OPINION: Gloria Arroyo and the power to rewrite history

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As House Speaker under the Duterte administration, Arroyo now tells CNN Philippines’ Senior Correspondent Pinky Webb: “My priorities [as a legislative officer/House Speaker] are the priorities of President Duterte.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo says her legacy is that of “fiscal reform” — as she did in CNN Philippines’ “The Source” recently — she grossly underestimates her impact as president.

When she tells us she’s “confident” about the future of the country, her words don’t inspire the same confidence, as she cites most of the “young congressmen” in the House of Representatives as the source of her confidence — perhaps the same ones who huddled around her when she unceremoniously became House Speaker.

For me, Gloria Arroyo has never truly inspired as a woman, even if it was her term that saw the passage of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act. Nor has she inspired as a politician, at least until we saw (or heard) her rig the 2004 elections to her favor.

She might be the second woman president of the Philippines, but that’s all there is to it: she is a woman in power, one who unfortunately refused to be accountable for that power, and whose use of power caused more harm than good to the state of Philippine governance.

“Controversies”

Those who remember how Arroyo steadfastly pursued Charter Change when she was president are wary of her supposed intentions to be Prime Minister, in light of President Duterte’s federalism initiative. To this she says: “The people who keep raising that are the people who just want to stir up controversy.”

But the sins and ambitions of Gloria Arroyo bear repeating until she finally atones for them. It is only in the Philippines that we find officials like Arroyo — already caught red-handed, already with a lot of anomalies under their name — still enjoying a seat in government, still in favor with a particular constituency.

Arroyo says people “want to stir up controversy,” but she forgets there is no need to “stir” anything up. In 2007, the Philippines was the most corrupt among 13 countries in Asia. The same year, a Pulse Asia survey revealed Arroyo, at that time, to be the most corrupt Philippine leader. In fact, you can Google the words “Arroyo” and “corruption” and you’d have a gold mine of verified articles, documents, and investigative reports, enough to cast doubt on Arroyo’s credibility as a leader as early as 11 to 12 years ago, for which she should have resigned, never to hold office ever again.

Yet the anomalies and the scandals remain, unanswered for more than decade now. Meanwhile, Arroyo sits in office.

Duterte, Arroyo, and China

As House Speaker under the Duterte administration, Arroyo now tells CNN Philippines’ Senior Correspondent Pinky Webb: “My priorities [as a legislative officer/House Speaker] are the priorities of President Duterte.”

Many have noted the similarities between Duterte’s policies and Arroyo’s policies as former president. One illustrative example is their similar stance on China.

In “Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,” investigative journalist Marites Vitug narrates how Philippine-China relations reached their “golden age” during Arroyo’s term. Arroyo gave the go-signal for the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), a three-year bilateral agreement for joint research in a 142,886-square kilometer area of the South China Sea.

“She might be the second woman president of the Philippines, but that’s all there is to it: she is a woman in power, one who unfortunately refused to be accountable for that power.”

While Arroyo said in “The Source” interview that Vietnam was included in this agreement, stressing the importance of “multifaceted” actions in the Philippine-China relations, the JMSU — which she signed in China’s Great Hall of the People — riled Vietnam.

Vietnam wanted the agreement annulled and accused the Philippines of not consulting claimant countries first, according to Vitug’s “Rock Solid.” Subsequently, however, Vietnam joined the agreement rather than be left out. The JMSU was later contested in the Philippine Supreme Court.

Duterte’s friendly stance against China echoes Arroyo’s, who has repeatedly said Duterte’s policy regarding China is similar to her policy.

When asked if Duterte’s policy was balanced, Arroyo replied: “It is similar to mine.”

The future according to Gloria Arroyo

Watching Arroyo on television — especially when she was a featured personality in CNN Philippines’ Women’s Month coverage — should always remind us of the systemic effects her administration has wrought upon good governance and accountability.

Thus, when it’s Gloria Arroyo who says that she’s “confident” about the future because of young lawmakers in Congress, we should be wary. When she speaks of a legacy divorced from how her governance has set the standard for graft and corruption, we should be wary. When she tells us that legitimate comments and criticism come from people “stirring up a controversy,” we should be wary.

Arroyo remains a heavyweight in Philippine politics, one with the power to rewrite history to her favor. In a political environment that unfortunately welcomes disgraced revisionists like the Marcoses, the likes of her will inevitably thrive: living, ghastly memorials to what we still haven’t learned as a nation.

Arroyo has to account for her long list of sins. But as for our failure to demand better leaders and responsive governance? For our propensity to elect murderers, cheaters, and trapos?

That’s on us.