who could, as we’ve mentioned above, influence a large number of cardinals across different continents. Cardinal Ouellet, it should be noted, was quick to come to Cardinal Tagle’s defense when Magister criticized him for his connections with the Bologna school.

But would anyone of these king-maker throw his support behind the Cardinal from Asia? For now, it’s anyone’s guess.

UPDATE, MARCH 12: Based on reports in the Italian press, the biggest cleavage in this year’s conclave seems to be emerging between the Americans and the Italians.

The Americans, the second-biggest national bloc in the College of Cardinals, have been holding a daily joint press briefing, which had enraged the traditionalists so much the Roman Curia issued a gag order. The US cardinals are said to be pushing for a papacy that is not beholden to the Curia, and are fielding two of their own, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York and Sean Patrick Cardinal O’Malley of Boston. Their third choice is said to be Marc Cardinal Ouellet of Montreal.

Meanwhile, the Curial cardinals and the Italian bloc, knowing that they would lose if they field an Italian, is rallying behind Brazil’s Odillo Cardinal Scherrer. Cardinal Scherrer might attract the naive Third World cardinals who would see him as one of them, but the Brazillian is a Curial insider; perhaps as Italian as Joseph Ratzinger. The problem is that, according to Magister, he is not even popular in Brazil– the bishops there allegedly rejected his candidacy for presidency of their conference.

UPDATE, MARCH 15: Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has been elected Pope Francis. 

Tubbataha and the Philippine-American alliance

The grounding of the American minesweeper USS Guardian in the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea is stoking emotions in the Philippines. It has put both the American and the Philippine governments on the spot, and has given anti-American activists plenty of ammunition.

The incident is just the latest in what the New York Times has described as a “string of embarrassments” for the American military in the Philippines. A couple of weeks ago, both Manila and Washington drew flak for the discovery of a US drone off Masbate. In the Filipino activist’s mind, that incident evoked images of America’s drone warfare in Pakistan, despite assurances from both governments that the drone had in fact been unarmed. Much earlier, a Malaysia-based American government contractor was alleged to have dumped thousands of liters of untreated domestic waste from a US Navy ship near Subic Bay, alarming environmentalists.

While a full accounting of all facts surrounding the circumstances of the Guardian‘s grounding has yet to be made, the initial reports have been disturbing. Under Philippine laws, the waters around the Tubbataha are off-limits to navigation, except for purposes of scientific research or tourism. The Tubbataha Marine Park’s management claims that it has warned the Guardian against sailing through the protected waters, but the minesweeper ignored these warnings, telling the Park’s authorities to take their complaints to the American Embassy instead. When the Park’s Marine Rangers tried to board the ship as per protocol, the Guardian shifted into battle mode, intimidating the Rangers away. An apologetic spokesman for the US Navy said this was merely a result of miscommunication.

These reports have stoked anger among Filipino activists, along with demands from leftist politicians to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States. Put in context, this emotional backlash is understandable. Firstly, the Tubbataha Reefs are the crown jewel of Philippine marine treasures. Protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the Reefs are a national symbol akin to the Great Barrier Reefs in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, or the Grand Canyon in the United States. Secondly, the American military’s environmental record in the Philippines has not been stellar. Calls for a clean-up of the toxic waste that American military personnel left behind in former US installations in Clark and Subic, for instance, were never heeded by Washington, and, as far as I know, the victims of those wastes have yet to be properly compensated.

The Filipino psyche seems to have contradictory attitudes towards the sensitive issue of American military presence in the Philippines. On one hand, Filipinos are arguably very pro-American in their political and cultural orientation, and, much to the disappointment of nationalists, see the United States as the only indispensable guarantor of Philippine sovereignty. This explains why, historically-speaking, Philippine foreign policy has generally been aligned with that of the United States, and Filipino leaders– especially those whose legitimacy is shaky, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo– often see it useful to project that they have Washington’s blessings. On the other hand, like the Japanese, Filipinos view their relations with the United States, particularly the VFA, as inherently skewed. Seeing American presence in his country as a legacy of colonialism, even minor incidents involving Americans usually evoke memories of American mistreatment of the Philippines– from the Philippine-American War through the subsequent American colonial period, the Bell Trade Act of 1946, and the dumping of toxic wastes in Clark and Subic– in the Filipino’s mind.

Perhaps recognizing the effects of the Tubbataha incident on Philippine sensibilities, American Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas has issued a public apology on Friday, reinforcing earlier apologies issued by various officials of the US Navy. But while the Philippine government has acknowledged these acts of contrition, its agents, particularly the provincial government of Palawan and the Tubbataha Marine Park authorities, remain adamant. Even President Benigno S. Aquino III, whose administration has welcomed increased American presence in the Philippines amid tensions with China, appears irked, judging from the way he has asked incisive questions.

Meanwhile, leftist activists and politicians, driven by their chronic contrarianism against any Filipino government and their dogmatic hatred of the United States, have castigated the Aquino administration for its level-headed reaction to the crisis. For them, the President should have condemned Washington as strongly as he had condemned Beijing for its incursions into Philippine maritime territories. While this extreme view is probably isolated in the Philippines, both Manila and Washington would do well to recognize that an honest-to-goodness investigation that would reasonably address all concerns is of utmost importance. Needless to say, any perceived whitewash on the part of either government could potentially damage the Philippine-American alliance.

Obviously, the alliance is important not only for the Philippines, who sees America as a hedge against an increasingly threatening China, but also for the United States, who needs the foothold that the Philippines provides for its announced “pivot” to East Asia to be meaningful.

President Aquino would understandably be compelled by domestic considerations to push for an independent investigation of the Tubbataha incident. This should cover the reason why the minesweeper ventured into the protected Tubbataha waters, whether its captain culpably obstructed the work of the Marine Park Rangers, and the extent of the damage incurred on the Reefs. Should the result of this investigation warrants, the captain of the ship must be held accountable, and the United States should properly compensate for the damage its minesweeper has incurred on a Philippine national treasure. After that, both sides should constructively explore ways to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Ambassador Thomas, on the other hand, must convince his government that, as an ally, the United States must help President Aquino by cooperating with the investigation and respecting its findings. Failure to do so could make it difficult for the Philippine government to defend the VFA domestically, and perhaps make it easy for China to drive a wedge between the two allies.

The onus is, on one hand, for the Aquino administration to demonstrate that it can properly balance the country’s national interest of protecting the Reefs against its strategic interest of keeping its alliance with the United States strong; and, on the other hand, for the American government to demonstrate the extent of its respect for Philippine sovereignty.

In an editorial last week, the Inquirer has argued that, should the United States opt not to cooperate with any investigation, the Philippines should mobilize the international environmental lobby, including its American offshoots, to force Washington to cooperate. I see no reason why this should not be done. Still, it should not have to come to that. Ultimately, the bedrock of Philippine-American alliance is good faith and confidence between Manila and Washington, the maintenance of which is in the interest of both countries.

Abenomics: More politics than economics

In Tokyo, newly-installed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has unveiled a massive, multi-billion dollar stimulus package, ostensibly to get the static Japanese economy moving. The announcement came after the Prime Minister, in an obvious PR blitz, formed an “economic revitalization council” composed not only of Cabinet members but experts from the academe and the private sector, and called for greater monetary intervention to devalue the Yen.

If these are all designed to shed the Prime Minister’s image as a security hawk out of touch with important domestic concerns– an image that helped ruin his first administration from 2006 to 2007– to a premier who prioritizes the economy, then they’re probably working. Many in Tokyo are now saying that the new administration is a lot better than the one it replaced, simply because it is seen to be doing something. The media has even come up with a nickname for the Prime Minister’s economic policy: Abenomics.

The claim, of course, is that Abenomics could potentially resuscitate Japan’s economy the way Reaganomics did in America in the late 1980s, Thaksinomics in Thailand in the early 2000s, and, more recently, Aquinomics in the steadily-rising Philippines. Experts appear to be divided on whether this claim is valid or not.

Prime Minister Abe’s stimulus package adheres to the classic Keynesian principle of pump-priming the economy through aggressive government spending in order to encourage greater consumption and investments. In theory, this is an effective way to reverse economic contractions. The flip side, of course, is that massive state expenditures would result in the accumulation of more debt to cover the resulting budget deficit. For it to be successful, therefore, the spending spree must stimulate the economy enough for it to yield returns that would offset the ballooning debt.

