Why New Presidents in the Philippines and the Congo Are in Trouble

  • Share
  • Read Later
Quick: What do the Congo, the Philippines and the United States have in common? Each is adjusting to political life under a new president whose ascent has been challenged as undemocratic. But President George W. Bush is certainly having the easiest time of it — not surprising, perhaps, since at least he actually stood for election as president, even if his naysayers insist he lost at the polls. And even though the media may be recounting the ballots in Florida, nobody would dream of trying to reverse the result. No matter what they think about how he got there, Bush's victory is accepted as a fait accompli across the political spectrum in Washington. Not so the selection of Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines and Joseph Kabila in the Congo.

Cell phone pranks

Barely five days after she was sworn in, the Philippines' President Gloria Arroyo was having to reassure the nation that she wasn't about to be overthrown in a coup. Arroyo took the bizarre step Thursday of taking out a cell phone during a presidential press conference and calling the general suspected of plotting her overthrow. "Are you going to stage a coup against me?" she asked General Edgardo Espinosa of the Marines. Listening for a moment, she then assured her audience that a coup was "beyond the general's imagination." Needless to say, that display didn't exactly allay concerns that her government may be on the brink.

Democracy of the market?

Her troubles are hardly surprising, since her ascent to power appears to have been choreographed by the nation's elites after they forced the resignation of the corruption-tainted populist Joseph Estrada. The key moment that propelled former vice president Arroyo into the top job was the decision by the military to back her against Estrada — an outcome that had some of those who had been demonstrating against Estrada likening her takeover to a coup. Responding to critics who questioned just how democratic last week's thriller in Manila had been, Arroyo said Thursday, "I think the bottom line is how the markets accepted it." Indeed, stock prices have climbed 20 percent since Estrada's ouster. But where the business, military, political and clerical elite may have reached consensus on the need to get rid of Estrada, they may be more divided on how to succeed him. The first sign of trouble came earlier this week when Arroyo's defense minister quit over her decision to retain as national security adviser a former military chief who faces corruption charges himself. She may be a committed economic reformer who hopes to sweep out corruption, but Gloria Arroyo is perched atop a power structure that has been riddled with graft and now appears to be wracked by political infighting.

Joseph Kabila's 'Life of Brian'

But Arroyo's troubles are small potatoes compared with those of Congo's President (or is he?) Joseph Kabila. In almost every photograph, the 31-year-old army officer appears to be wearing an expression that screams "Help! How did I get here?" Hardly surprising, since his father's assassination last week has propelled him improbably to the presidency of a country that nobody is quite sure still exists, having been effectively carved up by the armies of its neighbors. His inauguration was postponed for a second time Thursday, ostensibly because the country's supreme court was still trying to compose the legal text for an oath of office. Indeed, no constitutional process for transferring power yet exists, and Kabila backers have had to overcome opposition, even within a legislature handpicked by his father and his cronies, to junior's ascension.

Anybody got a Berlitz?

Of course the delay may be of some help to Joseph Kabila, since it'll give him time to bone up on his French in order to be able to address the nation whose presidency he's about to assume. Having been raised in Uganda speaking English and Swahili, Joseph Kabila is essentially a foreigner in a country where the national language is French and the most common indigenous tongue is Lingala. And that may be appropriate, since his power base is entirely foreign, too — the thousands of Zimbabwean and Angolan troops that took over the capital during the funeral of slain President Laurent Kabila, whom they had backed in his war against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda. The Kabila family's standing in Kinshasa may be illustrated by the fact that when Laurent Kabila was shot in his office by a bodyguard, he was bundled onto a plane bound for an emergency room in far-off Zimbabwe rather than being sent for treatment in his own capital. So young Joseph apparently knows better than to rely on the local troops for his protection. Indeed, Congolese would be forgiven for thinking he was not their own leader as much as the spokesman for the Zimbabwean and Angolan armies currently pouring reinforcements into the war-ravaged country. Which is, of course, a double irony for the Congolese, since his father had arrived in the capital four years ago as the handpicked representative of the Rwandan and Ugandan forces that had put the dictator Mobutu to flight — the same armies that young Kabila's backers are now fighting.