State of the post-Marcos nation

When President Joseph Estrada delivers his State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) at the opening of Congress tomorrow, he will be describing what, in effect, is the condition of the country 12 years after Edsa.  His unstated point of reference will not be the last year of Ramos, but the last decade after Marcos.  The subtext of his SONA will not be so much the nation he receives from Ramos, but the nation he inherits from the custodians of Edsa.

What he will find from such a review is a country that doubled its foreign debt since Marcos despite the fact that debt service was the biggest item in its yearly budget, a society that failed in its promise to alleviate poverty despite extravagant claims to economic growth, and a regime that left a huge gaping hole in its budget despite the massive sale of public assets.  What Erap will find is a social order that spawned its own cronies who helped themselves to generous shares of behest loans despite government’s repeated boast of a level economic playing field.

The new president will find a nation debilitated by corruption everywhere, a total negation of Edsa’s promise of a future without fixers and rent capitalists.  He will find a political system mired in patronage, in cynical wheeling and dealing, where public funds are routinely used to purchase political loyalty in the name of consensusbuilding and to reimburse candidates’ election expenses in the name of countrywide development.  He will find a population as destitute as before, and programs for the poor that never went beyond showcase tokenism and high-profile projects.

In short, Erap will spell out for the nation the record of a regime that fared no better morally and politically than the one it denounced and replaced.   It is a sad tale full of lessons for other societies now in the throes of their own transition from authoritarianism.  One wishes it were told in full detail by any of Edsa’s heroes rather than by one who took no part in its celebrations.  For such a story deserves to be told honestly, its message uncontaminated by resentment or a wish for vindication.   It could have been told by a Pepe Diokno, a Chino Roces, or a Lorenzo Tanada, if our political culture were different.

It is unfortunate that the story of the failed regimes after Edsa has to be told by Erap, who is identified with Marcos, who ran with Danding Cojuangco, and who has appointed to key positions persons who once ruled the country with Marcos.  This association can only pollute the truths of Edsa.  Everything that Erap has to say about the regimes of Edsa will be heard as nothing but triumphalist noise, an attempt to restore the integrity of the Marcos past by calling into question the integrity of the Aquino and Ramos past. Thus we learn nothing from our experience that we can weave into the fabric of our active national life.

Yet it should hardly surprise anyone with a little political sense that the Aquino and Ramos regimes would breed their own cronies, and that they would deploy the full force of the law selectively, targeting mainly political enemies.  It should not surprise anyone that corruption would continue to be a standard feature of public service in both post-Edsa administrations.  For the Edsa revolution did not change the fundamental character of our political life.  It ushered in new rulers, but not a new ethic of governance.  Political power remained in the hands of the few, a mechanism of private enrichment than a tool of social development.

President Erap has the opportunity to dismantle the infrastructure of elite politics that has consigned the majority of our people to a marginal existence.  His mandate from the masses who made him president is to reverse the elitism of public life and the greed and selfishness on which it feeds.  It is, most certainly, not to help restore the Marcos elite to their former glory.  It is to give justice first of all to the small Filipino who has been oppressed by successive governments of the oligarchy.

For Erap to be an effective champion of mass politics, he has to free himself from the tenacious grip of elitist politics.  He will have to stop paying political debts, and to refuse to use the power of his office on behalf of any political patron.  He has to remain focused on programs that empower the masses or equalize opportunities for the underprivileged.  He must choose his battles well, and not waste the prestige and power of the presidency on issues that only resonate intra-elite rivalries.  He must do what he can in the six years he has been given, never entertaining any thought of remaining in power beyond his current term either by reelection or by the succession of a clone.

Beyond the concern for budgetary deficits, the burdensome public debt, non-performing behest loans, graft and corruption, and rising crime rates – Erap, precisely because he became president by its route, might pay more attention to culture than his predecessors.  He must look upon culture as the basis of a nation’s morale and selfesteem, the mortar of national unity.  As a president with a background in the arts, he can give flesh to the constitutional provision that mandates the State to “foster the preservation, enrichment, and dynamic evolution of a Filipino national culture based on the principle of unity in diversity in a climate of free artistic and intellectual expression.”

We are a young nation; it is easy to dismiss the cultural intangibles and lose ourselves in the urgent business of economic growth and political survival.  A new president can dare to be different.


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