It will be 36 years this week since the Edsa people power revolution broke the Marcos dictatorship’s stranglehold on the Filipino nation. Many felt justified in calling it a miracle because it happened swiftly, and just when everyone was starting to despair that it might take a prolonged civil war to get rid of Marcos. Yet, the regime collapsed in four days, with hardly any blood being shed.
The euphoria that greeted the downfall of Marcos was instant; the celebration of what Filipinos had accomplished was global. People power revolution led by unarmed citizens became the template for all subsequent transitions to democracy in various parts of the world.
But the problems that confronted societies that had made this crucial transition were more complex than could be imagined. Expectations were high to the point of being unrealistic. Institutions had to be rebuilt overnight. People needed assurance that change had indeed come, and that the crimes committed by the tyrants of the past had not been forgotten.
Behind the scenes, the new leadership had to quietly consolidate its power base to be able to defend itself against threats coming from all directions. The injustices and abuses committed by the previous regime had to be handled delicately so that the reckoning that typically follows political upheavals does not become a warrant for the ousted leader to come back and restore order.
The air of freedom made some righteous individuals impatient in asserting their sense of entitlement. They made people power a substitute for the tedious process of obtaining justice through institutions and legal mechanisms. Unscrupulous media commentators used their programs to dispense quick justice, trading on the entertainment value of the conflicts that people confront in their daily lives. Largely forgotten were the duties and responsibilities of citizenship that would ensure the survival of a fledgling democratic order.
It is often said that defeat is an orphan, while victory has many parents. Nearly everyone who was not identified with the Marcoses claimed a share of the triumph at Edsa. No common vision however united its most fervent advocates.
On the contrary, Edsa’s key players and supporters strongly disagreed on fundamental issues like agrarian reform, the foreign debt, the role of the military, the sequestration and disposition of ill-gotten wealth, the release of political prisoners, peace talks, American military bases on Philippine soil, etc.
Cory Aquino, the personification of the Edsa spirit, lost much of her support from the mass organizations and progressive peoples’ movements after she sided with conservative forces on the handling of the foreign debt, the US bases, and agrarian reform. But she earned the full support of the United States, which became a critical factor in the defeat of the military coups mounted against her.
Amid these problems, the threat of the return of the old order constantly loomed on the horizon. The extent of this threat was first measured in the presidential election held in 1992 to choose Cory Aquino’s successor. Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr., widely known as Ferdinand Marcos’ most trusted crony, got within striking distance of the presidency. Unfortunately for him, his bid was foiled by Imelda Marcos who decided to also run in that election.
Four key allies of Cory—Fidel Ramos, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Ramon Mitra Jr., and Jovito Salonga—fought each other for the right to represent the fading ideals of Edsa. In the end, Cory threw her support behind General Ramos, who won the crowded race by the tiniest margin.
No one put much meaning at that time on the victory of movie actor Joseph “Erap” Estrada in the vice-presidential race. Though he ran with Cojuangco, and was an avowed Marcos admirer, he was not seen as a representative of the old order so much as a popular movie actor who won elections by riding on his filmic persona as a protector of the poor and the oppressed.
In retrospect, Erap’s rise to the presidency in 1998 showed that the Edsa spirit had, by then, already lost its grip on the public imagination. But its middle class advocates prolonged the romance with people power by deftly maneuvering Erap’s ouster through a re-enactment of the February 1986 events. So called “Edsa Dos” in 2001 installed Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who served not just the remaining three years of Estrada’s unfinished presidency but also managed to get herself reelected for another six years through a blend of opportunism and electoral trickery.
Just when we thought it was totally gone, a brief revival of the Edsa spirit occurred when Cory died in 2009. The public’s lingering affection for her thrust her son Noynoy Aquino into the political limelight. Elected in 2010, P-Noy turned out to be a very good president—fair, hardworking, and honest. But his six years in office were not enough to solve the problems of mass poverty or to make Philippine society less unequal.
The accumulated resentments against elite rule under the banner of Edsa produced Rodrigo Duterte, the cultural antithesis of the polished Edsa politician. Such resentments have a long shelf life, and right now they favor the return of the Marcoses, who have successfully portrayed themselves as victims. Perhaps no one knows this better than the adaptable Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a certified Edsa beneficiary who has turned full circle by cobbling together a Marcos-Duterte alliance.
We don’t need another Edsa miracle to stop this alliance. We only need to listen to our people’s grievances more intently.