D+C Development and Cooperation (No. 6, November/December 2001,
p. 21 - 22)
People Power in the Philippines
Civil Society between Protest and Participation
Emmalyn Liwag Kotte
The Philippines are a country with a strong civil society. Popular action brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the populist government of President Estrada. But NGO activists must draw a line between mass protests and active participation in government.
There was a time when shaking institutions was Edicio de la Torres notion of
maintaining democracy. The former Catholic priest co-founded the Christians for National Liberation in 1972, went underground and joined the communist revolutionary movement when Martial Law was declared in the Philippines by the late president Ferdinand Marcos. It was for such involvements that he earned two jail terms that spanned almost a decade under the erstwhile dictator.
But in a recent dialogue with development workers at the German Foundation for International Development (DSE) in Bonn, de la Torre earnestly defended his belief that democracy means strengthening institutions. It was for this belief that he refused to leave his government post under former president Joseph Estrada at a time when the latter was under siege for various corruption charges.
Edicio de la Torre was appointed by Estrada to serve as director of TESDA or Technical Education and Schools Development Authority. Prior to this post, he was executive director of the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that he co-founded in 1987.
Last year, he became the subject of much criticism from Manilas civil society circle as he refused to give up government service and ignored calls from former NGO colleagues to stop lending credibility to Estradas administration.
Reformers in government
Edicio de la Torre wanted to push for reforms and did not care whether it was inside or outside government institutions. He did not mind holding on to his post as long as he could continue promoting pro-poor reforms, he said.
Estrada had a popular appeal as a non-traditional politician and promised to prioritize anti-poverty programs at the beginning of his administration, thus winning the confidence of other prominent civil society leaders. Among his appointees were well respected reformers like Leonor Briones of Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) and Horacio Boy Morales, a former leader of the communist National Democratic Front and co-founder of IPD.
But it did not take long for observers to notice that it was impossible for such idealists to achieve major reforms inside Estradas mismanaged government. The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), in its report to the 56th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, noted that as of March last year, the Estrada administration continued to adopt a free-trade, export-oriented economic program for the Philippines. This program mainly consisted of trade liberalization, privatization of state services and utilities and deregulation of state functions. PAHRA further observed that contrary to Estradas pro-poor declarations, this growth formula meant the removal of protection for the small industries, support for indigent families, prohibitive costs of basic services and unemployment for many Filipinos.
Estrada did not only fail to deliver pro-poor reforms but also managed to turn off legitimate business investors with a leadership style that openly gave undue business advantages to a selected circle of personal friends and political allies. Reckless corruption led to his impeachment at the House of Representatives last January. In the Senate trial that followed, allies tried to manipulate evidence to his advantage and triggered a mass action that finally led to his ouster.
Two sides of People Power
Thousands of Filipinos gathered at EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the site of mass demonstrations that brought down Marcos in 1986) on January 17, 2001 for an all-night vigil that called for the ouster of Estrada. They believed that he was guilty of all four charges against him: bribery, graft and corruption, betrayal of public trust and violation of the constitution. Similar protests were held in other Metro Manila areas and the provinces.
Estradas administration collapsed on January 19 after the resignation of 11 cabinet secretaries and other important government officials. Encouraged by the broad range of civil society groups that campaigned for Estradas ouster, police and military officials soon withdrew their support from the beleaguered president. The Supreme Court then declared the presidency vacant and Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was sworn in as president.
This power turnover was hailed by many as a strong indication of the Philippines strong civil society movement. Declaring that the second demonstration of EDSA People Power was a triumph of civil society, veteran political commentator Amando Doronilla observed that the people, again asserting their sovereign right to withdraw their electoral mandate that had been betrayed by Estrada, brought about a change in leadership, while obeying the Constitution and making democracy work. The people acted to save a democracy that was subverted by an unworthy and corrupt leadership in an upheaval ignited by a spontaneous explosion of rage.
Two sides of People Power
But while weighing the merits of popular uprising as a method of changing a head of state, international observers took a rather cautionary stance. Time magazine, for example, warned that if 10 million text messages go out and 1 million protesters take to the streets at every crisis - when the elite become dissatisfied with the direction of the country, or the military feels that the President has lost his or her mandate or the Catholic church views the head of state as immoral - the result is a perfectly healthy, if rambunctious, version of democracy. But if those protests lead to constitutionally questionable successions, it becomes a subversion of democracy.
