People power as utopian politics

The first time it happened in 1986, we stood in total awe of its amazing qualities – its swiftness, its passion, its strength and its restraint.  We did not think it was possible for a people that had stood so helplessly before a dictator for 14 years to summon enough will and grace to free itself so suddenly, so decisively, and yet so nonviolently.

Serious students of politics could not believe that people power was not just another word for revolution or a coup.  It was definitely not in the vocabulary of political science.  Elections, revolutions, military coups, and insurgencies were. Those who understood it as a revolutionary moment expected the process to unfold further until it swept away the foundations of the old order.  Those who saw it as a coup began preparing for a long season of counter-coups, banana republic-style, until a new regime could stabilize and legitimize its rule.

What followed after People Power I contradicted these expectations. The aftermath was anything but revolutionary; in fact it paved the way for the return of the old system of elite democracy that Marcos’s martial law had tried to bury.  We know this was farthest from the minds of those who joined People Power I.  But because political power remained securely in the hands of the elite, and in the absence of a new vision and new leaders that could guide the re-invention of the nation, the energy of People Power I was quickly contained and placed at the disposal of conservative forces.

But the romance of utopian politics as symbolized by people power has remained in the consciousness of Filipinos.  No longer do they think of politics and government as completely subordinate to the imperatives of constitutional law or to the necessities of political science.  They no longer think of nationhood as destiny but as a project.  They think of the Filipino nation not as a historical given, but as a living family struggling to stay together, and hoping to become strong and prosperous if its members could agree on a common vision, and work hard to achieve it.

This desire to stay together almost at any cost, a basic characteristic of our culture, defines as well the ethic of our national life.  As a people, we turn away from absolutist solutions.  We seldom draw clear and categorical lines between what is legal and what is illegal, what is permitted and what is prohibited, or what is moral and immoral.  We cut off ties only temporarily.  We expect time to heal personal and social wounds.  We are more inclined to find a route to reconciliation than to pursue justice to its logical end.

But the formal institutional framework of our society demands a different sensibility. Separation of powers and due process are vital principles of our political order. No one is above the law.  There is only one set of laws, and it applies equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. We like to remind ourselves that we are a government of laws rather than of men, in ironic recognition of our contrary nature.

This framework is alien to our homegrown sensibility, and so we have spent a good part of the last one hundred years trying to adjust one to the other.  We bend the law to accommodate culture, and we reweave our culture to create some space for the law.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not.  Until we find a suitable formula that can bridge the gap between law and culture, between the nation’s constitution and our people’s collective conscience, our quest for a better order will not end.

In 1972, Marcos saw the irrelevance to the requirements of a modernizing nation of a political system controlled by a land-based traditional oligarchy. With a view to jump-starting the country’s economic modernization, he short-circuited this system by declaring martial law.  The result was disastrous.  Authoritarian rule became instead the handmaiden of cronyism.

In 1986, people power overthrew Marcos in the hope of inaugurating a modern and democratic society.  But the only available templates were those from the old system of formal democracy run by a few. Twelve years later, in 1998, the strains and stresses spawned by this obsolete system made Joseph Estrada president.  A politician who personified the worst contradictions of the system, Estrada brought cronyism and patronage to a new level, thus showing the Filipino elite a caricature of their own rule.

Two and a half years into his 6-year term, People Power II got rid of this adventurer.  That dramatic event, a reprise of the romantic impulses of 1986, gives the nation a second chance to re-invent itself into a modern functioning democracy.  But two powerful currents challenge the spirit of People Power II.

The first comes from the same grizzled practitioners of patronage politics who got a new life after 1986 and now say that the key to stability is not to rock the boat.  Their trajectory is 2004. The second comes from the politicized poor, whom Estrada had unwittingly awakened, who demand their just share of the fruits of growth.  Their needs are so urgent and their anger so raw as to incline government once again to rely on the same dole-out approach that works in the short-term but perpetuates the old vicious culture of dependence and patronage.

Which way will Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo go? Forward or backward?


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