Edsa Dos @20

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the issues surrounding the acquisition of safe and effective vaccines, it is easy to forget other significant events that shook the country and profoundly shaped the course of our politics in the succeeding years. One of these is Edsa Dos (Edsa 2), whose 20th anniversary falls exactly today, Jan. 17.

Hardly anyone now cares to commemorate this event. Very few young Filipinos know about it. It is not taught in school the same way Edsa 1—the original People Power Revolution of 1986—is discussed as marking the end of tyranny and the recovery of democracy.

I was a participant and witness to both events. But, while the four-day popular uprising in February 1986 remains lodged in my political consciousness as an inspiring milestone in our nation’s life, I continue to be bothered by doubt about the legitimacy of what happened in January 2001. I don’t regret joining Edsa Dos, but I have reservations about its outcome.

What prompted this recollection was last week’s violent pro-Trump protest and siege of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, the seat of the US Senate and House of Representatives. The circumstances are different, but it is these differences that invite thoughtful reflection of what it means to defend democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Both cases involve sitting presidents who were fighting off efforts to remove them from office—Donald Trump and Joseph “Erap” Estrada. Trump refused to concede defeat after losing his reelection bid, claiming that his rival, Joe Biden, benefited from alleged large-scale fraud supposedly committed by conspirators who manipulated the Nov. 3 presidential election. Estrada, on the other hand, was facing impeachment for allegedly receiving protection money from gambling lords and appropriating tobacco taxes for his private use.

The differences are stunning. Trump incited his followers to storm the US Congress in order to stop the legislature from confirming Joe Biden’s election as the next president of the United States. The violent tumult that his followers created succeeded in disturbing the proceedings, but, after this unwelcome intrusion was repelled, Congress went on to accomplish what it had to do under the law.

Estrada, who had been duly elected president in 1998, was just entering the second half of his term of office when he was subjected to impeachment. Twenty-one “senator-judges” were hearing the prosecution’s case when the proceedings hit a snag. A senator called for a vote on whether to open an envelope containing bank documents that allegedly incriminated Estrada.

Eleven senators voted not to open, while 10 voted to reveal the envelope’s contents—an outcome that signaled how the final voting on the entire case would likely go. This triggered a dramatic walkout of the prosecutors and opposition senators, prompting then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., who was presiding, to suspend the proceedings. Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, who was cochairing the impeachment trial, resigned from his position a few days later, thus throwing the whole process into uncertainty.

Unlike the US Congress, which reconvened a few hours after the mob interrupted its proceedings, the impeachment court that was hearing the case against Estrada failed to complete its duty. It was overtaken by the events that came to be known as “Edsa Dos”—the peaceful days of protest held at the Edsa Shrine that called for the ouster of President Estrada.

The call, led by the Archbishop of Manila Jaime Cardinal Sin, urged Estrada to resign for having lost the “moral authority” to govern. Estrada could have ignored the pressure and toughed it out, or, in the worst-case scenario, he could have incited his followers to defend their president—as Trump did, illegally and irresponsibly.

But, to his credit, faced with the repudiation of his presidency by the country’s religious, business, academic, and media elites, Erap chose to act with humility. When crowds began to gather near the presidential residence, he slipped through the backdoor, hoping to diffuse the tension. He said he was taking a leave, making clear he would not resign. What followed next was a series of events that were as swift as they were startling.

The heads of the armed forces and the police announced they were withdrawing their support and allegiance to the incumbent president. One by one, some members of the Cabinet resigned their positions. After negotiations to get Estrada to resign failed, the chief justice, by the authority given by a majority of the justices, showed up at the Edsa Shrine to swear in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as president.

The same high court that had previously sanctioned the proclamation of GMA as “acting” president later pronounced her succession to the presidency constitutional, citing as basis the so-called “constructive resignation” of Estrada. A few months after Arroyo took office, the police arrested the disgraced former president on charges of plunder, a nonbailable offense. His fingerprints and mug shot were taken, completing a ritual of degradation that began with the impeachment. His arrest unleashed a flurry of mass actions that came to be known as “Edsa Tres.”

In a previous column, I argued that while Edsa Tres was suppressed, the populist impulses it embodied have not dissipated. At crucial moments, certain conditions awaken these impulses, bringing to the fore unpredictable types of leaders that go against the grain of institutional politics. Some of them become tyrants.