What many in Japan don’t realize is that this same principle also served as a premise of the economic policies outlined by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) when it first came to power in 2009– the DPJ was of course ousted, I believe unfairly, late last year for failing to solve the economic malaise that for the most part was a result of decades of mismanagement by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regime. However, the difference between the two major parties’ policies is that the LDP prefers pump-priming the economy by spending on infrastructure and aiding big businesses, hoping that these would create jobs and generate economic velocity; while the DPJ prefers giving dole-outs directly to the people, like monthly allowances for children, free high school tuition, and free expressway tolls, in order to encourage spending and stimulate the economy from the grassroots up, and perhaps even encourage families to produce more children.

While the Democrats’ policies were generally dismissed in Japan as populist and irresponsible, they actually resembled Thaksinomics, which boosted Thailand’s economy for the first time after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s economic policy of giving dole-outs to the rural poor in Thailand’s Issan areas resulted in an improved social safety net, which encouraged rural households to save less and spend more, which in turn stimulated the country’s manufacturing, services, and export sectors. Thaksinomics, in its various forms, was later on emulated by countries like India, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. As for Japan, the DPJ wasn’t able to fully implement its populist policies since its governments were torpedoed by the elite bureaucracy, which appears to work in tandem with big businesses and its traditional partner, the LDP. Eventually, internal strife in the party resulted in the abandonment of its populist policies, leading to the defection of erstwhile party boss Ichiro Ozawa, the architect of DPJ populism, and his minions.

The focus of Abenomics’ stimulus package, meanwhile, seems to combine classic LDP strategy with Prime Minister Abe’s political ideology. On one hand, it calls for more construction of roads, tunnels, and bridges; and has more allocations for state subsidy for corporate innovation than for the speedy reconstruction of the earthquake- and tsunami-stricken areas in Tohoku. On the other hand, it allocates ¥3 billion for improving nuclear reactor technology, which betrays the Prime Minister’s indifference to widespread public clamor for the country to re-examine the viability of nuclear energy in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster; and ¥180.5 billion for purchases of various military hardware like PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles, which has nothing to do with stimulating a stagnant economy.

Perhaps the most disquieting feature of Abenomics is the dramatic increase in government spending on infrastructure, which is to be funded through state-issued construction bonds. In other words, the Abe government wants Japan, whose debt is already double the size of its gross domestic product (GDP), to borrow more so it can build more roads and bridges. Considering that Japan is already unmatched in terms of the amount of concrete it’s covered with, this approach is bewildering.

To be sure, there are urgent areas of development. Japan’s ageing infrastructure, which mostly dates back to the 1960s, needs maintenance and repair. That’s the lesson of the unfortunate collapse of the Sasago Tunnel in Yamanashi that killed nine people late last year. Similarly, the reconstruction of Tohoku requires billions of dollars. Yet, as the Japan Times said in its editorial, “because the Abe administration decided on the total amount of the package first without initially selecting necessary projects, chances are high that money will be squandered on nonessential projects.”

Indeed, such “nonessential projects” have for many years characterized the LDP’s spending track. Through much of the party’s almost uninterrupted fifty-year reign, politicians have scrambled for pork barrel funds to construct huge white elephants throughout the country. These public works projects were at the heart of the feudalistic socio-political set-up in the countryside during the post-war years: They created the impression that LDP politicians were doing something for their districts, which in turn strengthened their Koenkai machineries and their respective dynasties, while keeping the construction firms, which fund the LDP, happy.

The highly inefficient Japanese construction industry, together with the agriculture industry and the rural post makers, served as the electoral backbone of the LDP in the post-war era, and was pampered by the party rather well indeed. In his 2009 paper entitled Insights From Japan’s Lost Decade, Prof. Michael Heng Siam-Heng of the East Asian Institute (EAI) in the National University of Singapore (NUS) identified this cronyism as one of the causes of current Japanese economic woes.

In fact, after the Japanese bubble, which caused the country’s Lost Decades, burst in the early 1990s, the LDP governments unveiled a series of similar stimulus packages that spent trillions of yen to further cover the entire country in concrete. These projects succeeded only in lifting the GDP by at most 0.5% and causing the ballooning of Japan’s debt to more than 200% of its GDP, which is way bigger than those of Greece and other troubled economies in the Eurozone. These dimal– some would say disastrous– results were not really surprising, considering that the jobs created by such a multi-billion dollar spending spree were limited to a single sector and were temporary in nature, and that the spending itself was never rationalized effectively.

Taking these into consideration, one can easily see that increased spending on mindless construction projects could once again worsen Japan’s fiscal position in the medium- and long-term. But for Prime Minister Abe and his party, it probably doesn’t matter; the priority is to lift the GDP and the employment rate in the short-term, which would be enough for the LDP to claim that Abenomics is yielding returns. Indeed, achieving temporary bullish economic figures, at all cost, is the motivating factor behind Abenomics.

At the end of the day, Abenomics is probably more of a political kabuki; a matter of form over substance. Short-term economic growth rates, however minimal, coupled with the projection of an image of an economy-centric Cabinet, however shallow, would help the LDP-led coalition win the Upper House election in July, allowing the party to consolidate its return to power.

That, in turn, would give Prime Minister Abe the leeway to pursue his fetish: Further revising World War II history and changing Japan’s pacifist constitution.

On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario made news last week for expressing support for the “rearming” of Japan, saying Manila is “looking for balancing factors in the region,” and that Tokyo “could be a significant balancing factor,” presumably against an increasingly-assertive China.

It seems to me that the subliminal message of the way the international press has reported the Secretary’s comments is that, because of China’s intransigence, Japan’s standing among Asian countries is changing. Here are my two cents:

First of all, I don’t think this indicates a change in Japan’s standing among Asian countries. Unlike South Korea and China, which still hold deep grudges against Tokyo for its war crimes, Southeast Asian countries have never been distrustful of Japan in the first place, despite the fact that Tokyo has never really fully apologized for its wartime atrocities. Even in the midst of Chinese and Korean protests over the revisionism of the Japanese Ministry of Education, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and former (and returning) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence that there’s no evidence proving that the Japanese Imperial Army was engaged in sexual slavery during World War II, Southeast Asian countries have remained, at the very least, silent.

This is partly because massive Japanese investments and official development aid have arguably been the single, most decisive factor in ushering in a period of Southeast Asian economic development during the post-war period, which scholars dub as the flying geese model of development. Moreover, it was in an address to the Philippine Congress in Manila that former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, which asserted that Japan would shun any military role and instead pursue economic cooperation with Asian countries regardless of their ideological inclinations. These had not only been reassuring for Southeast Asian countries; they also built robust Japanese soft power in the region, so much so that by the early 1980s, many Southeast Asian countries were already looking to Japan as a benign regional leader worth emulating. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad’s Look East Policy comes to mind, for instance.

In other words, far from being an indication of changing Asian attitudes towards Japan, Secretary del Rosario’s comments merely reflected a reality that many Western observers often overlook, which is that there’s actually a dichotomy of Asian attitude towards Tokyo: Southeast Asia loves Japan, while Northeast Asia distrusts it.

I suspect the reason behind this dichotomy is the fact that Southeast Asia has a longer history of colonialism than Northeast Asia. This differences in history has resulted in differences in dispositions of these Asian states’ respective national pysches.

A very weak China had to cave in to Western domination in the early part of the previous century, but it was Japan’s brutal occupation from the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War through World War II that truly humiliated the Middle Kingdom. China had generally regarded Japan as some sort of a cultural vassal nation, and subjugation by an erstwhile vassal nation can be a huge blow to the psyche of a nation that regards itself as a civilization-state. As for  Korea, another proud nation, it had never been colonized prior its annexation by Japan in 1910. In sharp contrast, Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, had been colonies of various foreign powers for centuries prior to Japan’s invasion in the 1940s. Since Southeast Asians had been used to colonial subjugation, Japan’s occupation of their countries might not have been as big a blow to their respective national psyches as it was to those of Korea and China; hence their willingness to forget past Japanese atrocities even sans appropriate apology from Tokyo.

Secondly, I don’t think the “rearming” of Japan would be an effective balancing factor in the region, and by “effective” I mean stabilizing. I might be oversimplifying Secretary del Rosario’s comments, but it seems to me that he’s arguing that Japan should have capable armed forces that can check China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

But the Secretary should know that Japan had in fact already rearmed a long time ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, in order to fill the vacuum left by American forces that were sent from Japan to the Korean War, allowed Tokyo to form the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Indeed, the JSDF has a maritime force that can annihilate the Chinese navy and even give the American Seventh Fleet a run for its money. So, when we talk of a “rearming” of Japan, we’re not talking about Japan having its own armed forces, for it already has a formidable one. What a “rearming” of Japan means is Tokyo discarding its war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution and allowing it to participate in military activities that are offensive in nature. A “rearming” of Japan means changing its armed forces’ name from Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) to National Defense Military (国防軍), which, by the way, is exactly what incoming Prime Minister Abe wants to do.

