Arroyo and Park: The Nations behind the Women
Photo Credit: CNN
By Andrea Chloe Wong

Arroyo and Park: The Nations behind the Women

Sep. 10, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Their similarities are quite remarkable. Both are daughters of former heads of state, and their political pedigrees befitted their status in history. They initially enjoyed overwhelming public support and became their countries’ female heads of state — rare political occurrences that defied their patriarchal societies. Eventually, both were charged with corruption, bribery, and electoral fraud that marked their tumultuous presidencies and resulted in divisions within their nations.


The conspicuous resemblance of South Korea’s Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) and the Philippines’ Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2009) is eerily apparent as they dominated domestic news headlines in recent months. Yet the subsequent events after they stepped down from their presidencies reveal a striking difference that is equally remarkable. In July, Park was sentenced to eight years in prison for abusing state funds and violating election laws. This was in addition to her 24-year prison term imposed by the court last April over a massive corruption scandal, which led to her impeachment in March 2017. Meanwhile, Arroyo was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives by her colleagues last July. Her election was generally perceived as a surprising political comeback, despite nationwide disapproval with several coup and impeachment attempts against her presidency.


Such contrasts in their political fates reveals much about the nations they represent. On the one hand, Park’s political rise to power as the first female president of South Korea was considered a welcome sign of progress, given that the country has one of the highest levels of gender inequality among the developed world. Eventually, her fall from grace was brought about by allowing her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to interfere in state affairs and accept bribes from local conglomerates. Her consequent impeachment from office reflects an angered yet empowered nation that demanded punitive actions against government misconduct.


On the other hand, Arroyo’s political rise to power was initially regarded as a promising prospect towards effective governance, a sharp contrast from her predecessor Joseph Estrada’s scandal-ridden administration (1998-2001). She first became president after a people power movement that ousted Estrada. Arroyo was eventually elected for a full six-year term in office amid accusations of cheating and influencing elections results to her favour. In the end, she concluded her term as one of the most unpopular presidents of the country, second only to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. However, this was considered merely a temporary setback as she later ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives. Recently, her astonishing resurrection as a political force indicates a vulnerable nation that has been held hostage to the vicious greed for power among its leaders and which has grown accustomed to witnessing impunity among its officials.


The parallel controversies surrounding Park and Arroyo also point to the similar political cultures of South Korea and the Philippines. Both countries highlight personality-based politics that eclipse policies and favor loyalty to the leader and not the party. This was evident in the conflict between the pro-Park and anti-Park factions in her own party regarding her impeachment, as well as the revival of Arroyo’s political career facilitated by her supporters despite her questionable reputation. Both countries also feature democracies led by self-perpetuating oligarchies in politics and business. This was apparent in the bribery and influence peddling in government by local conglomerates, as well as the politically controversial solicitation of campaign funds by officials.  


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 than in 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 for them only to be 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 that it has risen above its tragic war and massive poverty in the past to become the economic powerhouse it is today. The Philippines meanwhile has only muddled through one political crisis after another, revealing its fragile institutions that remain perplexing for a country that prides itself with its successful people power movements and long-held democratic ideals.

The current political trends in South Korea and the Philippines — as symbolized by the recent images of their former female presidents — will certainly impact the efficacy of democracy and the effectiveness of their governments.

South Korea’s judicial system remains apolitical and has so far been successful in prosecuting and penalizing its top leaders for corruption. Aside from Park, former President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) was also arrested last March on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and tax evasion. Despite having corrupt officials, the country nonetheless demands strict leadership accountability that has imbibed a strong sense of honour and integrity among its people in public office. Such expectation was apparent in the 2009 suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) amid a bribery scandal. In his suicide note, he admitted that the scandal made him “lose face” and had tarnished his reputation.


In contrast, the Philippines has a politicized legal institution that dispenses justice depending on the prerogative of the people currently in power. Despite the multiple charges against her for plunder and electoral sabotage, Arroyo was acquitted by the country’s Supreme Court in 2016. She was immediately released from her four-year detention under hospital arrest since 2012. Her controversial acquittal was regarded as a political move instigated by President Rodrigo Duterte. He has earlier declared that once he became president, he would pardon Arroyo whom he considered as his good friend. Such a pronouncement reeks of the politicization of the legal system that renders it vulnerable to implicit manipulation and influence. 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 as the fourth highest official reveals most Filipino politicians’ disregard for the principles of leadership accountability and delicadeza or the “sense of propriety” expected of them. The audacity of Arroyo pursuing a lower office during her twilight years after already becoming an unpopular and divisive president, speaks volumes of her thirst for power and the crooked political system that enabled it.


For established democracies that previously experienced dictatorship and martial law, the similar issues polarizing South Korea and the Philippines are noteworthy. Both nations share escalating grievances, public disillusionment against their governments, and political malaise characterized by a privileged plutocracy, weak party systems, and patronage politics. However, their differences in terms of political institutions and leadership accountability is particularly distressing for the Philippines.


As both countries share familiar experiences of corruption from one president after another, expectations are high among their people for political transformation and good governance. The convenient tendency is to pin their hopes on new leaders who promise overnight salvation from political immorality. In South Korea, former president Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) was elected for his widely popular anti-corruption campaign, following his predecessor Roh Tae-woo’s (1988-1993) illicit activities while in office. In the Philippines, former president Corazon Aquino (1986-1992) rose to the top leadership after the “People Power” movement that overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986). Yet despite these leadership transitions, succeeding presidents in both countries were not immune to disgraceful exits. In some cases, they were considered more corrupt than the leaders they replaced and even revived the very same practices they had promised to reform. In spite of the promises of change, both nations have faced repeated corruption scandals in varying versions of unashamed craftiness by different presidential administrations.


It will be interesting to observe how the current leaders of both nations will fare in terms of honesty, accountability, and transparency in their administrations. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in carries the weight of public expectations to restrain the informal networks that have intruded into politics and inhibit the collusion of government and business. Following the “imperial presidency” of his predecessors, Moon is expected to embody integrity in order to restore his people’s trust in government. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte also bears his nation’s high anticipation for change. Perhaps out of misery and desperation, those who elected Duterte may have desired for such change regardless of the manner it is achieved. The continued mass support he enjoys despite his autocratic tendencies indicates a nation that is so resentful of the old democratic order that it is willing to take a risk on a budding dictator. Indeed, the rest of Moon and Duterte’s presidential terms will be critical in evaluating how South Korea and the Philippines will cope in their pursuit for good governance.  

While both countries are expected to look ahead, the remnants of their political pasts still linger on. The current political trends in South Korea and the Philippines — as symbolized by the recent images of their former female presidents — will certainly impact the efficacy of democracy and the effectiveness of their governments. While Koreans relish the spectacle of a condemned Park in prison handcuffs, Filipinos resent the sight of a resurrected Arroyo with the House gavel in hand. In these contexts, the former implies that justice is served, whereas 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 in both countries, their abundant experiences in dealing with political scandals involving their disgraced presidents can spell the difference between optimism and cynicism regarding the future of their nations.   

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