The twin sagas of PH’s Arroyo and Sokor’s Park
Their similarities are quite remarkable. Both are daughters of former heads of state. They initially enjoyed overwhelming public support and became their countries’ female heads of state, a rare political occurrence that defied their patriarchal societies.
Eventually, both were similarly charged with corruption, bribery and electoral fraud, leading to tumultuous presidencies.
The conspicuous resemblance between South Korea’s Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) and the Philippines’ Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2009) is eerily apparent. Yet the subsequent events after they stepped down from their presidencies reveal a difference that is equally remarkable.
In July, Park was sentenced to an additional eight years on top of her 24-year prison term for violating election law and abusing state funds. In the same month, Arroyo was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives—a development that was widely perceived as a surprising political comeback, given her massive unpopularity as president.
The parallel controversies surrounding Park and Arroyo point to similar political cultures. South Korea and the Philippines highlight a personality-based politics that eclipses policies and favors loyalty to the leader and not to the party. They also feature a democracy led by self-perpetuating oligarchies represented by the symbiotic relationship between politics and business. Moreover, both nations share patronage politics and privileged plutocracies, as well as public disillusionment against the government.
However, what explains the divergent destinies of Park and Arroyo is the relative stability of institutions and the higher sense of accountability in South Korea compared to the Philippines. While South Korea has managed to put its leaders in prison, the Philippines has only managed to take legal actions against its corrupt officials, who are then usually pardoned or acquitted by a politically biased judicial system.
South Korea has at least managed to transcend its political divisions with reliable institutions, in the same manner it has risen above its previous war and poverty to become the economic powerhouse it is today. The Philippines, meanwhile, has only muddled through one political crisis after another, revealing the fragile state of its institutions. That is a perplexing reality for a country that prides itself on its successful people power movements and long-held democratic ideals.
South Korea’s judicial system remains apolitical and, so far, has been successful in prosecuting and penalizing the country’s top leaders. Aside from Park, former president Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) was arrested in March on charges of bribery, embezzlement and tax evasion. The country has also imbibed a strong sense of honor and integrity among people in public office. Such expectation was apparent in the 2009 suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), amid a bribery scandal that made him “lose face” and tarnished his reputation.
In contrast, the Philippines has highly politicized legal institutions that dispense justice depending on the prerogative of people currently in power. Arroyo was acquitted by the country’s Supreme Court in 2016 and was immediately released from her four-year hospital arrest. This was widely perceived as a political move instigated by President Duterte, who had earlier declared that, once he became president, he would pardon Arroyo. Such a pronouncement reeks of the politicization of the legal system, which renders it vulnerable to influence-peddling. It is this institutional weakness that emboldens officials to brazenly carry on with their political careers as if their criminal charges never existed.
Arroyo’s political resurrection reveals most Filipino politicians’ disregard for the principles of leadership accountability and the sense of “delicadeza” expected of them. The audacity of Arroyo pursuing a lower office during her twilight years after being a divisive president speaks volumes of her thirst for power—and the crooked political system that continues to enable it.
Such interesting contrasts in these two female leaders’ political fates reveal much about the nations they represent. On the one hand, Park’s political rise to power and fall from grace reflect an angered yet empowered nation that demanded punitive actions against government misconduct. Arroyo’s rise, fall and return to power, on the other hand, manifests a vulnerable nation that is already accustomed to witnessing greed and impunity among its officials.
As both countries share familiar experiences of corruption, expectations are high among their people for political transformation and good governance. The convenient tendency is to pin their hopes on successive leaders promising overnight salvation from political immorality.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in carries the weight of public expectations to limit the collusion of government and businesses. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte also bears his nation’s high anticipation for change. Perhaps out of misery and desperation, those who elected Mr. Duterte may have desired for this “change” to happen regardless of the manner it is achieved.
Yet, despite these leadership transitions, the two are not immune to the old political order. They may also end up reviving the very same practices they hope to reform, and may face scandals of their own in varying versions of unashamed craftiness. Indeed, the rest of Moon and Duterte’s presidential terms will be critical in evaluating how they will pursue transparency and accountability in their administrations.
While both countries are expected to look ahead, the remnants of their political past linger on. The recent images of South Korea and the Philippines’ female political legends are telling signs of their political prospects. While Koreans relish the spectacle of a condemned Park in prison handcuffs, many Filipinos resent the sight of a resurrected Arroyo with the House gavel in hand. In these contexts, the former implies that justice has been served, while the latter suggests that justice can be bought (or bargained for).
Such opposite realities depict a positive development for South Korea and an alarming decline for the Philippines, in terms of their political institutions and their regard for leadership accountability. While cronyism and corruption will linger on, how the two countries deal with their disgraced presidents, and their succeeding leaders, can spell the difference between being optimistic or cynical about the future of their nations.
Andrea Chloe Wong previously worked as a foreign affairs researcher and college lecturer in the Philippines. She is taking her PhD studies in New Zealand.
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