A LINE IN THE SAND: Edsa, Arroyo and the future of Philippine politics
Introduction–The Revolutionary Goal–The Nature of Revolution–The Revolutionary–The Life Cycle of Revolution–The Philippine Context–The Arroyo Government–Conclusion
A LINE IN THE SAND
EDSA, Arroyo, and the future of Philippine politics
Looking back at the posts I had on our country’s politics, I was discomfited to find that they were disjointed; one article seemingly contradicted another. I had hoped to express a steady train of thought that readers could understand, and argue with. One post may relate to another post, and both would make sense in a larger context. However, they have since degenerated into pseudo-rants or ramblings. The message was generally “lost in translation”.
I believed in “free-form writing”, taking an idea and putting to pen what first comes to mind. Unfortunately, that leads to unforeseen complications; I usually end up frantically trying to wrap-up my thoughts on the conclusion after flying from one related topic to another. Here, then is an attempt to (re)organize all the thoughts in my posts in one article.
In her latest speech commemorating the 1986 People Power, President Arroyo declared that the “Glorious Revolution of EDSA” had ended; she explains that while the intentions of its founders were good, it was eventually corrupted by partisan politics. Ten years under her Presidency leaves us with much to say on her, and her speech. We can say much in defense of EDSA—or against it, branding it a failed, bungled ideology.
One can say that the context of her speech is reminiscent of Napoleon looking back on the failure of the Revolution of his beloved France. And he was right. Images of the Estates-General pledging to unite to uphold liberty in an “improvised” meeting place in a tennis court, or an angry mob storming the Bastille prison are tragically obscured by the nightmares of the guillotine, the massacre of the Vendee, and the terror of Robespierre and the Jacobins. One can say that Napoleon consciously believed that all was well with his nation, with him in monarchical power and holding a strong rule of the country. There would be no more Girondists or Jacobins; only Frenchmen.
Can we say the same thing to what our President must have thought? No more Lakas or Pwersa ng Masa, no more Administration or Opposition, only Filipinos? We can—though we can only guess. And, ironically, in some respects she would be right.
This article seeks to explain why her rise to power—possibly beyond 2010—has historical precedence. The first part dwells on a rough summary of what my though-patterns were concerning resistance: the solution I proposed in Quixote and Filipino Revolution was Thoreau-Randian—we withdraw from government entirely, and refuse the simplest obligations to it.
To the reader who is curious of the title, I suggest skipping to the next part: Gorbachev was a Failed Communist. Here I explain the character of a Revolution—the environment it germinates on and why its very structure belies its “ideological strength”. The next segment of my article—The Idea and the Deed (I took the title from a chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s book The Proud Tower) explains why a Revolution begins and how an average citizen is transformed into a revolutionist.
In the next part, Napoleon Ascendant, I will try to explain how a Revolution fits in a greater cycle of a nation, and use it in the context of recent events. I hope to conclude the idea that Revolution will naturally fail and connect it with a summation of the Presidency of Arroyo—the thought being whether the Revolution should fail now and under her leadership. This last statement will be explained later.
Admittedly, the breadth of the article seems ambitious, and it might fail in execution, but it is, after all, a work in progress. There will be rewrites in the future, that much is sure. And as Ernest Hemingway explains,
“The first draft is shit”.
Author’s note for 1st Edit: When I wrote this post, I had ended with a conclusion that the political endgame, though largely in Arroyo’s favor, was still generally uncertain. I had also concluded that her recent actions–control of the Supreme Court, control of Congress, deposition of local Opposition governors–was her subtle but careful move towards transforming the Republican structure of our government into a sort of “democratic monarchy” akin to the Suharto, Lee or Shinawatra systems. She was the product of a movement away from democratic chaos to tight monarchic control.
But what I did not include in this “overreaching article” was why her actions affect us so much. Do we really consider ourselves the guardian of “democratic principles”? Or is this not a question of government, but of leadership? Here it would be fitting to mention that Arroyo, other than declaring the “EDSA Revolution as a faded memory”, as would a Napoleon (but not a Metternich) would say, she is also touring the countryside and visiting schools.
