Fri, 08 Dec 2000

President Estrada succeeds in convincing Uriarte

MANILA: President Estrada has succeeded in delaying the resignation of Science and Technology Secretary Filemon Uriarte Jr. until the end of the month by promising to join the Couples for Christ Movement. Uriarte said he was so moved by the gesture that he could not help but give in to the President' request. It remains to be seen whether Estrada can endure the rigors of attending the regular meetings of the movement which is designed to strengthen marriage bonds rather than dissolving them.

The President, who has neither the time nor the patience to study state papers, let alone attend Cabinet meetings, will have problems making good his promise to Uriarte, but he should be given the benefit of the doubt. But the fact that Estrada would go to such great lengths to avert another Cabinet resignation indicates how desperate he is in preventing his Cabinet from crumbling.

The President has already lost two Cabinet members: Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who served as social welfare secretary, and Manuel Roxas III, who was the secretary of trade and industry. Losing Uriarte can widen the cracks in the Cabinet and may provide an excuse for other Cabinet members to desert his administration. So, in the meantime, the hole has been plugged, but the President may have succeeded only in buying time before other resignations are handed in.

Uriarte lost interest in serving the government after all his idealism was shattered by the scandals implicating the President in corrupt deals. Personal appeals based on concessions that are impossible for Estrada to comply with, are tradeoffs that are not binding.

Estrada has indicated that he would revamp the Cabinet, presumably thinking that a reorganization would restore confidence in his administration. The revamp will be timed with the resignations of Cabinet members who plan to run for Congress or the Senate, among them Press Secretary Ricardo Puno, Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio Morales, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, and probably Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara.

The deadline for the submission of certificates of candidacy for Congress will be in January. Their departure will open a gaping hole in the Cabinet and there will be a strong temptation for other Cabinet members to rush to the exits, especially if, by that time, the impeachment trial develops into a devastating nightmare for the President and his men. The filing of certificates of candidacy is a convenient excuse to desert him, given that running on an administration ticket would be like joining a funeral procession.

A Cabinet revamp is a conventional way of sending the signal that an administration is embarking on new policies and reforms, but that is not likely to happen. But the President will have great difficulty finding replacements for those who will leave the Cabinet. With the nearly complete withdrawal of confidence in the administration by the private sector, the President has not been able to fill the vacancy left by Roxas. Likewise he will find it hard to find a replacement for a technocrat like Uriarte. At this point, attracting talents to fill vacancies in the Cabinet can be as tough as looking for passengers to board a leaking ship.

A Cabinet revamp under these circumstances, therefore, is not a step toward reform. Some Cabinet members, like Finance Secretary Jose Pardo and Angara, have peddled the line that from this crisis has emerged a "different" Estrada, who is more dedicated to his job. But we have not seen signs of change in presidential behavior, much less in policy initiatives. On the contrary, the President recently said that, if he would be acquitted in the impeachment trial, he would continue with his ways because that's what endeared him to the masses.

Continuing support for the President by the poor is increasingly becoming doubtful. Recent public opinion surveys have shown that his base of support has been eroded among the DE socioeconomic categories and the trend over time has shown him losing his popularity among the poor. This is the trend that has been ignored by Estrada. He is relying on this fiction to mobilize crowds in an effort to show mass support, but already significant members of the poor are joining the protest movement.

By the time the Cabinet revamp is implemented, the administration may be crippled from lack of prestigious and credible replacements, further limiting the President's already much diminished capacity to govern effectively.

-- The Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network