It looks like the allusion to Nora Aunor wasn’t for show. Remember how Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo vaulted into the Philippine political firmament in 1992 on the strength of a campaign poster that played up her resemblance to the country’s most famous film actress, down to the facial mole? It was a political masterstroke, investing Arroyo with the kind of populist recall she wouldn’t have gotten otherwise from her wonky resumé at that time (as a former professor of economics at Ateneo de Manila University and then trade undersecretary under President Corazon Aquino). Not surprisingly, she emerged a topnotcher in the senatorial polls.
These days, even if Arroyo has long abandoned the visual association with Aunor, she seems to have gotten better at the acting bit. Only two months ago, the former President was supposedly in a “life and death situation,” suffering from choking episodes caused by a titanium implant protruding into her esophagus (the implant was installed during surgery for a cervical spine ailment in 2011). Arroyo’s medical condition, said an ally, Occidental Mindoro Rep. Ma. Amelita Villarosa, had left her in “deep pain… She cannot eat because there is metal blocking her food. She can speak but with great difficulty.” Truly “a life-threatening condition,” intoned another friend of the Arroyo family.
But, in the euphoria that swept her camp when the Pasay City Regional Trial Court recently allowed her to post bail for the electoral sabotage case filed in connection with the 2007 senatorial elections, her handlers must have forgotten the script. A photograph of her taken a couple of hours after posting bail, and distributed to media offices, showed her still with the signature neck brace but strolling out of the Veterans Memorial Medical Center grounds, almost nonchalantly and clearly strong enough to walk unaided. What has happened to the “life-threatening condition”?
As in her bizarre dash last year to the airport in an ambulance and then on a wheelchair, and those photographs strategically deployed by her legal team showing her without makeup and burdened by a hideous neck contraption, the most recent medical complication said to bedevil Arroyo did not gain for her much public sympathy. But the former President seemed willing to stick to the act, to play the part of an invalid in need of compassion, to allow herself to be defined by infirmity and supreme indignity in the public eye if, in return, it would buy her time to fudge, dodge, or simply stonewall the processes of accountability arising from misdeeds in her nine-year stay in office.
Nevertheless, it took only a whiff of a fighting chance in court for Arroyo to snap out of the pose and belie the sickbed charade she’s had to put on all these months. Her unexpected legal victory appears not only to have miraculously healed her of a litany of ailments she had proffered as excuses to stay in hospital confinement instead of a jail cell while under indictment. It has also apparently emboldened her to ditch the dreary hospital-gown motif and resume wearing the garb that’s more organic to her person: the politician’s hide.
Arroyo’s camp has announced that she’s running for a second term as representative of the second district of Pampanga. Unmentioned in the announcement, of course, is her illness, or the inconvenient fact that, due to her prolonged “hospital arrest,” she has been an absentee representative of her constituents for much of her first term. But would her camp care? Arroyo, after all, got her seat with the barest of effort, after her son Mikey, in the best tradition of nepotistic family franchises, relinquished the post to her. How would a supposedly sick Arroyo campaign? She may not even have to.
In an ideal environment, someone disgraced by plausible accusations of plunder and corruption—and without compunction to feign sickness to avoid facing charges—would be laughed out of the campaign trail by the populace. But this is the Philippines, where certain voters have chosen for their representatives the likes of a cult leader found guilty of murder or a convicted child rapist. So why not a former President—the very picture of stern hauteur in her time—who, whenever needed, morphs into a drama queen?