She is trying to win support for her cause–that of a strong, central, enlightened leadership under her. It is there in her talks with students, and the banners hanging from foot bridges , hailing gratitude for her accomplishments. It is splashed on newspaper space, talking of economic progress. So I will answer the other question I had mistakenly ignored: if this is not a question of government, and it is a question of leadership, should we accept her as leader?
“The problem is the system”
An Ideal Revolutionary Goal
When I began my post “Quixote and Filipino Revolution”, I had this core idea in my mind: the problem lies in government. Admittedly, I was influenced by the Ayn Randian dystopia of Rapture in the PC game Bioshock, but also of the writings of Henry David Thoreau, particularly his essay On Civil Disobedience. I thought that the problem was not the corruption that was rampant in the government or the rotting of its main institutions but government itself. I believed that we depended too much of our lives on the existence of the State, when it is the State itself that hinders our reaching the fullness of our potentials.
They restrict what we should say, where we should go, and how we should live. Our taxes fund their private mansions, trips abroad and decadent lifestyle. Government is immune to justice; you cannot sue it for your grievances, and even if you can, the absurdity becomes apparent when government takes on the dual role of defendant and final arbiter.
Andrew Ryan of Bioshock had a simple solution: refuse government. Create a society where government is non-existent—there would be no regulations, no licenses, and the only Man you answer to is yourself. It’s an attractive way of life: no longer would you be summoned to serve your country in an unpopular war, or be haunted by dystopic possibilities of Government clamping down on privacy (in Britain they are installing closed-circuit cameras on every home), or “guiding” how you think or what you should say.
The realization that “government is the problem” is not unique to the 20th century. In the 1800s there were revolutionists who were not aligned to or believed in the teachings of Karl Marx. They did not believe in a “strong State” of the people. They believed that the State needed to be destroyed, and dreamed that when all governments were destroyed, humanity—driven by a natural inclination to goodness—would unite in a single community. These were the Anarchists, embittered by the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and wishing to force utopia by hammer blows against the institutions that hinder its coming to pass. Their numbers were strong: it was a Serbian Anarchist who felled Archduke Franz Ferdinand (ironically a reformer trying to better conditions in Serbia). Reactionary and reformist czars have fallen from Anarchist hands. United States President McKinley died from an Anarchist.
There was, of course, an alternative to the pistol of the Anarchist. Take the life of Henry David Thoreau. Disillusioned by the institutions of slavery in the South and imperialist inclinations of the United States—made manifest in its war on Mexico—he decided to live a life as divorced from government as possible. He refused to pay taxes, and was imprisoned for it. He isolated himself, and wrote the beautiful essay Walden while in this self-imposed exile. He embodied a practical application of disobedience through complete separation.
These were attractive peoples, and beautiful ideas, but while I did pine for the possibility of it—the overthrow of Government and then Utopia—I knew that it was impracticable. A world unregulated by government will devolve into chaos and ”strongman-ism”. Factions will rise, abusing the weakness of other groups, and clash with each other. Eventually, if a faction is strong enough, it will impose order by subduing the other factions. Thus forms a new government.
There is a saying, Nature abhors a vacuum. It is a fundamental rule, in Nature and in society. Men will interact with each other, and ideas will prevail against another. This in itself is an exercise of power, and to withhold this is to deny our basic nature.
It is a universal rule, and one that revolutionary movements should be wary about. For, though only few Revolutions seek the total collapse of institutions, a successful overthrow will create a state of chaos. We shall later discuss this in detail, but for now, we shall keep this rule—and the formula in thought.
Gorbachev was a Failed Communist
The Nature of a Revolution
We like to think that a successful and ideal Revolution is one that rises against a “tyrannical force” and an oppressor that belittles the welfare of his people. The people are filled with utter hatred towards their ruler that they “as one” rise up against him, subdue his soldiers, and overthrow him. And in his place will rise a truer, more just government.
