The 2001 elections

The immediate challenge facing the Arroyo government is not whether it can produce a 13-0 sweep in the current senatorial race, but whether it can conduct credible and orderly elections under conditions of heightened political tension.  In the eyes of the world, this is the real test of its viability as a government.

In a span of only six months, we have gone through at least four wrenching political episodes.  In December, we impeached a sitting president on charges of corruption, a first in our history.  The aborted trial became a sensation on national television.  In January, through a non-violent people power uprising, we forced a democratically elected president to step down from office.

Then we did what was previously regarded unthinkable: we arrested and detained the same person who, just 3 months before, had been the country’s most powerful official.  In the aftermath of this historic arrest, the supporters of the deposed president boiled in self-pity and fury over five nights of inflammatory and seditious speeches.  On May Day, they exploded in a reckless early morning siege on the presidential palace, hoping to turn the military and the rest of the nation against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Now, two weeks later, having survived a “state of rebellion,” we expect everyone to simmer down and settle the score at the polling precinct as if everything had been just a bad night?

That we can at all contemplate holding elections under these circumstances is in itself incredible.  We are either incurable optimists, ever trusting in the healing power of rituals, or we have not fully understood what we are going through.  Or both.

This is the story of our gradual awakening to the power of politics as a tool for social transformation.  Before this, law and politics for us were objects of awe and reverence rather than active tools of the collective life.  We went through the rituals of elections and of formal government without understanding what they were supposed to achieve.  That is because they were not our own invention; we copied them from our colonial masters and to this day we are still trying to reconcile them to our cultural sensibility.

Ferdinand Marcos made the first decisive break from this colonial legacy when he staged a coup on his own government in 1972 and used the emergency powers of the presidency to create what he called a “new society.”  He hijacked an ongoing constitutional convention, and caused the writing of a constitution that would give him all the powers he needed to reinvent Philippine society.  That experiment ended dismally.  Absolute power corrupted Marcos absolutely.

The dark years of Martial Law became fertile ground for a revolutionary social movement.  The gathering force of the revolution threatened to get rid not just of Marcos but of the entire infrastructure of elite rule.  Ferment was also taking place among the young officers of the Armed Forces.  Their orientation was not so much socialist as it was nationalist, and their preferred model was not a popular revolution but a putsch.  In such a setting, the middle classes found themselves torn: they feared revolution and military rule as much as they detested the Marcos dictatorship.  The assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983 gave them a hero, and an alternative to a violent revolution.

The funeral march of two million people that accompanied Ninoy to his grave was the first expression of people power.  Those numbers were mobilized in the snap election campaign for Cory, and they showed up at Edsa again in 1986. The revolutionary Left chose to stay away from Edsa, leaving the political stage completely to the awakened middle classes.  Thus was the first people power born.

The young military officers wanted a share of political power. Having launched a failed coup against Marcos, they thought they had earned it.  When they could not get it from the new government, they launched seven coup attempts against it.  With the Left and the military out of the picture, the old political elite and land-based oligarchy were soon restored to their pre-Martial Law glory.  The centuries-old problems of poverty and social inequality that filled the radical agenda were as a result swept aside.

It was then that Erap came into the picture.  In 1998, he successfully tapped the dormant resentments of the poor against elitist rule and captured the presidency.  But he had no program nor vision for the poor.  He was just a small-time politician with a huge appetite for money.

Erap’s political allies and supporters could not accept his summary ouster by people power.  They tried to restore him by the legal route, but the Supreme Court rebuffed them twice.  On May 1st, they tried their own version of people power. But at the crucial hour, the leaders abandoned the masses and opened them to a massacre.  Once again, they failed to win the heart and mind of the nation.

But they have kept their electoral options open, and that’s where we are today.  If they win, they will likely use their positions to nullify People Power II.  If they lose, they will cry fraud, and move on to Plan B, whatever that may be.  Election 2001 may well be a trigger for another attempt at a so-called “Edsa 3”.  The Arroyo government now realizes that the only way to prevent them from again exploiting the legitimate grievances of the poor is by acts of reconciliation with the poor.  There is no way to do that now other than by radically revising the goals and priorities of government.  Lito Lapid cannot do that for Ate Glo.  Time is running out fast.

It is drizzling outside, but an eerie stillness surrounds us.  We know we are in the middle of a storm.


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