Now, would discarding Japan’s pacifist disposition be an “effective” balancing factor? If Tokyo participates in active military alliances with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, would China turn less assertive in the South China Sea? Well, the argument invokes the classic realist balance-of-power calculus, which basically means that high fences make good neighbors. But– looking at the context of the East China Sea– we can see that Japan already has a very high fence, so why is China still not a good neighbor?

The problem with this realist perspective is that it assumes that states act rationally, and this assumption forms the basis of stability through balance-of-power theory. Well, if this were true, Japan would not have provoked the United States, which had a manufacturing capacity almost ten times greater than Tokyo’s, in 1941. But at that time, the myopic militarists, who were anything but rational, were steering Japan. In Beijing’s case, we know that the jingoistic hawks, buoyed by strong nationalist sentiments among the Chinese masses, are determined to steer China’s direction. And like the Japanese militarist of the 1930s, they are anything but rational– if they were, they wouldn’t have squandered China’s carefully-cultivated soft power by coming up with those maps and passports in the first place.

If anything, a re-militarized Japan would only fuel extreme nationalist sentiments in China, which would further embolden the Chinese hawks. The ruling Communist Party, seeing a need to pander to these jingoistic sentiments in order to preserve its legitimacy, would then be forced to act more aggressively to protect China’s perceived core national interests. It would only make China less rational. Far from being an effective balancing factor, therefore, the “rearming” of Japan would only further destabilize the already volatile regional situation.

Pyongyang’s fireworks

Many students of international politics have gotten so used to North Korean missile testings they merely reacted to this week’s missile launch with what amounts to an academic shrug-off: They took note, but only a few tried to make sense of the development. After all, there already is a default narrative for every North Korean rocket launch: It’s a way for the regime to seek attention and gain leverage to extort aid.

But I think this week’s missile testing deviates a bit from this default narrative. This time around, the regime in Pyongyang has a different motivation, and the rocket launch’s implications could prove to be much more significant.

Basic political theories tell us that regimes need legitimacy to remain stable, and that unlike democratic regimes, which gain mandates through electoral victory, dictatorial regimes like China and North Korea have uncertain sources of legitimacy. The regime in Beijing, for instance, draws its legitimacy from either its performance on the economic front or its ability to secure national interests– hence, it tends to beat nationalist drums at the expense of countries like Japan and the Philippines whenever it sees its legitimacy challenged. In North Korea’s case, Kim Il-sung drew his legitimacy from his semi-fictional wartime exploits; while his son, Kim Jong-il, made the defense of his father’s legacy, along with the defense of the country’s sovereignty amidst threats from “evil countries” like South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the bedrock of his mandate.

In an international conference of Korean studies specialists I attended in Manila earlier this year, one European academic correctly pointed out that the new regime of Kim Jong-un would sooner or later have to identify its preferred source of legitimacy. He suggests that the regime could choose from either a performance-based mandate or a legacy-based mandate. The former is similar to the Chinese model, and is very risky, since the current regime’s ability to deliver the North Korean people’s economic needs is questionable. The latter, on the other hand, requires the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty and an emphasis on continuity. It looks like the boyish dictator Kim Jong-un has opted for this safer track.

The perpetuation of the Kim dynasty requires pandering to pomp and symbolisms. North Korea is currently celebrating the centenary birth year of its founder, Kim Il-sung. Decades ago, the regime has promised 2012 to be Year of Prosperity– the year when the country would finally achieve prosperity and national strength. A successful launch of a space satellite is the best way to celebrate this milestone. Pyongyang had hoped that the spectacle would beat patriotic drums, remind the impoverished North Koreans of the greatness of the Kim dynasty, and hopefully make them forget the looming winter famine. This week’s missile launch, therefore, is essentially a badly-needed fireworks display.

In short, while seeking international relevance in order to gain aid had been the late Kim Jong-il’s motivation when he launched his rockets during his time, Kim Jong-un’s motivation this time around is to strengthen his domestic legitimacy in order to consolidate power.

To be sure, the clique behind Kim Jong-un, led presumably by his reportedly powerful uncle Chang Song-taek, had to weigh the value of this grand fireworks display against its geopolitical implications. And I suspect it wasn’t an easy choice.

Firstly, South Korea and Japan are in the midst of their respective election campaigns. While South Korean front-runner Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly Grand National Party) has distanced herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative track, she may now be inclined to move to the right, quashing any hopes for reviving the now-discredited Sunshine Policy. In Japan, on the other hand, the rocket launch further emboldens right-wing politicians like Shintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto of the right-wing Japan Restoration Party (JRP), and the presumptive Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Now, there’s nothing new with the Saenuri in Seoul and the LDP in Tokyo aggressively seeking to isolate the North Korean regime in various international fora. But what’s new this time around is that the typically sober Obama administration could be compelled to turn hawkish towards Pyongyang. This is because, as a couple of Japan specialists have correctly pointed out, the successful missile testing has put American military interests, if not the United States itself, within the range of North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). No longer would Washington use North Korea as a bargaining chip over Japan; North Korea has become a mutual core national security interest for both countries. Further, this has given the United States, and its allies Japan and the Philippines, greater incentive to push through with the reportedly planned East Asian missile defense system, which China has unsurprisingly questioned.

Finally, last week’s missile testing was an in-your-face defiance of Beijing, which had earlier told its junior neighbor, in an unusual but unmistakably firm tone, not to go ahead with the planned missile launch. The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, would likely be pressured by the Beijing elite to whip Pyongyang a bit in order to rein it back in. Afterall, China could ill-afford a disobedient puppet, especially now that Myanmar has just escaped Beijing’s orbit.

On Morsi’s second coup

Regular readers of this blog would know that among my favorite approaches in analyzing politics is to identify the power poles that drive different political actors, and to frame major developments based on the struggle among these poles.

In the run-up to the 2011 Tahrir Revolution in Cairo, for instance, I described four power poles trying to outmaneuver each other in Egypt: the military-intelligence clique, personified by generals Omar Suleiman and Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, that had dominated the country since the fall of the monarchy; the forces of then-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s family, who wanted to anoint Gamal Mubarak and eventually supplant the military’s grip on the nation’s politics and economy; the loose coalition of liberal pro-democracy groups that include major figures like Mohammed ElBaradei; and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose vast grassroots organization is unparalleled in the country.

The Tahrir uprising was a genuine, spontaneous display of People Power that removed the Mubarak forces from the equation. In its aftermath, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood became the only credible power poles, with the disunited hodgepodge pro-democracy groups relegated to the sidelines. The ruling generals seized power in a silent coup, but were forced by the international community to facilitate a transition to democracy. When parliamentary elections were unsurprisingly won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals laid down a series of roadblocks designed to delay the transition and keep powers to themselves. By the time the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi became the first duly-elected civilian president of the country, the generals had already suspended parliament, usurped legislative powers, and left presidential powers undefined and subject to the whims of the military junta. I thought Morsi would become a lameduck president. I was wrong.

President Morsi proved to be a formidable, and daring, politician. Taking advantage of an embarrassing military blunder that killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers in September, the President’s political operators steered the national conversation towards the view that the military has become so busy with politics it has neglected its primary duty of securing the country. He then sacked all senior generals and replaced them with officers more amenable to civilian rule, restored the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and reversed the military junta’s decrees that clipped his presidential powers. It was President Morsi’s first coup, and it took the world by surprise. The President has been ruling Egypt by decree since then.

Now, two months later, President Morsi has pulled a second coup, this time against the country’s judiciary. In a series of controversial decrees, the President has declared his powers, along with the Constituent Assembly, which is writing Egypt’s constitution, to be outside the judiciary’s jurisdiction, until a new constitution is promulgated. In other words, President Morsi has declared that not only are his powers absolute, they are beyond reach, too.

One important context to President Morsi’s decree, now characterized by the Western press as a power grab, is that the Muslim Brotherhood seems to view the judiciary not as an independent branch of government but as an institution that has been infiltrated by pro-military and pro-Mubarak forces. This is understandable, considering that it was the Supreme Constitutional Court that, upon prodding by the military junta, arbitrarily dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament prior to President Morsi’s election earlier this year. The same court had been scheduled to rule on a petition to dissolve the Constituent Assembly next week, and the President must have feared a court-ordered dissolution of the Assembly, hence he preempted it. The Assembly’s dissolution would have taken the Egyptian transition back to scratch.

