Forgetting Edsa II

Tomorrow, January 20, we mark the 7th anniversary of Edsa II, the series of events that drove away a corrupt presidency from office. Because of the abusive and even more corrupt regime that succeeded it, many people who joined Edsa II have had problems celebrating this historic event. The question that seems to haunt them is: Seeing how Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has turned out to be, did we make a mistake in ousting Joseph Estrada?  My answer is No.  There is nothing to regret, but there is a lot to learn from what happened.

Recently, I went through the tricky exercise of reviewing what I wrote in this column right after Edsa II.  I’ve always believed that such reflexivity is part of the duty of every writer who dares to comment on events as they unfold.  I asked myself if there is anything in what I wrote about those days that I would take back in the light of what I now know.

I distinctly remember writing these hopeful words a few hours after GMA was sworn in as the new president.  The column came out the following day, Jan. 21, 2001: “For the second time in our short history as a nation, we have rescued our society from the pits of demoralization.  Once again we have shown the world that we could find our way out of the most difficult crises armed with nothing more than an inexhaustible faith that goodness always wins in the end. Who could have known that the impeachment trial against Estrada, that seemed custom-made as a mechanism of presidential vindication, would lead us to another people power revolution?

“I never entertained the idea that we could actually remove a powerful president by impeaching him.  My position was always for resignation, even if I knew that Estrada would never resign.  What I really meant was the imperative of ouster, but then I could never imagine the means for doing this without worrying about the dire consequences.”  A murmur of hope and a sigh of relief – I think that is what that column was trying to express.

The week after, on Jan. 28, 2001, amid the flurry of criticisms of Edsa II coming from international media, I defended the course that the events had taken while reiterating the need for long-term reform: “The immediate goal of People Power II was not so much to install VicePresident Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as president as to rid the country of a corrupt president who was destroying the nation.  Whatever reservations some of its participants may have about the new president, People Power II recognizes the legitimacy of the Arroyo presidency.  The long-term goal however is to reform the mechanisms of our public life so that our country may get out of the vicious cycle of poverty, corruption, and patronage in which it is trapped, and ensure its survival and progress in the modern competitive world.”

Two weeks later, on Feb. 4, 2001, at the risk of dousing cold water on the celebrations, I warned that the new president appeared to have misunderstood the message of Edsa II:  “Though it was not among its chief objectives, People Power II made it possible for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to become president.  It did not choose Ms. Macapagal; it gave her permission to govern as a transition president. We draw this important distinction because President Macapagal is acting as if she is a winner in an election.  Instead of appointing individuals who could best personify the people’s yearning for a decent and professional government, she has been distributing Cabinet positions to politicians belonging to her coalition as if these were the spoils of war….

“In her first formal televised message as president, she addressed those who might be plotting to destabilize her administration and sternly told them that she would crush them.  She said she would defend the government, but she did not say where she was headed as a government.”

Though I had hoped that the popular sentiments unleashed by Edsa II could remain powerful enough to compel the birthing of a new political system, I did not have any illusion that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could be a driving force for reform.  Her actions as a member of the Estrada Cabinet in those crucial weeks when the collapse of the government became imminent reeked of opportunism.  Thus, it became clear that, as in Edsa I, the task of meaningful change had to be pursued by a mobilized and organized citizenry.

What I did not expect was the speed with which GMA would assume exactly the role that Estrada had played in a patronage-driven and corrupt system. After making a few obligatory nods to good governance, she quickly settled down to the practical business of paying back and paying forward to ensure that the military would not threaten her presidency.  She did this not by professionalizing the armed forces but by purchasing the loyalty of the top brass.

GMA has shown us the limits of people power. We now know that as a moral force, people power will not succeed in shaming an amoral president out of office.  We also now know that as a political force, people power cannot topple down a president without the consent or collaboration of the military. This realization, more than anything else, has diminished our people’s enthusiasm for mass protests.  I think that what we should realize is not the futility of people power, but rather its eventual impotence if it remains unorganized and naively dependent on spontaneous sparks of moral outrage.

To forget Edsa II is to give up the quest for accountable governance. Erap and GMA both want us to feel bad about Edsa II.  Why? Because they are twins.  The memory of our struggle against the former sustains our struggle against the latter.


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