Government in the age of people power

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has warned against a repeat of the protest mass action that unfolded on April 25, 2001 and ended in the violent attack on Malacanang on the first day of May.  She says the same conspirators who planned “Edsa Tres” might try it again on June 26-27, the days set aside for the arraignment of former president Joseph Estrada for the crime of plunder.  She calls on the public to be vigilant and to help defend the government against those bent on destabilizing it.

The President’s immediate problem is to show that her government is worth defending.  In the age of people power, this is no longer to be taken for granted by any regime, least of all by one thrust into position by direct popular action.  The advent of people power has made mass popularity the principal standard of a government’s acceptability.  This is the downside of people power politics.

Despite her modernist wish to insulate government from the volatile pressures of populism, President Macapagal-Arroyo has had no choice in the last five months but to respond personally to the cacophony of threats from all sectors and levels of society.  They include practically everyone with an issue who can brandish the sword of “civil society.”

This reality has inclined her to want to be always where the action is, where the people are, and to deal directly with problems as they come.  She has taken on the Abu Sayyaf and matched their violence with doses of her own tough talk.  Setting aside threats to personal safety, she flew to Basilan to order the immediate rehabilitation of the town of Lamitan after it was destroyed in the failed attempt to encircle the bandits there.  She vowed to crush the conspirators who hatched Edsa Tres.  But seeing them as victims, she visited the ordinary folk who were arrested for their involvement in the siege on Malacanang and ordered their release.

This style of leadership has earned her some points as a hands-on, brave, and caring president, but she must know that the real test of leadership rests not on these rituals of power but on the ability to put together a coherent and pragmatic program for long-term social change.  We have yet to see this in GMA’s government.  In her effort to win that segment of the people identified with Erap, she has often tried to sound and act like Erap.  The country does not need another Erap; it demands a leader, not an actor.

It is good for the president to be accessible to various sectors of the public, but she must do so without appearing to undermine the very institutions and offices by which the complex business of government is conducted.  We must now begin the process of strengthening our institutions, making them less personalistic and more professional, more stable and less susceptible to the whims of the powerful.

The successful handling of the threat posed by the mob at Mendiola on May Day showed the basic discipline and unity of the Armed Forces and the police.  It also expressed the essential acceptance by the public of the new government, a fact that was unequivocally affirmed by the Supreme Court and reaffirmed by the results of the last elections.  It is true there may still be some stragglers out there who are unable to accept the legitimacy and reality of the Edsa Dos transition, and are even now plotting some mischief against the government.  But the government must not allow itself to be a hostage to these perennial threats.  Neither should the government act as if it is permanently beholden to those who imagine themselves to be its primary defenders.  It is time for President GMA to shed off her stance as a president under siege.

Certainly, this is not to say it should be business as usual for her. The events of the past few months would have told her that the nation expects nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way this country is to be run.  The post-war regimes that embodied the project of the elite successors of the colonial powers are finally coming to an end.  The social order they created can no longer sustain the mode of exploitation and exclusion to which the majority of the Filipino people have been subjected.  The excluded masses demand equal opportunity for a better life.  It is a legitimate and urgent demand that they are prepared to pursue in the realm of mass politics, even though its mode of articulation in Edsa Tres made it seem like it was nothing but the obsession of movie fans.

The aspirations of the masa who went to Edsa Tres are cut from the same fabric as the yearnings of the young people who formed the bulk of Edsa Dos.  Their common dream is of a government that will equip them with the skills and the resources that will enable them to live hopeful and productive lives.  The young people at Edsa Dos saw it as primarily a question of good governance; the poor at Edsa Tres saw it as mainly a question of social justice.  In a society like ours, these two visions are necessarily inter-linked.  You cannot have social justice without good governance, but, by the same token, you cannot call governance good if it excludes the vast majority who do not have the means to participate meaningfully in a market economy.

The president cannot afford to be seen as issuing a warning against the mass actions of the poor.  They are the people and they have valid demands. Let her rebuild our institutions and secure the future especially of those presently without hope.  She need not always be popular. She need not always lead the army against the enemies of government.  But let her policies manifest social justice and let her govern by example.  Then she would not need to worry about political survival.


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