Not surprisingly, President Morsi’s maneuver has enraged the various pro-democracy and anti-Islamist groups. Professional associations of lawyers, law professors, and judges have condemned the President’s attempt to curtail the judiciary’s independence, while activists have once again taken to the streets. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood has mobilized its own rallies to support the President, leading to occasional clashes between the protesters. This has resulted in another round of Egyptian instability that has spooked investors, leading to, among others, the plummeting of the country’s stock market.

Now, back to the quadri-polar paradigm mentioned above. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Revolution has prodded Egypt’s power poles to align themselves on the basis of an emerging political cleavage between Islamism and anti-Islamism. Obviously, the current configuration is tilted towards the Islamists. On the other hand, two of the weaker power poles mentioned above, the pro-democracy groups and the remnants of the pro-Mubarak forces, provide some limited form of checks and balance against the Muslim Brotherhood. The other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military, is lurking in the background and may not be willing to join the fray anytime soon, although it remains to be the wild card.

President Morsi’s decree has reinvigorated the pro-democracy groups. They have formed a loose entente called the National Salvation Front, with Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, a darling of the Western press, as its leader. While they could barely muster enough crowds for their pre-planned rallies weeks before the President’s so-called power-grab, they are now mobilizing some of the biggest rallies Egypt has seen since 2011. Still, they remain without a firm machinery that can coordinate political strategy. Their extremist position– they refuse to negotiate with President Morsi unless he rescinds the decree, yet they are not offering any counter-proposals to address some of the concerns that led the President to promulgate the decree in the first place– would render them irrelevant.

In contrast, President Morsi’s coup has been meticulously crafted. As Professor Nathan Brown has noted, the decree includes some carrots for several political actors: An extension of the Constituent Assembly’s term, which the non-Islamist Assembly members have asked for; a re-trial of several officials involved in the violent attempt to infiltrate the Tahrir protests in 2011, which is designed to placate some activists; and compensation for the families of the so-called martyrs of the Tahrir Revolution. Moreover, President Morsi’s timing is perfect: He has just won some accolades for successfully brokering a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, softening the effects of his anti-judiciary decree in the international community.

American politicians, like Senator John McCain, have come out with a strong condemnation of President Morsi’s second coup, going so far as to call for the withdrawal of American aid to Egypt. But the Obama administration has adopted a softer tone, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely asking President Morsi to re-examine his decree and hear what the Judiciary has to say. The President has obliged, inviting judges for some small talk, but he still didn’t budge in the end.

Somehow, the leaders of the judiciary have shown some weakness by conceding that, indeed, they have no jurisdiction over President Morsi’s acts of sovereignty, a vague concept that is somehow akin to what are known in democracies like the Philippines and the United States as political questions. This soft stance is probably a result of the calibrated diplomacy conducted on President Morsi’s behalf by Vice President Mamoud Mekki, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, and Prosecutor-General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud– themselves former judges who used to figure prominently in the resistance against Mubarak’s efforts to subvert the judiciary during his regime. For his part, President Morsi has announced that his decree is merely temporary and is designed solely to ensure an efficient transition, although very few are convinced.

The only thing that could derail President Morsi is an intervention by that other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military. But my take is that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have already forged some sort of agreement, where the troops would stay in the barracks as long as the present dispensation keeps the military’s economic clout intact. There’s a similar arrangement in Thailand between the royalist military and the Thaksinite forces, who are erstwhile sworn enemies, so it’s not at all unlikely. Further, I suspect that the Egyptian military as an institution is seeing a generational changing of the guard: The old generals are giving way to younger officers who are willing to cede political power to the civilians, if only to move the nation forward.

Of course, I don’t know the Egyptian military enough to confidently say that these are not merely unfounded speculation; but it’s reasonable to say that the generals would have little incentive to confront the Muslim Brothers for now, especially since, thanks to the Gaza-Israel ceasefire, President Morsi has the confidence of the American government as well as the support of Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been showering Cairo with aid as part of Ankara’s attempt to cement its influence in the region.

Some years from now, students of politics would examine the remarkable emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the pre-eminent power pole in Egypt; and they will see a disciplined and meticulous strategy of being engaged in the democratic space, knowing how to take advantage of auspicious situations, employing carrots to rein in some actors to prevent them from reinforcing a competing power pole, cultivating some political capital in the international arena, and keeping a rival power pole at a safe distance.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is winning, and would continue to steer Egypt’s transition. The question now is where it would take the Egyptian transition. Would the Brotherhood build the theocracy it has long dreamed of, or would it emulate its new patron, Prime Minister Erdogan?

Things are getting uglier in Syria

After four days of marathon negotiations, the different Syrian opposition groups have finally agreed to form a united front against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A moderate Islamic cleric, Maath al-Khatib, has been elected president of the coalition. This is a minor achievement for Qatar and the United States, which, along with many others, have been pushing the fragmented Syrian opposition to get its acts together. One wonders, however, if this is a tad too late.

When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last year, the international community anticipated an awesome Arab version of the velvet revolutions of the late 1980s. The turn of events, however, proved to be a disappointing regression from good to ugly: The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while relatively peaceful, took longer than usual, with the military and, eventually, the Islamist hi-jacking the gains of the revolution. The protests in Libya, on the other hand, resulted in a bloody civil war that almost left the country in tatters. Syria, so far, has been the ugliest episode: Almost two years after the initial pro-democracy protests, the country is still in a protracted civil war, at times threatening to explode into a wider, regional conflict.

There’s one important difference between Libya and Syria. The erstwhile autocratic regime in Tripoli had generally been isolated, which made it easy to mobilize international support for an American-led multilateral intervention in support of the Libyan uprising. In contrast, Syria sits at an important geopolitical crossroads, and how things end in Damascus would affect the interests of major regional powers like, among others, Iran, Turkey, and Russia.

President Assad’s regime is a reliable ally of the Iranian theocracy. Despite his Arab nationalism, the Syrian dictator’s father had sided with Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War, and Damascus has been helping the Iranians smuggle arms to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In return, the ayatollahs in Tehran are lending their all-out support to the embattled Assad regime, thereby fueling the Syrian armed forces, which the dictator has unleashed on his own people. Undoubtedly, the ayatollahs see the Syrian uprising as a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Israeli-American axis.

Turkey’s interest, on the other hand, is to preserve Syrian stability. Syria’s unraveling could complicate Ankara’s main source of insecurity, the Kurdish insurrection in the Turkish south. Ankara fears that a power vacuum in Damascus could lead to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in the Syrian north, which could in turn coalesce with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq. This could embolden the Iraqi Kurdistan to secede from the currently very weak Iraqi state, absorb the Syrian Kurds, and eventually form a Greater Kurdistan, which would of course be an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Taking his “zero-problems” (with Turkey’s neighbors) policy to heart, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pursued friendly ties with President Assad in the last few years. It was Ankara’s overtures that revived President Assad’s international legitimacy, which had been greatly diminished by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. When massive pro-democracy protests broke out last year, Ankara initially supported President Assad, but eventually changed course when his regime embarked on a bloody crackdown. Prime Minister Erdogan has since realized that supporting the Syrian dictator would cost Turkey the political capital that he has been patiently cultivating in the Middle East. Turkey is now among those supporting the Syrian opposition, although it’s apparently bent on managing the pace of the civil war.

As for Russia, it maintains its only overseas military base in Syria, and would naturally have the incentive to oppose, or water down, any anti-Assad resolution in the United Nations Security Council. This makes any multilateral intervention difficult, since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has repeatedly ruled out imposing a similar aerial embargo that it had imposed on Libya last year, unless the United Nations endorses it.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition had been hopelessly fragmented. The Turkey-based Syrian National Council tried to pose as the representative of the Syrian opposition in the international community, but its leaders have been living in exile for years and are arguably out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. As a result, Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist groups has stepped in to fill the vacuum in the Syrian opposition, raising alarm bells among many observers.

Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group composed of Syrian extremists and mujaheddins from all over the Muslim world, has been leading the charges against President Assad’s forces, according to reports by the Washington Post. The core of this group is said to be President Assad’s own Frankenstein: Syria has cultivated an Islamist terrorist network that Damascus unleashed on American and Israeli interests in the Middle East and the anti-Syria political opposition in Lebanon; and now, these same Sunni terrorists are going after the Assad regime, which, for them, represents Shiite heresy.

Allegedly supported by leading Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Al Nusra has reportedly recruited an impressive corps of multinational fighters. The last time mujaheddins of different nationalities have been seen fighting together was during the American-supported Islamist resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. And as the secular Free Syrian Army suffers from declining ammunition due to lack of Western support, many opposition fighters have desperately turned to Al Nusra, giving the jihadists a significant amount of popular support.