Revolutions, however, have basic characteristics which belie this statement. Let us analyze some of these elements and put them in the context of an actual Revolution both successful and unsuccessful:
Strong revolutions tend to erupt in weak or weakened governments. A ruthless dictator or king will not hesitate to stamp out the beginnings of unrest. If he is a cruel tyrant, he can round up hundreds of “rebels” and wipe out entire villages, and while peasant rebellions may erupt, they will be quickly forced under. This is because the very character of a repressive rule—irresistible military force, banning of media and civil liberties, ruthlessness—is designed to subdue all forms of resistance.
The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin plunged his country to socio-economic chaos with his “Great Leap Forward” experiment. Farmers were dispossessed, and farms abandoned for the larger kulaks. Crops were destroyed, and millions were left to starve to death in the famine that ensued. Yet no one defied the Soviet strongman. No one dared to. He placed the country to successive political purges, where millions more died or were sent to the dreaded Siberian gulag. His rule opposed any form of resistance, to the point of paranoia. Under this harsh environment, no form of resistance, either by thought or deed, could flourish. No Revolutionary movement could grow–there was simply no space for it.
To a lesser degree: France’s Sol Roi, Louis XIV, carried his country through wars with a dozen European states, often bankrupting the treasury. Finally, in the middle of a Franco-Spanish war he faced a rebellion of nobles; this Fronde uprising soon gained the momentum of a revolutionary movement—but was decisively defeated by royal forces. By the time of Louis XVI’s reign, however, France was politically unstable; his forces were inadequate to suppress the unrest among the populace. And, unlike the Stalinist nightmare, there was no repression of liberties. It was this same freedom that gave the revolutionary movement breathing space. Revolutions succeed only by implicit acquiescence of the State.
Reformers are often the targets of the Revolutionists. The only way to correct a dislocated shoulder is to force it back to its joint. In between the dislocation and correction, there is an interval of pain. Similarly, to initiate reform, one would have to abolish or suspend Government practices deemed “repressive” or “counter-productive”. However, between getting rid of an old system and placing a new one, there is a “vacuum” that can easily be taken advantage of.
Repression creates a state of constant, un-vented pressure. A successful repression contains the pressure or at least vents it to a bare minimum. Reformers grant only enough space where this pressure could air out, but this is a tedious balancing act: too much freedom and expectation will spike up.
If expectation is not kept at a low, and rises too quickly, there will be a greater demand for freedoms. The smallest mistake in concessions and this demand will soon be measured in absolutes: absolute autonomy, or revolution. Absolutes in liberty, or revolution. Louis XVI was a liberal who supported the American Revolution financially and militarily. He initially supported the French revolutionists, and even wore a red cap to show his sincerity when they confronted him in the Tuileries. Czar Alexander II, the man who abolished serfdom, was preparing to rewrite the Constitution to create a permanent Duma (parliament) in Russia. He was the victim of an anarchist bomb.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand planned to give greater autonomy to Serbia, before a Serbian anarchist shot him.
And Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union was in an economic mess. He wanted to liberalize the market, and in so doing make the Communist State stronger. His twin concepts perestroika and glasnost aimed at strengthening the Soviet market by opening it up to the world. However, this “breathing space” was all that was needed to build up a momentum towards the weakening of the Soviet structure and it transforming to a democracy. Having realized the disastrous extent of Gorbachev’s failure, Communists launched a final coup to put the country back on track. By then, it was too late. The democratists had gained enough ground to emerge victorious.
Reformers rely on one huge gamble: the weakening of the State is a show of good faith towards the people. Like a hostage negotiator placing himself at the mercy of the hostage taker to show that he can be trusted. It is very important that they do not give too much freedom, and the force of their repression should be measured.