Indeed, it did not take long for the newly installed presidents opponents to use the so called People Power against her. A day after Joseph Estradas arrest on April 25, over 15,000 rallyists gathered at EDSA, this time calling for his release and demanding for the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The whole affair was simply a numbers game, speculated one of their leaders Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.
The number of pro-Estrada rallyists most of whom came from Manilas urban por communities was reported to have swelled to over 300,000 but that was not enough to sustain the power grab hatched by the new presidents opponents. The politicians who organized the uprising had conflicting interests and failed to win support from the military. And once again, civil society coalitions like Akbayan (Citizens Action Party) and Kompil II (Kongreso ng Mamamayang Pilipino) proved to be a crucial factor in the peaceful resolution of this political crisis. As reports circulated that Estrada loyalists were going to storm Malacañang (the presidential palace), these organizations immediately helped mobilize crowds that massed up in its defense.
Poverty threatens democracy
Now part of Gloria Macapagal Arroyos administration are former civil society leaders who played key roles in the ouster of Estrada. Among them are Corazon Dinky Soliman (former chairperson of Code NGO, the biggest coalition of NGOs around the country), who was given the post of Social Welfare Secretary and Teresita Ging Quintos-Deles, one of the founding leaders of the women NGO Filipina and executive director of the Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute who was appointed head of the National Anti-Poverty Commission. Both are directly tasked with managing the governments front-line agencies for poverty management.
Such appointments are well appreciated by civil society groups but government critics demand more drastic anti-poverty measures. Trickle-down economics-cum-paternalism and tokenism is no longer a viable strategy for appeasing the poor, observes Akbayan national chairman Walden Bello. His advise to the new president: If she wishes to mount an effective challenge to the formidable populism of Mr. Estrada, she must realise that a conditio sine qua non is her breaking with her Makati Business Club handlers and her UP School of Economics advisers, for these circles are locked into a losers strategy when it comes to addressing the masses central preoccupation: the rapid reduction of poverty and social inequality.
It has been observed however that recent decisions of Macapagal Arroyo are no indications that she took notice of the public consensus underscored by both People Power 2 and 3 - that addressing the issue of poverty is central to democracy.
A much citicized law privatising the National Power Corporation has been passed last June. This had been opposed for years by some legislators and government critics who say it will create powerful monopolies, cause power rates to go up and force taxpayers to shoulder debts - 480 billion pesos (US $ 9,430,255,402) worth of stranded liabilities, according to Akbayan party representative Etta Rosales. Instead of reducing poverty, this legislation will lead to increased unemployment, she said.
Walden Bello also views the appointment of former energy secretary Jose Camacho to lead the finance department as directly related to the priority that the administration has attached to the passage of the power reform bill, to which the country is being blackmailed by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Bello proposes a paradigm shift and advises the president to junk the conservative macroeconomic stabilisation strategy in favour of a strategy that puts massive poverty reduction at the centre of a programme of macroeconomic recovery.
Macapagal Arroyos response to such proposals and her administrations genuine cooperation with civil society organizations that brought her to power may bring about the much needed change that has been promised by Estrada to the impoverished mass of Filipinos who up to now irrationally continue to look at him as one of their own.
Radical anti-poverty measures
to placate the masses
Introduction of radical anti-poverty measures in her administration may redeem what de la Torre describes as the risk to future instability that was taken by the civil society forces behind People Power 2 in order to resolve the more immediate instability that was posed by Estradas inept presidency.
Failure to deliver such measures would mean having to deal with the poors disappointment and resentment that would have been directed at Estrada had he been given the chance to continue serving his term, says de la Torre. This would allow opportunistic politicians to continue exploiting that persisting challenge posed by Estradas popular image as a pro-poor symbol. They would always be able to manipulate the poor by stoking at their social grievances and turning them against the rich and the government whom they consider as cruel oppressors of their fallen prophet.
Edicio de la Torre also sees the urgency of introducing reforms in the new government to prevent another situation where the military should once again decide which people power would be allowed to succeed.
Emmalyn Liwag Kotte is a Philippine journalist
living in Germany. She also works for the Philippine magazine Tambuli in Bochum, Germany.
D+C Development and Cooperation,
published by: Deutsche Stiftung für internationale Entwicklung (DSE)
Editorial office, postal address:
D+C Development and Cooperation, P.O. Box, D-60268 Frankfurt, Germany.