It all began with troubling images of the way the presidency was being conducted. President Joseph Estrada, elected by a popular vote in 1998, was carrying on as if he was intentionally showing his contempt for formal institutions, the very structures from which he drew his authority.
Complaining of aching knees, he stopped going to his office at the main building of the palace, a short walk from the presidential residence. He started to hold important meetings in the living room of the presidential quarters, where his intimate buddies mixed freely with top ministers of the state. The boundaries that separated the private from the public, the personal from the official, were dissolved. The Cabinet was assimilated into the Estrada household, where the gambler Atong Ang could rub shoulders with legislators and business contractors in what seemed like a natural conflation of identities.
Estrada knew from the start that he did not have the more educated middle and upper classes on his side. This did not bother him at all. He treated it as a theme in the script that history gave to him. He was content to see himself as the president of the poor, the equalizer who would lift them from their misery. He came at the right time: the country had just gone through a phenomenal period of growth, but the poor were left behind.
Had he remained faithful to his populist role and had he used the awesome powers of the presidency to correct the great imbalances that characterize our society, Estrada would have remained president for a long time. But his pro-poor program was nothing more than just another performance. When its substantive requirements clashed with the private interests of his patrons and friends, he behaved no differently from other self-seeking politicians, who are always repaying debts or giving out favors in exchange for a commission.
The ironic thing is that there was nothing extraordinary in what Estrada was doing. Nearly all the presidents of this country before him have been suspected of corrupt or inappropriate behavior at some point during their term. Yet no one came close to being impeached. The big difference is that they were all discreet and legally circumspect, while Erap seemed to draw extra pleasure from flaunting the various ways in which he could make illegal things possible by his power. A new generation saw this and would no longer suffer it.
Today when we look back to the events that culminated in Edsa II, we usually cite the crucial revelations made by Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson about jueteng payoffs to the former president. But to zero in on this item alone is to trivialize these events and to overlook the social conditions that made possible the surge of popular energy that we remember today as Edsa II. These conditions are exactly what keep the present discourse on governance alive.
It is worth keeping this in mind when we interpret the mandate of Edsa II. This is not just about gambling lords paying protection money to a president. Nor is it about the moral issue of a head of state building palatial mansions for his mistresses. Nor is it about an alcoholic president who is sober only from noontime. This is rather about the awakening of a new generation of Filipinos who have become conscious of the need to change the way we live as a nation if we are to survive the challenges of an increasingly complex world.
It is not an accident that those who came to Edsa II were mostly young students and professionals in their formative years. Through the Internet and satellite television, and from the accounts of their relatives working abroad, they know what is happening in the rest of the world. They are aware that out there is a very competitive and highly challenging world. They do not reject that world. They want to be a part of it, without having to leave their country.
Edsa II is this generation’s urgent plea to reorganize ourselves, update our institutions, develop our human resources, and rededicate ourselves to our heroes’ dream of an independent and confident nation before the imperatives of capitalist globalization overtake and drown us. Today we know that this cannot be achieved under a national leadership that governs the nation as if it is business as usual. It is clear that we can no longer afford to drift, because even if we don’t drown, we would be swept by the tide to an isolated corner, there to wallow in our insecurities and irrelevant resentments.
Our young people refuse to accept a future without hope. They believe we are a gifted nation run by misguided and clueless leaders. They have seen how bad governance wastes the talent and imagination of our people by forcing upon them a life built on shortterm coping. They are confident that we can do better, but only if we begin to see our situation in a different light.
Our horizons are very short; we seem unable to plan beyond one administration. We allow periodic elections to define change for us, confining ourselves to a change of faces, oblivious of the mindboggling revolutions that are already taking place in various areas of human existence. We cling to old beliefs and practices, fearful that embracing the new might erase our identities.
But most of all, in our panic, we tend to go for the conventional solutions even before we have agreed what the problems are. Shall we go parliamentary, unicameral, and federal? Something tells me we are operating from different assumptions. Can we begin by asking why our present institutions are not working as they should?
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