It’s in this context that the United States, the European Union, Qatar, and Turkey have pressured Syrian opposition groups to get their acts together. And now that they finally have, the ball has returned to these Western powers’ court; they must now act decisively. The prospect of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist regime taking over Damascus and its massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons has infinitely raised the stakes.

What kind of president would Obama be?

As expected, the result of this year’s presidential election in the United States has not been as close as most pre-poll surveys had projected. President Barack Obama has won a decisive number of the electoral votes and, contrary to pre-poll projections, managed to win the popular vote. He is only the third president in the post-war era, after Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, to be re-elected with more than 51% of the popular vote.

Except for North Carolina, President Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney in all of the swing states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the home states of Governor Romney’s, his father’s, and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s, respectively. Prof. W. Scott Thompson, who had been the first to predict in 2007 that the then relatively obscure junior senator from Illinois would defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, actually predicted an Obama landslide a couple of months ago. Perhaps that could have been the case had the President not misperformed in the first presidential debate.

Having framed the election as a choice between two distinct social and economic visions, perhaps President Obama would claim a strong mandate for his policy prescriptions. However, the American people has elected to maintain a divided Congress, with the Republicans keeping their majority in the House of Representatives. There would certainly be gridlocks in the debate on how to move the American economy forward. Particularly interesting would be the debate on the question of whether or not to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, which would be expiring before the year ends. Prof. Jack Balkin argues that the President should hold his ground on this issue, as it would likely define his place in American presidential history.

In two interesting essays published on The Atlantic, Professor Balikin draws on the works of another renowned political scientist, Prof. Stephen Kowronek, whose book on American presidential history is a must-read for all students of American politics. Professor Kowronek classified American presidents into four kinds: the reconstructive presidents, the affiliated presidents, the pre-emptive presidents, and the disjunctive presidents.

Reconstructive presidents create dominant regimes in American politics, where their ideologies influence the political reality, and their party has a stronger support base that has the ability to steer the general direction in Washington.  Professor Kowronek classifies William Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan as reconstructive presidents. Their legacies are the most enduring in American presidential history.

Now, those who follow these reconstructive presidents would either support or oppose the political orders they create. Presidents who support the dominant regime become affiliated presidents, whose political legitimacy usually hinges on their ability to defend the said regime. Affiliated presidents whose terms are marked by either the decline or the collapse of the political order they support are classified as disjunctive presidents.

On the other hand, presidents who oppose the dominant political order of their time are classified into two. Those who had the misfortune of being at the White House at the wrong time are the pre-emptive presidents. While they do not subscribe to the dominant regime, they are forced to be more pragmatic than dogmatic in order to successfully navigate the political currents. If they happen to be at the White House at the right time– that is, at the time when the dominant regime is falling apart– they become reconstructive presidents, creating a new political order that would affect a generation, or more.

In the last one hundred years, for example, the United States has seen two dominant regimes created by two reconstructive presidents. The Great Depression enabled President Roosevelt to create the Democratic regime on the basis of his  New Deal ideology. Affiliated presidents in this era included Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who tried to reinforce the Roosevelt regime with his Great Society policies. The pre-emptive presidents, on the other hand, were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The disjunctive president, Jimmy Carter, presided over the collapse of this Democratic regime that enabled President Reagan to create a new, conservative order. In the Reagan era, George H.W. Bush was obviously an affiliated president, while Bill Clinton was a pre-emptive one.

If we see American politics through this prism, then the Republican victory in congressional elections, the filibusterism of Speaker Newt Gingrinch, and the raging rise of the Tea Party in the middle of the terms of popular Democratic leaders Clinton and Obama would not be surprising. The Republicans have the dominant base, which is why a Democrat has a higher glass ceiling than a Republican: An unimpressive Republican, like George W. Bush, can win the White House; while Democrats would have to be specially charismatic and highly adept, like Clinton and Obama, to win the presidency. President Clinton had the acumen to survive politically, but he had to be pragmatic enough to negotiate a “third way” with the Republicans, instead of dogmatically pushing his own ideals. This pragmatism also characterized President Obama’s first term, where he had to contend with a Republican Congress whose obstructionism, according to historian David Kaiser, resembles the Viet Cong’s dau tranh policy. The President’s moderation has cost him the support of many of his progressive constituents.

Now that President Obama has won a second term, does he have a shot at being a reconstructive president, or would he, like Clinton, go down as a pre-emptive one? Professor Balikin argues that the odds are stacked against the President’s favor, although he sees the upcoming showdown on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as an opportunity to dismantle the current conservative regime. “First, he should let the United States go over the fiscal cliff,” the professor says. “Then he should push filibuster reform.”

But there are some encouraging signs for the President. Firstly, in terms of social policy, the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, and of same-sex marriage in Maryland and Maine, for example, seem to indicate a growing momentum for progressive social ideology, to which President Obama subscribe. The cultural divide between the religious, all-American right and the liberal left remains wide; but it appears that the dominant intellectual discourse favors progressive social ideas, like secularism, gender rights, and immigration reform, among others. The President, therefore, knew what he was doing when he expressed support for same-sex marriage prior to the election.

Secondly, the outdated Republican ideas on foreign policy, which views the world through a binary of us-versus-them mentality, is also losing some currency. For much of his first term, President Obama, resembling a classic pre-emptive president, merely adopted a moderate version of these conservative ideas. He has, for instance, sent drones to Pakistan, maintained the Guantanamo prison, and left the Patriot Act untouched. But the President’s success in pursuing consensus-based multilateralism in Libya, his audacity to stand up to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, his pivot to East Asia, and his nuanced approach in engaging China all show a reconstructive streak that is generally winning for the United States some respect in the international community. In his second term, President Obama would have more flexibility in terms of pursuing his own brand of foreign policy.

Finally, the Republican Party remains fractured, and its increasing dogmatism is alienating many of its moderate constituents. Its social ideology, driven by the religious right, is not in sync with the times, and its ridiculous suggestions that President Obama is neither American nor Christian puts its credibility in serious danger.

It would take a historian, which I’m not, to know for certain if these are symptoms of the unraveling of the current Reaganite political order. Regardless, the Republican Party would likely continue their dau tranh obstructionism, and a single scandal in the administration could enable the Republicans to play the impeachment card. President Obama has two years to cement his legacy, as he runs the risk of turning into a lame duck in the last two years of his term. During this period, he must successfully navigate the political waters; know when, how, and when not to compromise with the Republicans; and directly appeal to the American people when he has to.

Why Trillanes is the wrong man

In Manila, President Benigno S. Aquino III’s appointment of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as his back-channel negotiator with Beijing during the Scarborough stand-off earlier this year has back-fired spectacularly, and the administration is now drawing flak. A doyen of Philippine journalism, who should probably retire, has called the President’s back-channeling a reckless adventure, while one deranged blogger is saying that the Philippines has ceased to be a sovereign state due to the episode.

This blog disagrees with these rabid critics, of course. There is nothing wrong with back-channeling when dealing with a foreign power on something as serious as the Scarborough stand-off. In fact, it’s a fairly common practice of statecraft: It allows nations, in times of crisis, to test waters, send feelers, and thereby explore every possible way to resolve conflicts, even as they parrot an official line. There was, however, something seriously wrong about choosing Senator Trillanes to be the President’s back-door point man.

For starters, Senator Trillanes isn’t exactly known for his trouble-shooting abilities. In fact, it appears that he’s more of a trouble-maker: As a Navy commander in 1999, he allegedly rammed a Chinese fishing boat on waters around the Scarborough Shoal, causing a minor diplomatic ruckus with the People’s Republic. Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon had to convince his friend and fellow Japanese speaker, Vice Foreign Minister for Asian Affairs Wang Yi, that the collision was an “accident.” Beijing grudgingly accepted an apology from the government of then President Joseph Estrada, but demanded compensation from Manila, which the latter rejected. The potential fray was averted only after the Chinese-Philippine Chamber of Commerce offered to provide compensation.

Neither is the junior senator known for his tactical skills. His laughable coup attempts against the Arroyo regime were certainly not a showcase of strategy. I mean, really, taking over a posh hotel, and with only a handful of M16s and grenades? At least Arturo Tolentino brought crowds when he camped at the Manila Hotel back in the Eighties.

Sure, his come-from-behind election to the Senate in 2007 was indeed a coup, but that success was more because of the prevailing  national hatred for Arroyo than of Trillanes stratagem. Just look at how pathetic his attempted putsch against Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile was, and you’ll see how naive he is. As the Inquirer asked in an editorial, how can anyone expect him to know where the levers of power in Beijing are, when he doesn’t even know where the levers of power in Manila are?