A revolutionary movement is an amorphous political blob of compromise. The only reason they are together, is because they share a common enemy. In 1911, Sun-Yat Sen shared one sentiment with a majority of Chinese: the Manchu Government had to be overthrown. The government was significantly weakened to begin with, so Sun’s Revolution quickly succeeded. Once there was no more common enemy, they turned on each other, and pretty soon China was carved up by warlords.
A Revolution relies in strength in numbers. It cannot afford internal division, and a core revolutionary group will try to attract as many followers as it can. It will attract as many powerful groups as it can. And these groups will not always agree on core issues. So, these differences are momentarily set aside to deal with the enemy at hand. The French Revolution was a motley group of different factions. Russian revolutionists before 1917 were divided between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. And Alexander Kerensky’s March 1917 Revolution was later toppled by Lenin’s November 1917.
It helps that the Revolutionary movement can find a nominal leader they can agree on. The Afghans fighting the Taliban found one in Karzai. In the Philippines, we had our own “spiritual rallying point”. This was Ninoy. He was not the leader of the revolution, and his wife was merely carried by the movement to become its central figure.
Arroyo was wrong in saying that EDSA failed because the movement soon splintered into factions. It splintered because it succeeded. As with the nature of all revolutions, once the common enemy is eliminated, the old divisions reemerge.
Revolutionary Governments tend to centrallize further than the original government; They are more ruthless in their suppression. An established government has more political stability than a Revolutionary one. The Revolutionary movement has barely stepped in to fill the political vacuum. Worse, the old factionalisms are bound to crop up, further weakening its power base. It is therefore a practical consideration to be more ruthless in repression, even at the expense of betraying the movement’s followers.
This also implies that while it is the idealist who inspires and ignites a revolution, it is the pragmatist who later leads it. Sun-Yat Sen had little to no sense of what else to do following the collapse of the Manchu. He thought that the ideals of liberty and freedom would be enough, and was not ready to face the harsh reality of the anarchy that followed. China was only partially stabilized after the pragmatist Chiang-Kai Shek took the helm of the Nationalist Army.
Finally, Revolutions are largely lead by the middle class or the aristocracy. They are the ones with the means and the influence to create a movement. Revolutions are largely inspired by the basic idealistic concepts of liberty, democracy and popular uprising. These concepts germinate from the discussion of middle class intellectuals, and it is these intellectuals who argue for a different form of government, or a better society, or a socio-political revolution.
In sum, largely unstable Revolutions flourish under largely unstable Governments. The movement is comprised of different middle class and aristocratic groups, oftentimes with different agendas for joining. And in the first years they tend to be extremely repressive. The potential revolutionist is faced with the prospect of great risk for uncertain reward. So why gamble? We analyze the revolutionist in the next chapter.
The Idea and the Deed
Understanding the motivations
of a Revolutionary
A Revolutionist, by his nature, would seem an Aberration. He will not naturally go against the norms and traditions of his society to commit the violent acts necessary for a Revolution. And faced with a grievance, he will seek redress first rather than the overthrow of the institution that “oppresses” him. Throughout his life he is taught by the institutions of society—from the family to the State—the significance of being a productive part of the community. The Revolutionist’s act goes against all this “common sense”—and in that one sense the revolutionist is a madman.
What transforms him from a Man of reason, aware of the power of his State and the recklessness of armed uprising—to a beast of passion, driven by a need to tear down the “façade” of repressive government? Emotion is the key. It is emotion that carries the revolutionist to that extra mile. And it is only powerful emotion that can drive him to become a “political sociopath”.
Despair is not enough; the very nature of it pulls a Man back from Revolutionist ideology. One who is filled with despair believes that he is surrounded on all sides by powerful socio-political forces that he cannot overcome. The act of suicide can generally be an expression by a desperate Man that he is at least in control of himself, that he can exercise this power over himself. Sometimes, however, he does not even reach that level of realization, and commits the deed only out of fear and a need to escape.
