The People Power Revolution of 1986 was in many ways a political emancipation. It not only freed us from a dictator; it also freed us from the notion that the only road to political power is by election. For all the moral meanings that shrouded it, people power was an extraconstitutional route to power. Its justification did not lie in law, unless one believed the “right” to rebel is implicit in every constitution, but in the moral force and political success of the act itself.
Some hoped to ground people power in law, by attempting to legalize Cory Aquino’s accession to the presidency through a review of the results of the snap election in which she had opposed Marcos. Ms. Aquino’s allies in the Batasan offered to correct the spurious count that Marcos claimed he had won. But her advisers saw this as a ploy to perpetuate those very structures by which the dictator tried to institutionalize authoritarian rule. Foremost among these structures were the Batasan itself, and the Supreme Court, which, throughout martial law, had willingly provided the legal cover for every act of the dictator. The Aquino government forthwith declared itself a revolutionary government and, with the vast powers it claimed under a “Freedom Constitution,” abolished the Batasan and appointed a new Supreme Court.
Worried about the radical implications of such a move, some lawyers advised the new government to return to the 1935 Constitution and to call for fresh elections. The idea was to restore the political order ante. Ms. Aquino rightly rejected this easy route to constitutional normalcy. Instead, she appointed a commission to draft a new constitution that would embody the ideals of the people power movement that had thrust her to the presidency. Through a plebiscite, the new constitution was ratified, and this document has since served as the framework of our nation’s political life.
A constitution, however, is nothing but a piece of paper if the same political community that wrote and approved it cannot enforce its provisions. To actualize its vision and to defend it against those who defy it has been a continuing challenge for our young nation. Having come to power by the revolutionary route, the new government fought many attempts to topple it by the same extra-constitutional means. Weathering many crises, it succeeded in transferring power by election in 1992, and again in 1998.
But in 2001, another people power uprising, led more or less by the same political figures that fought Marcos in 1986, ousted the incumbent president Joseph Estrada. The Supreme Court interpreted Estrada’s departure as a resignation and allowed the vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to succeed to the presidency. Lawyers and partisans of the ousted president continue to protest the Court’s ruling and have questioned the impartiality of the justices.
So-called Edsa III attempted to restore Estrada to Malacanang via the route of people power and was repelled. While its relationship to the Estrada forces is unclear, the July 27 mutiny at Oakwood could have catalyzed another people power uprising and possibly reinstalled Estrada. It also failed because it was unable to gather enough support from the public and from within the military itself. Instead of being hailed as heroes, the mutineers are now to be punished.
President Macapagal, however, wants them punished as criminals, and not just as incompetent coup plotters. She wants the community to treat their act not only as illegal but also as immoral. It isn’t enough for her that the coup was foiled. She demands that the community deny the soldiers any shred of legitimacy. She also implicitly demands an affirmation of her legitimacy and capability as president. Cory Aquino got this affirmation with every coup attempt. With Ms. Macapagal, the affirmation has been lukewarm and slow in coming. She has every reason to feel aggrieved.
But more important than Ms. Macapagal’s personal feelings are the implications of these recent events to the future of democracy in our country. Some people saw the coup not as a threat to democracy but only as a threat to the Macapagal presidency, and they were not prepared to commit themselves to its defense. Others saw the coup not as an assault on our constitutional order but as an attack on a corrupt system led by politicians and generals, and they did not mind seeing its collapse.
Whatever the general perception may have been, the timid public response is a cause for worry. The ambivalence manifests a waning of fervor for the constitutional order established after Marcos. Many political movements that played a crucial role in both Edsa I and II feel that the changes they fought for in both uprisings are nowhere to be found in the political order they helped put in place. They see nothing but a restoration of the worst practices of elitist rule, and they are increasingly unable to summon the will to defend this state of affairs when it is threatened.
The cure for this dangerous and paralyzing ambivalence, in my view, is not to retreat to a spectator role, but to seize every crisis to compel the government to reaffirm its reformist origins. The only way to make coups and power grabs irrelevant is to deny their plotters the moral ground from which to launch their bid for power. The government cannot do this by simply jailing coup plotters and portraying them as criminals. It must look inward and ask where it has failed the nation.
Our people have waited too long for a revolution. If it is to survive, the state can do no less than to launch it itself.
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