The battle for truth and accountability has captivated the nation. The days of the administration are numbered, or so the soothsayers say. And then what?
There is a lesson to be learned from the differences in the People Power revolutions of 1986 and 2001. There is a reason why the numbers then were massive and why the numbers now continue to decline. There is a reason why, if another People Power movement will overthrow the current regime, we must be ready for the consequences.
In 1986, Cory Aquino was denied her victory in a snap election against Ferdinand Marcos. The discrepancy between the COMELEC and NAMFREL results compelled our people to exert their will and declare Cory Aquino the winner through a nonviolent revolution that lasted from February 22 to 25. Cory Aquino’s victory was a statement against Marcosian politics and the incumbent’s forged victory provided the gun that triggered People Power.
Forward to 2001. When the eleven senators blocked the opening of the second envelope, people rushed to the streets to decry the suppression of the truth. People — particularly the upper middle class and the elite — have long felt stymied by the Estrada regime and thus they showed no quarter in EDSA. By January 20, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sworn in as the President of the Philippines.
The fundamental difference is in the impetus for People Power. A frustrated democratic election led to 1986; anti-Estrada sentiment birthed 2001. Through this impetus, we determine the importance of our institutions and in effect, the over-all quality of our democracy.
The 1986 revolution declared that institutions matter. Marcos had virtually fused all governmental powers into the executive; he was judge, jury and executioner. Our political institutions were non-existent and corruption was rife. In a stroke of hubris, Marcos called for snap elections to solidify his support, and this provided our people a window to announce that their voices matter in this democracy. Thus, Cory Aquino is heralded as an icon of Philippine democracy for good reason. Her usurpation of Ferdinand Marcos was a restoration of our institutions and our fundamental belief in a government for the people and by the people. It wasn’t perfect, but it was our democracy to lose.
The 2001 revolution declared that institutions don’t matter. Indeed, President Estrada allowed for Marcos-style cronyism in his government though he did not pervert the system in a similar style. What led people to EDSA that year was strong anti-Estrada sentiment spurned by an over-extended televised impeachment trial and amplified by what was then the relatively new text messaging technology. Estrada called for snap elections in May wherein he wouldn’t run, but that didn’t matter to everyone. People were just so sick of Estrada and believed that a massive protest in EDSA was democratic enough to swear in a new President who would otherwise not win a straight-up electoral contest. Through Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo we declared that democracy could be destroyed in order to save it. It seemed perfect, but then we’ve already lost our democracy. We did not replace or heal the decaying system in 2001; we accelerated its decline and legitimized the transactional politics that brought to and keeps Macapagal-Arroyo in power.
Therefore, it does not surprise me that today Randy David writes that we have a “Bonfire of institutions”. To wit,
The damage to government institutions has been the most extensive. Far from being a neutral arbiter of disputes and a source of normative stability, the justice system has become a weapon to intimidate those who stand up to power. Far from being a pillar of public security, the military and the police have become the private army of a gangster regime. Instead of serving as an objective referee in electoral contests, the Commission on Elections has become a haven for fixers who deliver fictitious votes to the moneyed and the powerful. Instead of serving as the steady backbone of public service through successive changes in administration, the government bureaucracy has been turned into a halfway house for political lackeys, misfits and the corrupt. Instead of serving as a check on presidential power, the House of Representatives has become its hired cheering squad.
The erosion of these institutions, no doubt, has been going on for a long time. But their destruction in the last seven years under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency has been the most comprehensive since 1986. This is due not only to the particular gifts of Ms Arroyo as a politician — her survival instincts, her callousness, her readiness to set aside higher goals and principles for short-term personal gains. It is also due to the peculiar confluence of events that attended her rise to the presidency.
What will 2008 be like however? Will it be another 1986 where we breathed new life into our institutions? Or will it be another 2001 where we destroy our democracy in order to save it? It really depends on what happens next.
I can only see a 1986 scenario arising with the death of Jun Lozada. This may sound like a cold and calloused thing to say, but only that event — or any event with an equivalent impact but nothing else comes close to mind right now (Neri perhaps?) — can force an end game between the government and its opponents. Jun Lozada’s immersion in the spotlight as a symbol of truth and freedom is endearing him to our people. He brings a powerful, positive message which an administration built on suppression and coercion must be so tempted to quell — but they can’t.
