“People power” has a long history in the Philippines. Mass protests have unseated two presidents. The current president, Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, who came to office on the tide of the second uprising, is determined not to be the third. Last week, she declared a state of emergency to quash a coup. She has succeeded in stopping the uprising but, in so doing, stained her reputation — again — and further weakened democracy in the Philippines.
Twenty years ago, the Philippine people rose up against dictator Ferdinand Marcos and threw him out of office. That bloodless coup gave Ms. Corazon Aquino, widow of a popular leader whose assassination on the tarmac of the Manila airport set the uprising in motion, the reins of state and marked the first “people power” revolution in the country’s modern history. Five years ago, in January 2001, President Joseph Estrada was overthrown by a mass uprising protesting his administration’s incompetence and corruption. When the dust had settled, Mrs. Arroyo, the vice president, took power.
While the popular mythology is that mass protest was the key to the two movements, in fact it was the support of the military that guaranteed the success of each uprising. In both cases, top officials in the military had lost confidence in the president; their unwillingness to order troops to shed civilian blood tipped the balance and brought a new government to office.
Mrs. Arroyo is well aware of the forces that create the real equilibrium in Philippine politics. She has kept a close eye on the military, and remained attuned to signals of unrest in the ranks. Unfortunately for her, there has been a lot to listen to. There have already been two reported coup attempts against her government. She was accused of rigging the 2004 presidential election, and tapes of her speaking to an election official triggered a move in the legislature to impeach her. It failed but it turned several former allies — including Ms. Aquino — against the president.
Rumors of another coup last Friday prompted the president to take preemptive action and she declared a state of emergency. The decree bans rallies, allows arrests without warrants, permits the president to call in the military to intervene and lets her take over facilities that may affect national security. Three vocal critics of the president — a senator and two generals — were arrested and several other ranking officers were dismissed. On Monday, police filed charges against 16 people suspected of plotting to overthrow the president.
The move was condemned by many, including former President Fidel Ramos, a military leader who was instrumental in bringing down the Marcos regime and who had been a strong supporter of Mrs. Arroyo. He compared the decision to those of the Marcos time and charged the president was “killing the spirit” of the democracy movement. The government was quick to deny that martial law was in the works.
Of course, martial law would be difficult to enforce with doubts about the loyalty of the troops. The coup allegedly included disgruntled soldiers using the 20th-anniversary protests as cover for their own steps against the government. The plot was a poorly kept secret and after affirming the loyalty of senior leaders, Mrs. Arroyo moved, arresting the alleged ringleaders and sealing off military facilities with suspect forces. Riot police broke up any public protests that occurred after the ban.
The crackdown is unlikely to be enough. Frustrations in the Philippines are rising. Mr. Estrada was widely considered corrupt and incompetent, and that it was hoped that Mrs. Arroyo would restore honesty and efficiency to government. Instead, she was accused of rigging an election while her husband and son were accused of corruption to which she is said to have turned a blind eye. More significantly, the struggle for power and personal enrichment continues to take precedence over efforts to better the lives of ordinary Filipinos.
Sheer fatigue weighs on democracy advocates in the Philippines. For them, it has been a constant struggle against autocratic rulers and equally undemocratic critics of government. Democracy is the rhetorical cloak in which all wrap themselves, yet the commitment to improving the lives of ordinary Filipinos is easily forgotten. Protest is gratifying, but as Mr. Ramos has noted, violence punishes the poor the most.
Indeed, the high drama of last week helps obscure the real issues that continue to plague the Philippines: poverty, a lack of economic opportunity, a rigid social structure and a government that cannot — or will not — break the iron grip that moneyed interests have on the country. Solve those problems and “people power” will become a distant memory.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.