Gloria Arroyo is back. But was she ever gone?

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In a quick performance of political theater, Arroyo is the new House Speaker, ousting Pantaleon Alvarez by an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives. Photo by JL JAVIER

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

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — President Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address (SONA), directed by Joyce Bernal, was preceded by a “short film.” A silent one, at that, after the mikes went off while Deputy Speaker Rolando Andaya questioned the abrupt adjournment of that morning’s session. No matter. The action unfolded without need for words: one moment there was mere rumor (a plot to unseat then House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez), the next moment, some sort of déjà vu playing out on national television.

On screen was Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, dressed in orange, surrounded by lawmakers shaking her hand. Arroyo, climbing to the rostrum, straining to make herself heard. Arroyo, taking oath, not as president this time, though the ministrations were eerily familiar.

In this quick performance of political theater, Arroyo is the new House Speaker, ousting Alvarez by an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives, supposed to be under his control. Never mind Duterte’s SONA. We already have a blockbuster: Arroyo, the alleged plunderer, who is implicated in the NBN ZTE scandal, the “Hello Garci” electoral fraud, the Fertilizer Fund Scam, the PCSO fund scam, thousands of extrajudicial killings, and other various sins of manipulation and corruption, is now back in power as the third highest ranking official in the land.

All in approximately 15 minutes. It’s as if the two decades did not happen.

We don’t understand accountability

It’s not that Filipinos have short memories. It’s that we have yet to figure out how to keep naked power in check, and we have yet to decide what to do with people who break our trust. So we lower our defenses, transform them into memes, have a good laugh, give them a second chance, or elect them to office.

Thus we have the Marcoses in government. Convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada as Manila mayor. Convicted rapist Romeo Jalosjos as congressman (and thereafter, a free man). There’s a long list of criminals who are elected or are otherwise qualified to run for local positions.

This happens because the law requires someone to be “convicted with finality” to be disqualified for running for office — a rule easily exploited by way of filing an appeal or any other action to delay proceedings. A criminal-politician may also be pardoned or his or her sentence commuted by the president.

Arroyo, for her part, has never been convicted with plunder, though she was under hospital arrest for four years for plunder charges arising from misused Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) funds. She has openly admitted to attempting to manipulate election results in 2004, exposed via wiretapped conversations with Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano in the “Hello Garci” scandal. She has been tagged as the beneficiary of ₱728 million in public funds, allegedly directed to her presidential campaign rather than farmers, in the Fertilizer Fund Scam. She has ignored extrajudicial killings under her regime.

Seven to eight years ago, civil society worked hard to push back against Arroyo’s budding authoritarian rule and efforts to consolidate power, which saw the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao and policies such as the preemptive calibrated response, struck down by the High Court for being unconstitutional. Arroyo was also responsible for the so-called ‘midnight appointments’ made just before she stepped down from office, the most controversial being the late Renato Corona as Chief Justice.

"Arroyo sitting at that rostrum means she never left. It’s like when we allowed Marcos to be buried a hero."

There’s a long list of sins for which Arroyo should have paid. Journalists have repeatedly listed the ‘shame and scandals’ of her family, how she has wrought havoc on key institutions by cannibalizing democracy. Former public officials declared her years in power inflicted ‘curses’ on the Philippines. She is called ‘the original sin’ — her betrayal of public trust, from the very first time she falsely promised not to run for president, “[laid] the groundwork for systemic impunity that is haunting Philippine politics.”

Did it seem like all of these were gone, after Arroyo’s term ended in 2010? She remained a popular and well-loved politician in her family’s stronghold in Pampanga. As early as 2009, she announced plans to run in her province’s 2nd district, won, and held office even under hospital arrest, despite her background of impunity, corruption, and fraud.

She was never out of power. Hers is a game of calculated gambits — dropping allies when they have served their purpose, keeping them when the need arises. Owing to her influence, it was not difficult to ally with Duterte (who once campaigned for her ouster) and secure her freedom just in his first year of office.

The courts have acquitted Arroyo of the plunder charges for lack of evidence. Most recently, the Sandiganbayan acquitted one of her co-defendants in the PCSO fund misuse case, Rosario Uriarte, thus banishing all possible roadblocks to her re-ascent to power.

“Her being back shows that our system is weak in holding power to account — that the elite could easily withstand checks that are nothing but temporary setbacks in their continuing rule,” says Joy Aceron, Government Watch convenor and research fellow at the Accountability Research Center.

“This signals the need for an overhaul of our accountability system and the strengthening of accountability culture, especially the democratic forces that are supposed to advance it.”

“GMA being back in a critical post means there is another big threat to the opposition, civil society, and democratic rights, given her track record,” she adds.

Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at the rostrum after she is elected as the new House Speaker. Photo by JL JAVIER

Hello, Garci — again

Now that Arroyo is House Speaker, there are a few things to watch out for, aside from her dismal track record. “Is GMA as speaker going to push for parliamentary so she can vie for being Prime Minister? I remember this was their plan before,” says Aceron.

Another is the crack in the ruling party’s coalition. “How big a player is Alvarez inside is a good question to answer because that could potentially determine the damage within the ruling party that this dynamics has caused.”

This should also be a time to revisit why we continually fail to hold abusive leaders to account. Columnist Conrado de Quiros wrote, during one of Arroyo’s SONAs, that the (true) state of the nation was this: “Hello Garci … Hello Garci … Hello Garci …” repeated over and over until his newspaper space ran out.

If the long list of shame, scandals, curses, and sins overwhelms, it’s easy to remember “Hello Garci.” Arroyo should have resigned at that point, when she said “I am sorry” for calling Garcillano to influence election numbers. For what kind of accountability is it when you apologize but do not make amends? Where is the integrity in saying sorry but dodging consequences?

De Quiros’ column ends by finally saying: “Goodbye Gloria.” He might have spoken too — too soon. Arroyo sitting at that rostrum means she never left. It’s like when we allowed Marcos to be buried a hero. When we continually allow their allies to run our government. When we compromise integrity just because no one steps up. When we fail to demand the best from our leaders. When we settle for what we do not deserve.

We have never succeeded in killing our monsters. We only let them sleep.