Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has set back the political growth of our country by at least twenty years as a result of her single-minded pursuit of personal power. She has re-injected into our nation’s governance a mode of rule that perniciously privatizes state power. Like a small town politico who has mastered the rhythms of the patron-client system, she has bought the personal loyalty of lawenforcers, the acquiescence of legislators, the allegiance of justices, and the silence of civil society. She has used government resources to wage an expensive electoral campaign like no other president has since Marcos.
It is easy to think this is all the result of a fatal flaw in character. But that would be a myopic view. The truth is that Ms. Arroyo is very much a child of a political culture that was dominant in the time of her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal. It is clear to us now that she has known no other form of politics, and no other way of running a government.
In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos tried to break the stranglehold of this old culture on the nation’s life in order to install himself as a dictator. He justified Martial Law as a shortcut to modernity, a revolution from the center that would resolve the contradictions of a feudalistic social order. He abolished the political parties of the traditional classes, shut down Congress and the media which had been their playing fields, and seized their properties. This attempt to leapfrog to a “New Society” by fascist means, as we all know, spawned its own problems that Marcos could not contain.
The coercive mode of rule has a limited lifetime. To prolong its stay, it has to acquire moral legitimacy and practical utility for the greatest majority. Marcos almost succeeded. But he was overtaken by global events and personal illness.
The return to formal democracy in 1986 auspiciously began with a revolutionary government under a provisional constitution. The first task that the Cory government set for itself was to dismantle the structures of authoritarian rule and pave the way for the establishment of the regular institutions of democratic life. The pre1972 political and economic elites hijacked this laudable reform project and sought to put it securely on a restoration track.
Today the democratic, nationalist, and social justice legacies of Edsa I survive in scattered provisions of the 1987 Constitution. Many of these have remained frozen, while others are threatened with cancellation by means of amendment. It is one of the supreme ironies of our time that it may sometimes be necessary to step out of the Constitution’s iron grip in order to preserve its spirit.
Perhaps today is such a time. The present crisis, as I see it, is at its core a replay of the same conflict that has hounded the history of our republic since its founding. This is the conflict between those who look up to the Philippine state as our people’s collective instrument in their quest for a prosperous and secure life, and those who would treat it as a private instrument in the pursuit of personal gain and vested interests. This conflict has come to a head because it is taking place in the context of the sharpest social inequality and mass poverty that our nation has ever known.
The underclasses of our society did find a chance to reverse this situation in 1998 when Joseph “Erap” Estrada was elected president. Although he was not of the masses, he nevertheless represented their deepest yearning for a better life. Unfortunately, Erap was entrapped in the same system, and soon betrayed the dreams of his mass constituency. His failure gave the modernizing middle class the chance to assert its leadership. With the impending downfall of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, that initiative has now also hit a dead-end.
Today the republic is under severe strain; the old fault lines of our society – class, ethnic, and religious – are opening up. There are enough brokers out there of every imaginable stripe that want to make sure that whoever succeeds Gloria, the basic organs of a dying social order are preserved.
The whole issue boils down to this: What kind of socio-political order can give hope to the vast masses who are jobless and hungry, and a chance at personal fulfillment to the millions of our young people who are increasingly unable to imagine that this is a nation of great heroes? All I know is that we cannot merely change faces and then move on as if it was business as usual.
I believe that nearly every thoughtful Filipino today is convinced that deep structural changes are necessary. What these changes are and how they are to be put in place are the main questions upon us. Some insist on a controlled process under the same government with either GMA or Noli de Castro at the helm, through a constituent assembly entirely dominated by the same political class. What this option offers essentially is basic continuity and the promise of certainty and stability.
On the other hand, those who have taken to the streets to air their demands insist on the necessity of a transitional phase that includes the formation of a caretaker government, the drafting of a new constitution, the dismantling of the structures of patronage politics, and the modernization and democratization of the rules and procedures of the electoral system. A number of our citizens have expressed wariness over the uncertainties this option may spawn. But its principal attraction is the promise of meaningful change and of enduring peace in our country.
Whatever road we may take, it is now clear to us that a step beyond Gloria is a step in the right direction.
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