At the US July Fourth reception on July 2 Ambassador Kristie Kenney was asked pointblank if her government would be “concerned” over a “postponement” of the 2010 Philippine elections. The question contained a hypothesis rather than a fact, and a potential headline written into it. Mrs. Kenney answered “yes” and that gave Philippine Star a brilliant scoop which it proudly bannered the next day---“US: No to ‘no-el’,” (the last word, for “no elections”).
This was fully congruent with Kenney’s prepared text where she said, “one of the values that we share with our American friends is a fierce commitment to electoral democracy and the institution of suffrage.” Elections are a good way of renewing democracy, she added. Over the years various U.S. institutions have made it a point to observe the periodic conduct or misconduct of Philippine elections.
But the subject here was “postponement” of elections. Given the unanswered questions at the Commission on Elections about automated voting, the move in Congress to propose a shift to parliamentary government, and the various scenarios being dreamed up by various parties for 2010, a postponement of the elections could not, in principle, be completely ruled out. Even without those problems a postponement remains a possibility, no matter how remote. What would happen, for example, if and when a major natural calamity should occur on election day and people are no longer able to venture outside their homes? Certainly no elections could be held; they would be automatically postponed.
So it is possible. But probable? That’s another story altogether. “Possibility” has never been the same as “probability.” And despite fears of a possible failure of elections, no one has actually proposed or is proposing a postponement. So its possibility is purely speculative and hypothetical as of now, and it was a purely hypothetical question that was put to Kenney. A diplomat of lesser spunk would probably have declined: “I’m sorry, I don’t answer hypothetical questions.” But Kenney obviously thought it best to send a clear signal to those who may be planning mischief to do away with the 2010 elections.
Now we have it in black and white. The US would be “concerned” if the elections were postponed, and there are various ways of making such concern felt by the parties involved. It is a warning to all ---not just to the Arroyo administration but to everyone else who may be planning to supplant the elections with their own schemes. No doubt Kenney’s words have a positive impact on the thinking of many Filipinos. They may now feel a little more confident that the elections would be held as scheduled, despite the absence of any prospect for real change or any truly worthy candidates for the highest office. But we cannot misread her words to mean the U.S. will “intervene to ensure clean and free elections.” The U.S. will react accordingly if we mess up our electoral process, but they will not tell us how to conduct our sovereign business.
How would all this affect those who want to see parliamentary elections rather than presidential ones in 2010? They do not want the elections postponed; they simply want the form of government changed. Of course the idea is strongly opposed by many, this writer included, and we are convinced we are right. But what happens if and when, despite our strongest opposition, the Supreme Court ultimately upholds what we believe is an unconstitutional way of proposing constitutional amendments, and the people do not rise in protest but remain apathetic?
Once more, this is hypothetical, it may or may not happen at all. But having already answered one hypothetical question, could not the ambassador tell us now how Washington would react to it? Of course, we would respect her silence if she decides she has already said enough or more than enough on the subject.
I am a great Kenney fan, particularly for her public diplomacy skills. You see her wholesome face in public billboards in Palawan, Visayas and Mindanao, and she is not much less visible than my friend Sen. Dick Gordon in highly publicized humanitarian operations. But something about her non-verbal idiom, as recorded by the Star, invites careful decoding.
In the four-column center photo below the Star’s July 3 headline, Kenney is flanked by the Air Force Chief Lt. Gen. Oscar Rabena and Navy commander Vice Admiral Ferdinand Golez. She is sparkling in her evening dress, and the flag officers are resplendent in their gala uniforms. But Kenney’s left hand is shown resting gently on Vice Admiral Golez’s strong right shoulder. What was it doing there?
Not having gone to a finishing school for diplomats, most readers will not know what to make of it. I have tried to understand international diplomacy most of my life, and I do not know what it means. Could the good ambassador or the Department of Foreign Affairs please enlighten us on it? It feels good to be able to think that if things fell apart, we could always rely on the US to help us pick up the pieces. But as a 111-year-old republic, we should by now be able to stand on our own instead of expecting our former colonial master to sort out our sovereign affairs for us. Even the U.S. may have no need for such subservience.