Whatever happened to the Edsa regime?

The Edsa regime refers to the political order that was founded soon after the overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Its legal framework is laid down in the 1987 Constitution crafted under the post-Edsa government of President Corazon Aquino. This founding document incorporates the political values and principles that grew out of the struggle against Marcos and found their most dramatic articulation in the Feb. 22-25, 1986 Edsa People Power Uprising.

The most important of these are national sovereignty, the primacy of civil and political rights, the supremacy of civilian authority over the military, the urgency of social justice, the role of people’s organizations and social movements in a democracy, the inculcation of transparency and accountability in the public service, the separation of powers, and the need for institutional checks to the arbitrary exercise of governmental power, etc. Written in the wake of the collapse of a dictatorial system, the 1987 Constitution is suffused with a clear antiauthoritarian bias.

Thirty-two years after its ratification, the Edsa Constitution has remained in place, unamended and unrevised. Strictly speaking, we could say we continue to live under the Edsa regime. No regime change has taken place despite the increasingly open denigration of the symbolism of Edsa and the political resurrection of the Marcoses.

Indeed, the government continues to mark the disgraceful exit of the Marcoses from Malacañang as a nonworking public holiday. But, unlike in the early years, gone is the celebratory spirit.  Today there is hardly any expression of public recognition of the significance of those historic days in February 1986.

Without any doubt, the Edsa regime has passed on. The sooner we recognize this, perhaps the easier it would be to understand — and hopefully move on — from where we are today. In my view, the Edsa regime ended on the day Joseph “Erap” Estrada, a Marcos admirer, handily defeated Jose de Venecia, who was backed by then President Fidel V. Ramos, a key figure in the Edsa Uprising. The forces that brought Erap to the presidency in 1998 were more or less the same ones that had supported Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, a known Marcos crony, when the latter ran against Ramos in 1992.  Ramos won that election only by the slimmest plurality vote.

The rise to the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, a strongman who flaunts his admiration for Marcos as though it were a badge of honor, may be viewed as the mainstreaming of a political attitude that had shadowed the Edsa regime from the beginning.  The flagging Edsa spirit got a momentary boost when a second people power mobilization in January 2001 successfully drove Estrada out of the presidency barely three years into his term, and installed Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in Malacañang.

What was seen but ignored by the Edsa forces was the smoldering resentment of ordinary folks who saw their votes summarily nullified with the ouster of the man they had elected to the presidency just a couple of years before. When these same people dared to mount their own version of people power at Edsa to protest the arrest of Estrada a few months later, their activity was dismissed as anarchy and a mockery of the idea of Edsa.

The ensuing years under the corrupt and patronage-driven administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did nothing to affirm the correctness and wisdom of Edsa 2. Rather, the disenchantment that set in, particularly after her fraudulent reelection in 2004, infected a big segment of the middle classes. The disintegration of the Edsa spirit was arrested only when Cory Aquino died in 2009. Cory’s death magically revived memories of her courage and the heroic moment of hopefulness that defined Edsa. It paved the way for the successful presidential run of her son Benigno Aquino III in 2010 .

Much was expected of the younger Aquino. It was as if, by his election to the presidency, the Edsa spirit was given a second chance to prove itself and to end all the cynicism that had threatened to choke it with every misstep in governance. Though he remained popular, except in the final year of his presidency, and although the economy registered steady growth under his watch, he ended his term amid widespread doubts about the wisdom of the major decisions he made. He was perceived to lack empathy for those who were not of his class, and the strong will needed to make hard decisions on longstanding social issues.

By the time the 2016 election rolled in, the resentment against the political class had ripened into a readiness to embrace any leader who could free the country from the grip of politics-as-usual. The allure of the strongman, we soon realized, never disappeared. Strangely enough, nearly every survey that has sought to measure our people’s belief in democracy has only yielded results that place us among the top in the world.

There’s probably only one explanation for this: We have not understood the meaning of democracy, especially what it demands of the governed. Many equate it with the simple act of voting, oblivious of the importance of subjecting the choices we make to rational criteria that transcend emotional attachments and short-term personal needs.

We profess a firm commitment to democracy, yet we uncritically accept the claims of those who make decisions in our name. We prefer strongmen, who imperiously go ahead and do what they think they must do, over leaders who take time to study and consult with those who may know better. So prone are we to moral panic that we easily give up the right to think for ourselves.