Thirdly, he’s not a team player. Rather than complementing the efforts of the official point man, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, the senator stabbed him in the back. He called the Secretary a war-monger for taking the only rational track for the Philippines: Speaking forcefully against Chinese incursions and strategically raising the profile of the country’s military alliance with the United States, while insisting on multilateralizing the dispute. Worse, according to notes written by Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, he even tried to sow intrigue by apparently pushing for Secretary del Rosario’s replacement by Liberal Party President and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III.

Fourthly, he can’t keep his mouth shut. Rather than taking his qualms with Secretary del Rosario’s efforts to himself and just try to make wiggle room to allow more flexibility in crafting Manila’s position, the senator, according to Ambassador Brady’s notes, allegedly told the Chinese about his reservations with the Secretary’s policies, how the Philippines is too weak to enforce its claims on the Scarborough Shoal, and how “nobody in the Philippines cares” about the disputed shoal. These have exposed divisions within the Philippine side, and gave the impression that the Philippine stance is so weak all Beijing has to do is to wait for Manila to succumb to pressure, rather than to negotiate a way out. Thanks to the senator, the Chinese must have realized they don’t really need to pay for spies in the Philippines.

And despite all these, Senator Trillanes has the gall to say that his back-channeling efforts have resolved the crisis. That he had convinced China to pull most of its ships out of the shoal. Excuse me, but this is bullshit.

The formula for ending the stand-off was made neither in Manila nor in Beijing but in Washington, the capital of the country which Senator Trillanes wanted out of the equation. And the DFA, not the popmpous senator, was the one involved in establishing channels in these negotiations. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell prodded both sides to simultaneously pull-out of the Shoal to defuse tensions. Both sides agreed. Unfortunately, in a glaring misstep, Secretary del Rosario made the deal public, enraging Beijing who, in order not to appear weak to its domestic constituents, denied the agreement.

Beijing has since recalled most of its ships, but not before installing ropes supported by buoys to seal the Shoal’s inner lagoon to make sure no Filipino ships could enter it. The People’s Republic has practically established possession of the area. And Senator Trillanes’ calls this a success?

Being a back-channel negotiator, says former National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte, is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. He knows what he’s talking about.  As Director of the National Security Council, he was part of the administration that successfully facilitated the defection of a ranking North Korean official and warned the United States of a terrorist plot to ram jets into major American buildings six years before 9/11. All these were accomplished quietly, but are now narrated in Trustee of A Nation, the comprehensive biography of former President Fidel V. Ramos written by that old Southeast Asian hand, Prof. W. Scott Thompson, with whom this blogger has the pleasure of corresponding.

“Negotiations should be held as a state secret. Under no circumstances should it be revealed. Only certain people must be allowed to know about it and agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs must not be compromised,” says General Almonte.

In other words, the back-door point man must keep his mouth shut and complement, rather than obstruct, the efforts of the official actors. These are exactly the things Senator Trillanes did not do. And President Aquino wants him to remain back-channel envoy?

China has unleashed a mad genie

Following the unprecedented inclusion of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the official Chinese baselines map, Beijing sent a flotilla of six maritime vessels in the disputed waters to challenge Japan’s possession of the disputed territory last Friday. The flotilla left on the same day, but its deployment was reminiscent of the stand-off between China and the Philippines earlier this year. Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, called it an “invasion.”

Meanwhile, massive and violent anti-Japan protests continue to sweep major Chinese cities, threatening Japanese nationals and business establishments. The protests, endorsed by the semi-official Chinese media, have an unmistakable imprimatur from among the higher-ups in Beijing. The Chinese government itself has been scrapping official contacts with Japan, and linking such cancellations to the simmering territorial dispute. All these, according to China, are consequences of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s “reckless” decision to “nationalize” the Senkaku Islands. In short, Japan provoked China.

This is far from the truth, of course. The Chinese know that Prime Minister Noda’s “nationalization” of the islands was in fact done in good faith. The Japanese government was merely preventing the ultra-nationalist (and anti-China) Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands from their private Japanese owners. Governor Ishihara wanted to build structures on the island that would have ruffled more Chinese feathers; Prime Minister Noda was trying to prevent a potential crisis, and he thought Beijing understood. In fact, some academics are pointing out that the Chinese had actually been sending signals that the Noda government’s efforts to outbid Governor Ishihara are acceptable to Beijing. But apparently, something has changed.

Just like the anti-Philippine jingoism in Beijing earlier this year, the Chinese government’s encouragement of anti-Japan sentiments is driven by domestic considerations. Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chongquing kingpin Bo Xilai, has just been convicted of murdering a British national. Also, in the midst of the once-in-a-decade power transition in Beijing, President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, has gone missing. These developments have focused public attention  on the Communist Party (CCP) elite, which has suddenly found itself at risk of being the subject of public scrutiny. The party elite needed a distraction.

Once again, Beijing is playing a dangerous game. Chinese resentment of Japan is deep and bitter, thanks in part to Japan’s failure to fully atone for its long history of atrocities against the Chinese people.  Many Chinese believe that  old scores with Japan have yet to be settled, and, with their new-found confidence driven by their country’s rise, they believe that the time is ripe to settle these scores, and to get even with their Japanese neighbors. This is exactly the point of the Global Times’ recent editorial.

Anti-Japanese sentiments in China are like a mad genie. The CCP has unleashed the genie; now, it might have difficulty bringing the genie back into the bottle. The smarter people in Beijing know that, when the dust of the leadership transition settles, China would have no choice but to manage its dispute with Japan and stabilize the bilateral relationship. Hence, the need to prevent the genie from going out of its master’s control.

Unfortunately, the smarter people in Beijing have yet to consolidate their control over policy-making. The jingoistic actors, among both the party and the increasingly powerful and independent People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are wrestling for influence, too. This explains the mixed signals China has been sending.

Last Friday’s development, for instance, was an unmistakable manifestation of this power struggle: The hawks, emboldened by China’s victory in its stand-off with the Philippines earlier this year, sent six maritime vessels to the Japanese-controlled waters off Senkaku; but cooler heads prevailed in having the flotilla recalled. They knew the risks of engaging Japan in a maritime stand-off: Unlike the Philippine Navy, which is arguably the weakest navy in the region, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces is the biggest Asian navy. But just the same, the Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Administration, one of the “nine dragons” identified by the International Crisis Group as having the most to gain by stirring up China’s territorial disputes, has threatened to send a couple of ships back this Sunday.

This uncertainty will limit the wiggle room for both Beijing and Tokyo to manage the situation, which means that we have yet to see the worst of this crisis. While this blog is ruling out any military confrontation, economic skirmishes between the world’s second and third largest economies are likely. China certainly has the ability to hurt Japan economically, and there already are calls in Tokyo for the government to prepare for the worst.

Understandably, this whole imbroglio has left the Noda government with no choice but to drop all efforts at conciliation. A weak response to any Chinese attempt to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands would doom Prime Minister Noda’s administration (although it’s already doomed in the first place, but that for another blog entry). Meanwhile, the five candidates for the presidency of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which looks set to regain power when elections are called this year, are trying to outdo each other in calling for a more hawkish position vis a vis Beijing. One of them, Nobuteru Ishihara, is the son of the anti-China Governor of Tokyo and a long-time friend of President Aquino of the Philippines, who also has no love lost for the Chinese. Another one, Shinzo Abe, is the most hawkish of all credible Japanese politicians at present. One of the two would become Japan’s next Prime Minister.

I was wrong on Egypt

Around three months ago, I predicted that whatever the outcome of the presidential election that time, Egypt would remain under military rule. The logic was simple: The military, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had successfully consolidated power prior to the polls. The Council had the Supreme Court dissolve the Parliament– dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood– on technical grounds, granting the ruling generals the power to legislate. The president’s powers, on the other hand, were loosely-defined, giving the junta the ability to diminish the presidency. I thought Mohammad Morsi would be a lameduck president.

It had seemed that the only viable option for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood then was to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the ruling generals, which I thought would not have yielded much result since the Muslim Brothers would have to negotiate from a position of weakness. I was wrong.

It took only one embarrassing failure on the part of the military for President Morsi to outmaneuver the ruling generals. Sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed in a security breach along the border in Sinai last month, exposing the army to widespread criticism. The prevailing opinion in Cairo at that time, which no doubt were either crafted or encouraged by the Brothers’ political operators, was that the military had been too busy meddling in politics that it had neglected its real job, which was to secure the nation. The imbroglio had zapped the Council’s political capital.

