The day after

Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – in their uncanny parallel ways — show that the easy part of power is seizing it.  The difficult part is using it with wisdom and restraint.  This is where most extra-legal takeovers falter. Their objectives remain too general; the limits of their intervention are left undefined.

The Philippines had fairly stable formal institutions until 1972.  We had an independent judiciary, a professional civil service, a free press, an apolitical military, an acceptable electoral process, an autonomous and modern educational system, etc.  Most of these were legacies from the American colonial period.  It is not to say they were democratic in any real sense, for indeed they were very much loaded in favor of the elite.  But in the sense that they were relatively insulated from politics, we can say they were formally democratic.

Marcos changed the rules of the game in 1972 when he seized upon the martial law provision of the Constitution to install one-man rule under an indefinite state of emergency.  One of the objectives of the martial law proclamation was “to extirpate the roots of the insurgency” – a goal large enough to encompass a wide range of interventions. Marcos intervened in the work of an ongoing constitutional convention, jailed some of its members, and dictated its final product. Under this new Constitution, he legalized the exercise of authoritarian powers. By closing its eyes to the illegal manner by which the 1973 Constitution was ratified, the Supreme Court became one of the first institutional casualties of martial law.

As dictator, Marcos intervened in every conceivable area of the national life – in the economy, in education, in the armed forces, in the bureaucracy, in the mass media, in culture and the arts, in science and technology.  Political incursion into these various spheres naturally overburdened the bureaucracy.  The technocrats in the regime began to worry over this, and sought in their own ways to limit the scope of presidential intervention.  One good example of this attempt was the program of the Development Academy of the Philippines under Dr. O.D. Corpuz to institute a career executive service officers (CESO) system.  The CESO aimed to produce a generation of modern professional civil servants and public managers that could be deployed to the different agencies of government.

These initiatives however were not strong enough to arrest the growing dysfunctionality of an over-centralized system.  The politicization of the military was perhaps one of the more dangerous outcomes of the Marcos experiment.  Marcos came to depend almost exclusively on his loyalist generals to stay in power.  This did not sit well with the young officer corps who became increasingly resentful, and eventually mounted a coup against the regime.

Were it not for the accident of people power, the Marcos regime would likely have been replaced by a provisional military-civilian junta. People power made it possible for Cory in 1986 to re-establish a purely civilian government based on the configurations of the premartial law political system.  Starting out on a maximum agenda aimed at reversing the effects of 14 years of authoritarian rule, the first Edsa government unfortunately found itself retreating by the day from its original intentions. It sought to rebuild political institutions but ended up restoring an obsolete political system based on patronage and corruption.  But even so, many vital institutions like the Commission on Elections and the Judiciary were able to regain their autonomy and credibility during this period.

Joseph Estrada, an outsider to the Edsa constituency, ironically became the first beneficiary of a reformed electoral process.  Carried on the wings of a massive populist vote, Erap came to the presidency in 1998 with all the right ideas about modern governance.  But the logic of a political system run on patronage proved irresistible.  He was eventually unseated in 2001.

Edsa II placed the Supreme Court once more on the spot.  The Court liberally interpreted the Constitution to legitimize Gloria MacapagalArroyo’s accession to the presidency. I believe that single act compromised its autonomy.  It set the parameters for its subsequent rulings on questions affecting Ms Arroyo’s political standing.

The greater blame for the destruction of our institutions must however be laid at Ms Arroyo’s door. In opting to secure a full 6-year term in the 2004 presidential election, she compounded the problems of legitimacy arising from Edsa II. She found herself exploiting the weaknesses of the electoral process in the hope that the moral majority would understand and close its eyes to her “lapses.”  She juggled public funds and exploited the accounting system of various agencies to finance her campaign.  But more than this, she abused the prerogatives of her office by enlisting the military to support her political ambitions, and then openly rewarding those who helped her. In less than five years, Ms Arroyo has wrecked the whole institutional healing process that was set in motion in 1986.

At 9 a.m., on Feb. 24, 1986, 20 years ago, Marcos went live on Channel 4, surrounded by his generals, to announce a nation-wide state of emergency.  How uncanny that Ms Arroyo should choose the same date to announce the same draconian measure to suppress the same perceived conspiracy supposedly between the extreme Left and the extreme Right.  Hegel was indeed right: “Events and personages occur at least twice in history – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

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