Almost everyone will probably agree that our national life today is pervaded by a sense of exhaustion. This is best indicated by the weariness we exhale at seeing the faces of the same persons who have dominated the political stage in the last forty years. Instead of finding in them traces of the values we once fought for, we see only reminders of ideals betrayed. Instead of drawing strength from our past, we burden ourselves with its disappointments.
When the history of our country in the last four decades is finally written, I am sure it will be filled with references to four individuals: Ferdinand Marcos, Cory Aquino, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Each one of them represents a powerful impulse and the promise of a decisive break from all that came before. Each one of them also symbolizes a point of decadence. If we desire to rise from the corruption and move forward, we must patiently retrieve the sources of vitality in our national life. A good way to start is to clarify the ideals we have fought for, using as guides the discontinuities in the nation’s recent past.
Here I examine four such moments of discontinuity: 1972, 1986, 1998, and 2001. They correspond, respectively, to the rise of Marcos, Cory, Erap, and GMA.
We mostly associate the Marcos regime today with tyranny and corruption. We forget that this government rose and was initially supported by the people precisely on its promise of a modern dynamic economy run by entrepreneurs and industrialists and freed from the grip of a parasitic land-based oligarchy. At great costs to human rights, Marcos partly delivered on this promise. It was during his time, for example, that the infrastructure for sustained development was first laid down. Indeed Marcos buried the country in debt — partly because of corruption, but partly also because of the massive financial resources that a state-led development program required. None of this, however, should dim the vision of economic development that, at one point, the Marcos regime represented for our people. It remains a vital goal.
The message that Cory Aquino symbolized in 1986 was that basic political freedoms and human rights must never be sacrificed at the altar of economic development. That message – the message of liberal democracy — became the driving force of Edsa I. The program of re-democratization that Edsa I jump-started was unfortunately hijacked early by the impresarios of traditional politics. Instead of building the foundations of a liberal constitutional order on an empowered polity and on new and expanded forms of democratic expression, the Edsa State paved the way for the return of oligarchic politics. The nation found itself mindlessly returning to the security offered by the familiar.
The excesses of a rentier economy driven by elite politics not only constrained economic growth, but it also aggravated mass poverty. More and more poor people were excluded from the circuits of the nation’s life. The accumulation of the grievances of the poor in the mid-90s prepared the way for the emergence of Joseph Estrada, the movie actor who championed the cause of the underprivileged in countless movie roles.
The presidential election of 1998 became the battleground for the revolt of the poor. Instead of feeding the underground communist insurgency, the resentments bred by mass poverty were harvested by a movie icon who felt comfortable in the world of patronage politics. The election of Estrada on the basis of the campaign line “Erap para sa mahirap” (Erap for the poor) drove home the powerful message of social solidarity: That we cannot have a country that consigns the majority of its citizens to a life of degradation and hopelessness.
Soon enough, however, Erap’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, profligacy, and misgovernance. While these sins were nothing new in the nation’s political life, the revulsion they generated reinforced the modernist impulse of good governance. A young and better educated middle class thought they deserved better and more competent leaders. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s rise to the presidency in 2001, as a result of Edsa II, was fuelled by this ideal. She exuded intelligence, youthful exuberance, and a modern grasp of the challenges of a global age.
As it turned out, all of that was a veneer for what was still basically a pre-modern presidency. Rather than strengthen governmental institutions and insulate them from vested interests, Ms Arroyo methodically corrupted and made them the instruments of her own personal ambition. What she has done to the Armed Forces of the Philippines probably best exemplifies this. The partisan role that key officers of the AFP were made to play in the 2004 election is unprecedented in its magnitude. Instead of overseeing the orderliness and fairness of the election, these military and police officials were deployed to make sure the election returns would go Ms Arroyo’s way. This is fairly well known within AFP circles. This is also what the Garci Tapes reveal. All the key players have been abundantly rewarded with promotions and cushy positions.
Development, freedom, social justice, and good governance – together these four ideals constitute our modern utopia. That our past leaders have routinely betrayed them does not diminish their brilliance. The light they cast may yet help us find our way through these confusing times.
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