One of the more remarkable aspects of Rodrigo Duterte’s two-year-old presidency is his swift and frequent rehabilitation of previously discredited leaders.
First, he paved the way for the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to re-emerge as major players in Philippine politics, with the late autocrat’s son Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr now on track to become a future president.
Now, he has moved to restore once-disgraced ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who has almost overnight re-emerged one of the country’s major political powerbrokers. Both moves have arguably detracted from Duterte’s reform credentials and raised questions about his motivations for restoring their names and replenishing their political fortunes.
Just hours before the president’s third State of the Nation Address (SONA), Arroyo led an unprecedented legislative coup against House of Representatives’ Speaker Pantaelon Alvarez, a staunch Duterte ally from the southern island of Mindanao.
What ensued was a physical political standoff, with supporters of the deposed speaker snatching the parliamentary mace and cutting off Arroyo’s microphone on the podium of the House’s plenary. The mayhem led to an hour-long delay in Duterte’s address, with the president helplessly caged in the waiting room.
It took decisive mediation by Duterte to end the standoff and negotiate a peaceful political transition, with Alvarez joining him on the podium for the SONA as his last day as the leader of the lower house of Congress.
Shortly after Duterte’s surprisingly brief and disciplined address, Arroyo officially assumed her role as the first female to head the male-dominated and patronage-infested House of Representatives. She also became the country’s first-ever former president to become a legislative leader.
Alvarez’s removal was apparently driven by two political calculations. One, Alvarez’s perceived as abrasive style alienated many Duterte allies, including presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, who along with congresswoman Imee Marcos mustered congressional support for Arroyo’s bid for the speakership.
Two, Arroyo is perceived to have the necessary competence and credentials, at least compared to Alvarez, to carry Duterte’s charter change agenda forward. As for Arroyo, she seeks to rehabilitate herself by shaping the next big phase of reform in the country, namely the new constitution.
Over the succeeding months, Arroyo will be in a unique position to shape the country’s prospective shift to a new constitutional ordeer and federal form of government. The Philippine legislature is currently discussing the newly released draft of a new charter written by a Duterte-picked panel of experts.
There are already concerns, though, that Arroyo may push for a mixed presidential-parliamentary form of government, with herself installed as the new prime minister. Two years younger than Duterte, 73, the diminutive former president now seems at her most physically robust and youthful in recent years.
Just over a decade ago, however, a nationwide survey by Pulse Asia showed that Arroyo was considered by respondents “the most corrupt president” in Philippine history. Under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, she was held under house arrest for years on charges of abuse of power and corruption during her long term in office (2001-2010).
Arroyo stepped down in 2010, having survived multiple coup attempts and countless popular protests calling for her resignation over a host of reasons related to poor governance. By far, she had the lowest ever approval rating of any Filipino president.
An American-trained economist and the daughter of former president Diosdado Macapagal (1961-1965), Arroyo was a popular and well-respected figure throughout much of her early years in politics.
She rapidly rose through the ranks, beginning with her productive years as vice minister for trade and industry in the 1980s, to her successful bid for the Senate in the 1990s and, later, becoming the first female vice president in the 1998 elections under the Joseph Estrada administration.
In 2001, she rose to the presidency by default amid massive “people power” protests against the populist Estrada, who was embroiled in corruption scandals and eventually convicted of economic plunder. He was later pardoned, perhaps ironically in retrospect, by Arroyo.
Up until then, Arroyo was among the most revered figures in Philippine politics. But things began to unravel when Arroyo, contrary to her earlier promise, decided to run for office in 2004, becoming the first post-Marcos president to serve longer than the constitutionally-mandated single six-year term limit.
She narrowly won the 2004 elections against charismatic actor-turned-politician Fernando Poe, but it proved a pyrrhic victory. The so-called “Hello Garci” scandal, when an audio recording allegedly showed the president instructing a senior official in the Commission on Elections to rig election results in certain parts of the country, undermined her legitimacy.
Over the succeeding years, she found herself beholden to benefactors, who, in exchange for securing her election victory and protecting her during multiple coup attempts, wasted no chance to engage in large-scale corruption. No less than her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, was embroiled in multiple corruption scandals.
Towards the end of her term, Arroyo also came under fire for her progressively closer ties to China, as she welcomed big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects and negotiated joint-exploration agreements in contested waters of the South China Sea.
She ended her term amid a massive public outcry over multiple corruption scandals involving Chinese investments, especially the US$329 million NBN-ZTE project, which was eventually scrapped due to allegations of large-scale kickbacks and regulatory anomalies that involved among others her husband.
Today, however, Arroyo is widely seen as an influential dealmaker, a well-respected elder statesman, who serves as the chief foreign policy adviser to the president and, now, the leader of 300-strong lower house of Congress.
As a former senator, Arroyo also enjoys some rapport with a number of senior members of the legislature’s upper house, including Senate President Tito Sotto III, who immediately expressed his willingness to work with his new lower house counterpart.
In Duterte’s Philippines, the past is often forgiven for previously reviled leaders and their ambitious offspring, seen in his controversial rehabilitation of both the Marcos and Arroyos.
It remains to be seen how long Duterte’s alliance of convenience with the two former first families will last as each vie for power in an increasingly vicious and opportunistic political landscape.