Sensing an auspicious opportunity, President Morsi decisively launched a daring civilian coup. He sacked the head of the Council, Field Marshall Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, who had been acting as Egypt’s de facto head of state prior to the President’s inauguration; the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, General Sami Anan; and the heads of the army, air force, and navy. These senior generals were replaced by officers widely perceived to be more amenable to civilian rule. The President also reversed the Council’s decrees that limited his powers, and, in a stinging rebuke to the Supreme Court, restored the Parliament, which had been writing Egypt’s constitution before its dissolution.

The speed with which President Morsi completed his coup took the Middle East, Washington, and all concerned capitals by surprise. But the biggest surprise was the fact that there was hardly any resistance from the military. To be sure, some kinks were ironed out: All the generals forced into retirement were decorated with national honors and retained as presidential advisers. But for an institution so used to substantially controlling Egypt’s government and economy, the Egyptian military’s meek acceptance of civilian rule was surprising. Some analysts suggest that it signaled a generational changing of guards in the Egyptian armed forces: The younger officers are more willing to cede power to a civilian authority and go back to their barracks, if only to move the nation forward.

What does this mean for Egypt? Well, despite this blog’s liberal leanings, I’ve always argued that letting the generals steer Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition was the way to go, if only to maintain stability. This early, President Morsi is already being implicated in the massive, violent protests against the West over an inconsequential American film that disrespects Islam. Does this signal the track President Morsi and the Muslim Brothers would take for Egypt?

Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the beneficiary of the revolution– and the subsequent silent coup— that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak last year. It has outmaneuvered its sworn enemy, and is now holding the key to Egypt’s future. But how would it dispense the enormous powers it now has? Has the Brotherhood matured enough to effectively govern a modern society, or is it still stuck in its medieval beliefs that are incompatible with democracy? Would it go the way of Erdogan’s Turkey, or would it eventually tread the path of the Ayatollahs in Tehran?

Ozawa underwhelms

It’s difficult to make sense of Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) because, well, it just doesn’t make sense.

Only 51 of the so-called Ozawa children joined the ex-DPJ strongman when he defected on Monday, and two of them backtracked on the very same day, bringing the number of pro-Ozawa defectors to 49. Not only is this number not enough to deprive the DPJ of its majority in the Lower House, it’s also decreasing. Yesterday, one Ozawa defector repented to the DPJ while another declared that he will not be joining an Ozawa proto-party but will instead be an independent.

A report by the Japan Times mentioned that a second wave of pro-Ozawa defections could be looming, but with the initial Ozawa blitzkrieg this underwhelming, one can be forgiven for ruling such a scenario out. In fact, I can bet that the immediate concern in Ozawa’s office is not to encourage more defections from the DPJ but to prevent counter-defections.

The new Ozawa group, assuming the pro-Ozawa Kizuna Party joins it, may gain enough votes to introduce a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. But having such a motion passed would be next to impossible, since that would require not only the support of all non-DPJ parties, including the Communists, but the defection of around twenty DPJ members as well.

This has actually been a victory for Prime Minister Noda. As Dr. Corey Wallace, an observer of Japanese politics, opined, Ozawa’s underwhelming defection has solved the Prime Minister’s dilemma on how to handle the rebels who voted against his tax hike pet project. With Ozawa in the party, Prime Minister Noda had been under pressure from both the DPJ and his tax hike partner, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to severely punish the rebels, which could have resulted in a bigger defection that could have compromised the DPJ’s majority. With Ozawa gone, the Prime Minister has been able to adopt a strategically lenient tack without appearing weak.

Moreover, with Ozawa gone and all the other party heavyweights co-opted, Prime Minister Noda is set to be re-elected party president this September, unless he makes a major gaffe in the next two months. Who knows, he might even be the first Japanese premier since Junichiro Koizumi to stay in office beyond the traditional one-year shelf life.

As for Ozawa, the prospects are not very promising. Without the DPJ’s protection, he would probably have to spend the rest of his time in the Diet answering questions from several committees investigating his past shenanigans. Perhaps more painfully, Ozawa, long regarded for his catalytic role in Japan’s political history, would probably descend into political irrelevance; meaning, like that blue-eyed shogun of post-war Japan, the shadow shogun would just have to fade away. To avoid this fate, Ozawa would have to build a viable political vehicle. If he can’t increase his group’s numbers, he would have to join forces with others.

A reunion with the LDP-Komeito bloc is extremely unlikely, since that erstwhile ruling coalition still has an axe to grind against Ozawa. The LDP would rather maneuver to have an LDP-DPJ grand coalition– which could be headed by an LDP prime minister, who knows?– than join hands with its two-time “destroyer.”  Ozawa would have to find another partner.

Perhaps the best chance for Ozawa to stay relevant is to strike a partnership with the charismatic Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, and the loose movement that he leads.

A Political Science professor from a leading university in Osaka, whom I met last week in an international conference on North Korea in Manila, says that Mayor Hashimoto’s real goal is to gain control of the Kantei, and that he sees the next election as a litmus test of sorts for this ambition. This probably explains his openness to the idea of a tie-up with Ozawa. Despite the Osaka Restoration Association’s pro-tax hike stance, for instance, the Mayor has criticized the Noda government’s “betrayal” of the DPJ manifesto, saying that Ozawa’s actions are “understandable.”

The problem is that Mayor Hashimoto’s bloc is a loose entente that is hardly monolithic. The Mayor’s partner, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, has made it clear that the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto, written by Ozawa, is incompatible with the Osaka Restoration Association’s ideals and that the Association should therefore not join Ozawa’s group. Another important player, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is planning to form a conservative party that will join a Hashimoto coalition, has a personal animosity with Ozawa. Building consensus with these political actors would be very challenging, to say the least.

Ozawa’s backroom skills will again be tested, perhaps for the last time.

Military rule will remain in Egypt

All eyes are on Cairo now as two of the country’s presidential candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, have simultaneously declared victory in yesterday’s presidential polls. But whoever wins the presidency, Egypt would likely remain under military rule.

The election is arguably the culmination of the decades-old war between the Islamist Brotherhood and the military clique, which has been ruling the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since Mubarak’s ouster last year. For all intents and purposes, the two institutions represents the only credible power poles in Egypt: The military, aside from being the guarantor of the nation’s security and political stability, controls a substantial portion of the Egyptian economy. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has a formidable grassroots support that makes it the only credible threat to the military’s political power.

Between the two, the military has the obvious upper hand. Having hi-jacked last year’s people power revolt through a silent coup, the generals of the Council have been dictating the terms of the post-Mubarak transition. Through the whole machinery of the government, the ruling generals appear to be moving mountains to ensure General Shafiq’s victory. But even if the former Air Force Marshall fails to win, the Council can still retain power by making the Brotherhood’s candidate a lameduck president.

Earlier, the ruling generals had the Parliament dissolved by the Supreme Constitution Court on technical grounds. The said Parliament had been writing a constitution, which would have defined the powers of the president vis a vis the Council. But now that the Parliament has been dissolved, legislative powers has reverted back to the Council, which means that the Council will now be the one to define the powers of whoever would be elected as president. If the Islamist Morsi becomes president, the Council would certainly make his office practically toothless.

As if these are not insurance enough, a case has been filed before the Supreme Constitution Court questioning the legality of the Brotherhood itself.

As I see it, therefore, the Brotherhood’s only options now are either to cut a power-sharing deal with the Council or to mobilize massive street protests. But I suspect that any protest actions would likely fizzle out since the Brotherhood has reportedly lost some public support following concerns about its reckless introduction of Islamist bills in the previous Parliament. Moreover, the Justice Ministry has recently declared that military and intelligence officers could again arrest civilians, hinting that the Council is willing to flex some muscles in order to nip massive protest actions in the bud.

Cutting a deal with the ruling generals, meanwhile, would be a pragmatic option, but it would not yield much tactical advantage. The Islamists would have to negotiate from a position of weakness, which means that the Council– unless prodded by the United States, which is unlikely at this point– would only allow few concessions to the Brotherhood, if at all. Moreover, cozying up to the generals might alienate the conservatives among the Brotherhood’s ranks.

In short, more than a year after risking their lives in a people power revolt in Tahrir Square, the Egyptians will now have an empowered military clique ruling alongside a toothless president and without a parliament. This arrangement will likely stall, or even reverse, the country’s democratic transition; but it will also guarantee a predictable regime that would maintain whatever is left of Egypt’s, and the entire region’s, stability.

