Should we give up on people power?

If the participants of Edsa 1 and Edsa 2 were to be asked today if they would join another people power uprising, they would likely say no. They would say that people power promises many things but delivers nothing.  That it substitutes the shortcut of a political surgery for the long painstaking task of building a healthy democracy.

I think they would be essentially correct in their analysis, but wrong in their decision.  As a non-violent but unconventional mode of changing a dysfunctional government, people power has its virtues.  It revitalizes the people’s engagement with their society as citizens. It opens for them the chance to free themselves from entrapment by self-perpetuating structures.  It arouses in them the universal optimism associated with the arrival of a newborn – the expectation of a better future.  People power is a form of consciousness.  It is a means to achieve a set of goals, not the project itself.

But the sense of frustration is understandable because powerful instincts do define the spirit of people power – the readiness to act and to measure the outcome in terms of a morally gratifying national future.  One can say the same thing of the great French and American revolutions.  In our case, the projected future had three basic goals: democracy, good governance, and social justice.  These elements mark the principal enemies of people power in our time, namely: dictatorship, corruption, and poverty.

The 1987 Constitution laid out the fundamental goals of the people power revolution and provided us the basic legal and institutional instruments with which to realize our desired national future.  Almost 20 years have quickly passed, and we should be in a better position to assess the extent and quality of our achievements.  Were the two Edsas really just a waste of time?  I would hope not.  But instead of thinking of people power as a single event, it may be useful to think of it as a continuing process.

We have made significant headway in preventing a future dictator from abusing constitutional powers in order to install an authoritarian regime, but we are far from eliminating those conditions that make the rule of the strongman a seductive alternative.  Such conditions precisely point to the unredeemed promises of the two people power uprisings in our country, namely, the eradication of mass poverty and the elimination of corruption.  The persistence of poverty and corruption in scandalous proportions persuades many Filipinos today that all talk of institutional reform is meaningless without political will. And political will cannot come from the conventional politicians who benefit from the system, but only from visionary leaders who oppose the system.

It would be tragic if we abandoned the spirit of people power today just because the governments that rose to power in its wake produced the opposite of its avowed intentions.  That is not unexpected.  For as long as people power is not driven by a clear and coherent alternative plan, its aftermath will always be dominated by the masters of the familiar.  We saw this in 1986 and in 2001: the old politicos jockeying for strategic roles in the process of reconstruction, advocating the same worn-out formulas and exploiting the new regime’s need for instant stabilization.

In this regard, it is worth noting that Edsa 1 carried a greater potential for radical change than Edsa 2 because it was willing to go farther and risk more to dismantle the old society.  It threw away the existing Constitution and, for one year, ruled as a revolutionary government.

It abolished the Batasang Pambansa, and reorganized the Supreme Court.  It removed most of the local government officials and replaced them with its own appointees.  It appointed a Constitutional Commission to write a new constitution.  The new government had every opportunity to institute a new social order, but became more timid as it began to worry about its own survival.  This timidity grew in proportion to its growing dependence on the services of traditional politicians.

Edsa 2 provided yet another opening for change, but this one was closed almost as quickly as it came into view.  What started out as a comprehensive battle for good governance was narrowed down into a surgical removal of a corrupt and incompetent president, and his replacement by the vice president.  The movement’s revolutionary edge was blunted by a Supreme Court decision that represented the whole episode as the voluntary resignation of a president rather than the overthrow of an entire regime.  Except for the incumbent president and his Cabinet, everyone else was retained in place, as if corruption was a disease lodged in only one person.

We now know that corruption is not just the fault of a person; it is, more importantly, the function of a whole system.  It is not only an individual trait, but an entire way of life.  When Gloria MacapagalArroyo stepped into Joseph Estrada’s position in January 2001, she, in effect, began to preside over this way of life.  Nothing changed because the roles and the script remained.

We may think of people power as a nation’s willful attempt at selforganization for a brighter future.  Ranged against it are the weight of tradition and the allure of the familiar.  The challenge it will always face is how to set up, to borrow a phrase from Jurgen Habermas, its own “Constitution for the victorious peace.”

We should never give up on people power.  But those who choose to answer its call must work hard to prepare the ground for its own Constitution.

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