There is no doubt that death of Jun Lozada (and the scary part is that it doesn’t matter who kills him) will be blamed squarely on the government. This will bring anti-government forces out of hiding, provoking a potentially bloody confrontation with a well-armed Palace. Such a conflict can only be a war of attrition (the Palace will bankroll its allies as long as it can) and it will only be a matter of time before the Palace falls to another mass uprising.
On the other hand, a 2001 scenario can only happen if all the various anti-GMA forces now (civil society, Church groups, student groups, interest groups) coalesce into a massive force. But not just that, the military, the police and the cabinet would all have to defect and support the uprising as well. However, how do we get there? That’s the tricky part. Right now, I can see the uprising happen but not the defection. They’re paid too well. Not even a ‘second envelope scenario’ may provoke a reversal of faith since, in reality, the Macapagal-Arroyo style of politics is purely transactional: I scratch your back, you scratch mine. The loyalty of the military, the police and the cabinet all go to the highest bidder. To beat Arroyo, someone else will have to pay them off, but who?
It is for this reason that if you’ll ask me to choose between the 1986 and the 2001 scenario, I’d go with the 1986. Either way, a high price will have to be paid but I would rather go for the instance where democracy can be saved. But isn’t there another way? With all the talk of “a new brand of People Power” and People Power being “an on-going process of renewal”, what would the People Power of 2008 look like?
I may not be in the business of predicting the future, but I have two possible scenarios in mind. First is what I call the reform route (which hinges on a lot of currently known factors) and second is the revolution route (which requires greater suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader).
First, the reform route.
It all begins with what we’re already doing: rallies and mass-uprisings, no matter how small, must be consistent. Barring a traumatic event that would send our population to the streets, there won’t be a mass movement in the scale of 1986. Nonetheless, the campaign for truth and accountability has the potential to motivate small but focused groups for the long-term. Jun Lozada is a clear rallying point. These smaller demonstrations would be like mosquitoes flitting outside the President’s ear, and thus we should all be persistent in our calls for better governance.
These groups however, must begin with modest goals. Though we can keep the President’s resignation on the horizon, we should remain vigilant towards the smaller things which the government has long assumed we take for granted such as safeguarding the due process, protecting state witnesses, and demanding greater transparency. But in being vigilant, we wait for them to slip-up. Lozada’s case has shown us how they can. Catching them red-handed can provide the impetus for greater and more drastic calls such as snap elections and ultimately, resignation.
If President GMA makes it as far as 2010, the elections that year will be the last straw. Any attempts to frustrate the elections will definitely be met by a massive protest. In that event, a People Power movement to safeguard the vote will be legitimate since the uprising is done to protect institutions, not squander them.
This extended vigilance can then extend into the next regime, bringing in more participants into our political processes, thus potentially changing the face of Philippine politics for the long-term.
Second, the revolution route.
I will jump the gun a bit and say that the President is forced to resign. Let’s just say that a traumatic event sends our people to the streets, critical mass is achieved, and everyone starts calling it People Power III or IV — depends on how you count. (It’s really IV, by the way.)
There is only one way for this to go nicely and not by way of 2001: Vice-President Noli de Castro should take over (we can’t afford to take any more extra-constitutional shortcuts) and call for snap elections. If that isn’t possible then he should be a hold-over President until 2010 or the soonest he can hold elections. It is imperative that elections that year take place. Do we deprive Noli of the chance to run? Of course not. It’s well within his right and we have historical precedent for that (for what good that has done us).
No matter what happens however, the vigilance of the various civil society groups in the reform scenario must be sustained here as well especially when elections take place. The battle for truth and accountability must translate into a battle for the sanctity of the ballot. Hopefully then we can say that whoever is elected deserves to be, and that in turn we get the leaders we finally deserve.
These are just two of the simplest People Power scenarios I can conjure at the moment. I definitely have a more detailed proposal that requires political reform but one that clearly isn’t possible under the current regime nor in our political culture for at least the next fifteen years.
At this point, regime change is imperative for any true reform to take place. My only concern is that our institutions need to remain intact, and that the impetus for any People Power movement is indeed democratic. We can’t afford to break what is already broken. That realization, perhaps, is the direst consequence of our current quest for truth.