The ball is now in China’s court

Finally, a face-saving opportunity to end the tense stand-off at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Last Friday, citing bad weather conditions, President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered the two remaining Filipino ships in the area, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol craft and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources research vessel, to pull out of the disputed waters. The President’s order followed an earlier pull-out by both China and the Philippines from the shoal’s inner lagoon, which was seen by observers as an attempt by both sides to de-escalate tensions.

President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson says the withdrawal is a unilateral decision meant to ensure the safety of the Filipino crew, and that China has nothing to do with it. But Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters last week that the Chinese had also agreed to withdraw their ships from the disputed waters, hinting that a deal of sorts had actually been reached.

So far, however, there’s no sign that the Chinese would honor this supposed agreement. While the Chinese Embassy in Manila has lauded the Philippines’ withdrawal, it was mum on the question of whether Beijing would follow Manila’s lead. This is despite the fact that Manila’s pull-out has given the Chinese government the opportunity to also withdraw around thirty of its maritime surveillance ships from the disputed waters without losing face to its nationalistic domestic constituents.

Yesterday, Malacanang reiterated that it is waiting for China “to honor its commitment” to pull its flotilla out of the shoal. In other words, Manila was sending Beijing a message: We’ve done our part, now do yours.

Obviously, ending the Scarborough stand-off is a necessary tactical initiative for the Philippines, which has very limited military options. But this is so with Beijing too, for different reasons.

China’s firmness on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off has alienated several Asian capitals, thereby squandering the gains of almost a decade of delicate “peaceful rise” diplomacy. To say that China’s soft power has been weakened by the stand-off is an understatement; Asian countries are now beginning to gravitate further towards the United States, which has publicly stated that it intends to remain as a Pacific power. Japan, whose ruling party used to have pro-Beijing leanings, for instance, has chosen to re-affirm its alliance with Washington, while Vietnam is practically laying the welcome mat for America’s Seventh Fleet in Cam Ranh Bay.

Clearly, to repair the damages to China’s image in the region, it’s necessary for Beijing to reciprocate Manila’s goodwill.

Needless to say, the restoration of status quo ante—that is, making the Scarborough Shoal free of government ships from both sides pending the completion of a code of conduct on the South China Sea disputes—should be a win-win solution not only for both the Philippines and China but also for the region as a whole.  But would Beijing see it this way, or would it find Manila’s withdrawal an opportunity to cement its newfound control over the disputed shoal?

How China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. Surely, the rest of Asia is watching closely.

Another showdown in Thailand?

The current truce between Thailand’s royalist elite and the populist government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother Thaksin was ousted in a royally-sanctioned coup in 2006, has been a refreshing respite from the taxing instability that the Kingdom had to endure during the latter part of the last decade.  Unfortunately, a storm that could disturb this fragile peace seems to be brewing in Bangkok.

On one hand, the Parliament and the Constitution Court are on a collision course over the ruling Puea Thai Party’s moves to have the military-imposed 2006 Constitution replaced. The Court, invoking its judicial review powers, has issued a restraining order against parliamentary debates on the proposed charter change measure; but the ruling party insists that the Court has no jurisdiction, citing a constitutional provision that says judicial review of parliamentary bills must be prompted by the Attorney-General first. Nitirat, an organization of law professors from Thammasat University, has urged the Parliament to defy the high court.

On the other hand, the debates in Parliament over the National Reconciliation Bill are bringing the colored crowd back to the streets. The bill, authored by 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, contains a blanket amnesty provision for all political offenses committed from 2005 to 2011. The opposition Democrat Party, which instigated an embarrassing brawl during a parliamentary session, alleges that the bill will pave the way for Thaksin’s return. The royalist Yellow Shirts have launched an “Occupy Parliament” protests against the bill, while the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts are mobilizing “to protect” the Parliament.

These two developments could severely test the mettle of Prime Minister Yingluck, whose heavyweight allies have recently returned to the scene following a five-year political ban. The onus is for her to diffuse these crisis-provoking tensions without undermining her own support base.

Backing off on these two measures could greatly undermine the Prime Minister’s authority among her Red Shirt supporters, especially in light of her refusal to amend the country’s draconian lese majeste laws, and of Thaksin’s widely-criticized insinuations— which he subsequently denied– that he’s willing to work with the royalist elite. But conversely, defying the Constitution Court could result in the banning of her political party, while ramming the reconciliation bill could provoke another Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt street confrontation that might invite extra-constitutional interventions from the army or the Palace.

It’s true that there’s currently an arrangement of sorts between Prime Minister Yingluck and the royalist elite led by the President of His Majesty’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda, and the army chief, General Prayuth Chanocha. This arrangement calls on the government to keep the royalist order intact, on Thaksin to stay in Dubai, and on the army to stay in their barracks. So far, the Prime Minister is keeping her end of the bargain; but would the King’s men keep theirs?

For now, they have to. But in the event of another major ruckus in Bangkok, or a crippling constitutional crisis between the Legislative and the Judiciary, I’m sure they will– at the very least– be tempted to intervene.

The royalists know that they can’t really keep Thaksin away indefinitely, and that they would all be finished as soon as the ailing King passes away. This is why I think the army and the Palace would find any opportunity to write the rules of the post-Bhumibol era extremely appealing.

Noda’s LDP card

Tokyo is currently abuzz over the decision of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to reshuffle his Cabinet yesterday. He fired key officials like Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister and former candidate for Prime Minister Michihiko Kano;  Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism Minister Takeshi Maeda; and Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka. Kano’s ministry was implicated in a recent Chinese spy scandal, while the other ministers have been widely criticized for several embarrassing gaffes. Maeda and Tanaka, for example, had been officially censured by the opposition-controlled House of Councillors.

But the motivation behind the sacking of these ranking officials is not to impose accountability for their infractions but to pave the way for negotiations with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the proposed increase in the country’s sales tax, the Prime Minister’s pet project. In short, the ministers are being offered to the opposition as sacrificial lambs.

The Prime Minister is trying to win the opposition over after failing to gain the support of Japan’s acknowledged shadow shogun, Ichiro Ozawa, for the tax hike measure. Ozawa, who has recently been reinstated as a member of the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) after having been acquitted of corruption charges, has consistently opposed any increase in the nation’s taxes. Prime Minister Noda argues that the country needs the tax hike to finance its ballooning social services and to pay off its debt. Ozawa, on the other hand, insists that the government must first reduce its spending, and therefore streamline the bureaucracy, in order to solve the deficit. He’s been very consistent with this position ever since.

The two rounds of talks between the Prime Minister and the shadow shogun ended in a deadlock last week. And while Ozawa hinted that he is still open to continued talks, Prime Minister Noda, who had called the negotiations with Ozawa a “lifetime gamble,” is making it appear that he’s giving up. Many are saying that the stalemate has diminished the Prime Minister’s political stock and boosted Ozawa’s.

“All this pomp surrounding a meeting with a member of his own party, as if he were welcoming a foreign dignitary, is a huge blow to the Prime Minister’s authority,” says LDP president Sadikazu Tanigaki.

Of course, that “member of the party” happens to be Japan’s leading political tactician who commands an army of around one hundred loyal Lower House parliamentarians. Prime Minister Noda’s tax policy won’t clear the Diet without those one hundred votes, which is why he’s trying to lure the opposition’s votes instead. This goal– gaining the opposition’s support after failing to get your party-mates’ nod– is a political peculiarity that can only happen in Japan.

But is the Prime Minister really trying to lure the LDP as an end goal in itself, or is he merely trying to bluff his way to gain Ozawa’s grudging support? Is this another game of brinkmanship, Nagatacho-style?

The LDP has two preconditions for its support for the Prime Minister’s tax hike proposal. Firstly, it wants the DPJ to part ways with the hugely unpopular Ozawa. Secondly, it wants the Diet vote on the tax measure to be followed by a snap election. The LDP, which has recently made gains in opinion polls, badly needs an election soon, before the Third Force movement led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto could assemble its national machinery and therefore present itself to the public as the viable non-LDP alternative to the underwhelming DPJ.

For Prime Minister Noda, an early election means that his party could lose its grip on power only three years after it overthrew the long-entrenched LDP hegemony. For Ozawa, on the other hand, an early election could obliterate his army of one hundred, since they are all political lightweights with no substantial machinery to keep their Diet seats. It doesn’t help that Ozawa’s war chest has been practically depleted, and that he’s now too old to build another political party from scratch.

“I’m willing to risk my political career for this,” says Prime Minister Noda. By trying to lure the LDP, and hinting that he may agree to hold early elections in exchange for its support, the premier seems to be telling Ozawa that he’s willing to risk the DPJ’s hold on power, too.

Will the shadow shogun call the bluff?