Saturday, April 18, 2015

The year of banality and inertia

I’m fascinated, perhaps morbidly, by the exits from power of presidents and prime ministers, whether they leave with their honor intact, or ignominiously (tails between their legs), or uneventfully, riding into the sunset like the Marlboro cowboy. The long-awaited exit of President Aquino next year has no doubt played a subliminal role in my curiosity about official departures.
It turns out that the subject is treated with great seriousness in many countries. In the United States, when the departing chief of state has been a successful leader with national and global stature, he marks the leave taking with a farewell address, as George Washington and Dwight David Eisenhower did during their turn at the helm.
Elsewhere, the event is idiosyncratically encrusted by tradition and history.
The year of living dangerously
Mexico and Indonesia offer a telling contrast of styles.
In Mexico, they call a Mexican president’s final year in office “the year of Hidalgo” — to honor Miguel Hidalgo, the great priest who fought for Mexico’s independence from Spain. The word hidalgo, derived from the Spanish tradition of hidalguia, connotes nobility and honor.
As in the Philippine constitutional system, the Mexican presidential term runs for six years.
In his memoir, Revolution of Hope (Penguin books, 2008), former Mexican president Vicente Fox offers an intriguing take on the tradition. He wrote: “A century and a half of authoritarian rule turned the sixth year of our presidents into a sad old joke. “En el año de hidalgo, chingue a su madre, el que deje algo!” This translates politely as “in the final year, the son of a bitch won’t leave a thing!”
Several former Mexican presidents exiled themselves to Ireland, drew on their Swiss bank accounts, and hid from the world behind walled suburban villas.
In Indonesia, because of its bloody history, and former President Sukarno’s gift of rhetoric and drama, the exit year is memorialized as “the year of living dangerously.”
In his National Day speech on August 17, 1964, Sukarno called the year 1965 “the year of living dangerously” for Indonesia. He took the words from a famous Italian expression, “vivere pericolosamente,” which translates to “living dangerously” in English.
Sukarno’s words proved prophetic and apocalyptic. That year, the Indonesian communist party (PKI) launched a coup against the government on September 30, 1965, a coup attempt that oddly had Sukarno’s blessing (he was plotting a coalition with the communists). The response of the Indonesian military and the political right to the coup was swift and bloody. The counterblow against the communists took over half a million lives, according to some estimates.
It was in these circumstances that General Suharto took power in 1966. In command of the Indonesian armed forces and with the backing of political Islam, Suharto stripped Sukarno of his title as president for life. Once installed as president, Suharto would rule Indonesia for the next 32 years, until he himself was deposed in 1998 –a victim of the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
Australian novelist C. J. Koch wrote a novel about this period in Indonesian history, and entitled it the Year of Living Dangerously. The critically acclaimed novel was adapted into film by director Peter Weir, starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. The film was partly filmed in the Philippines. Singer Kuh Ledesma had a small supporting role in the movie. Diminutive Linda Hunt won an academy award for best supporting actress, for her role as Billy Kwan, the dwarf cum activist.
The Year of the last two minutes
When we turn our gaze homeward, to the final year of President Aquino’s term, the event turns into bathos.
Aquino envisioned his final year as the year when he would cement and crown his legacy – perhaps securing even a Nobel prize for his unrelenting effort to forge a working peace in Mindanao and ending once and for all the secessionist conflict there.
Instead of moving purposively towards this ambitious goal, his exit year is being bathed in banality and inertia. Aquino has personally described his final year in office as “the last two minutes”— a term taken from the language of basketball. Calling it “the year of the last two minutes” – to rival Mexico’s year of hidalgo, and Indonesia’s “year of living dangerously — is so pedestrian, I’m embarrassed just typing this down.
Along with the banality of language, Aquino has been punctuating his exit year with inertia. Mamasapano is turning out to be his Waterloo because of presidential inertia during the day of the fateful SAF mission last January 25, when resolute presidential action could have helped save the lives of many of the 44 slain SAF commandos.
Aquino could also have lessened the fallout from the tragedy had he pushed aggressively for full disclosure and discovery of the facts of the incident. Instead, the energies of the administration were turned toward stonewalling the inquiries and covering up the President’s responsibility for what happened.
“What a great pity!” says a writer friend who has spent part of her time exploring the world. Aquino, she says, could have matched Sukarno Italian for Italian. He could have deftly employed the popular Italian saying, “Dolce far niente” (“the sweetness of doing nothing”), as his exit card. He would have credibility with this strategy because he is already in the book for his history of Noynoying, an original contribution to Filipino English, which was pinned on him by young Filipino activists. He is also well-known in political circles for disappearing for days from public view whenever there is a national emergency.
If Aquino is to achieve a successful final year, this is preeminently the time for him to raise his sights on leaving solid achievements behind him, on repairing holes in his administration, and taking new initiatives that can quickly produce results.
It must be asked now whether the President is well-served by his Cabinet, whether some secretaries are now just running out the clock and collecting their salaries and perks.
No serious discussion about the Cabinet and the President’s staff is possible because of the administration’s omerta (conspiracy of silence) not to admit mistakes and issue apologies.
Imagine how presidential perspective would change, if Aquino could only follow this wise counsel from one political thinker:
“Serve without fear. Leave without regret.”
Maybe then, this final year of the Aquino presidency will rise a notch in elevation – from where they view themselves.

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