The Act of Revolution, instead, is the act of an angry man. And not just any anger; it has to be an overpowering rage. Simple anger will take him only to the point of protest, sometimes token acts of defiance. But the anger will quickly subside once his grievances are redressed or even if he is only given the chance to voice it. Only rage can pierce through the barrier of Reason, and to the point of no return. A revolutionist has anger in large reserves.
However, it is this very rage that betrays the revolutionist. Anger, by its nature, is an expression of power. Man can only be driven by anger if he believes that he has sufficient power over his enemy. That is why weak governments are prey to revolutionists; they are comfortable in the knowledge that they can have power over the system. Governments, moreover, are on the side of legitimacy—so any act of violent suppression is technically an act of righteous indignation, or anger with a moral backing.
Revolutions need a strong moral basis, which would empower its advocates. Religion—both ideological and preternatural—meets this need. A revolutionary movement is different then from the average rebellion, in the sense that it has a “religious character”. The French and American Revolutions were driven by the religions of “liberty and fraternity”. The Bolshevik Revolution followed the doctrines of society and State propounded by Karl Marx. Our own uprising in 1986 had a Catholic, libertarian color.
To effectively oppose a Revolution, one then not only uses military force; it also has to discredit its religious foundations. The State needs to convert the populace away from religious revolutionary fervor. Though one can only guess, President Arroyo’s speech is a subtle attack at the EDSA spirit. Anyway, the years have tempered the anger of potential revolutionists. Revolutions, because they are driven by anger and religion, cannot be long drawn, because it weakens over time.
To sum up, a Revolution operates under the implicit acquiescence of the State. It is the State that regulates the flow of ideas among the people; it is they who decide whether to tolerate or suppress a “religious movement”. And religion is one of the key characteristic of any powerful revolutionary movement. Under an ideal relationship of State and society, revolutionist generally should not exist.
But a Revolutionist is not an aberration of his socio-political environment. This fact is the final key to unlocking the truth of the persona of a revolutionary. To explain: Man is only limited by the reach of his dreams. He will not fight for “liberty” or “justice” if these ideas do not exist in his society. He lives in a state of inertia—he will work and function as a productive member of Society and a subject of his State unless his is introduced to the possibility of change. Otherwise, why would he change his character? And to what will he change it to?
Manchu China in the late 1800s and the 1900s was a ripe field for revolutionary fervor. The more conservative Confucian system which had, for centuries, guided the Chinese way of life was now under attack from libertarian ideals which filtered into the country by way of trade with the West. As a result of this, a pseudo-Christian rebellion and a Confucian reactionary movement rocked the country, pushing it further to the mercies of the European powers. The Government was ready to collapse under the immense weight of socio-historical forces. Sun-Yat Sen’s revolution was merely the key to fulfilling this need.
A Revolution begins when new ideas, filtered in from an external source or created by an inspired author-reformist, acquire enough political force as to oppose the old ideas. If the established institutions and its ideology are strong, these new ideas are set aside and its followers dismissed as “fringe sects”. However, if the institutions themselves rest on shaky ground, and the tenets of its religion are largely ambiguous, then the new ideology steps ready to fill the power vacuum. This ushers in a spirit of change, and under this environment, a revolution germinates. Complacency or weakness on the part of Government will further erode its authority; however, it is an established institution, and will have to be forced out. Revolution is the final physical act of change, and exists only on an existing state of ideological transition.
The Revolutionist is therefore also the creation of his environment. He is formed from the influences of change permeating his society, and the erosion of authority of his institutions. So, if a country has a strong State, and a strong ideology, a Revolution cannot exist. Unfortunately, a country cannot maintain a strong State and a strong ideology. We shall analyze this further in the next segment.
The life cycle of a revolution
Let us first return to the problem of the practicability of the Anarchist dream. A world without governments will not lead to a popular movement towards coexistence and harmony. Men, interacting with each other, will exchange ideas; some ideas will be irreconcilable with others, and the act of overpowering one with the other will lead to conflict. If there are enough individuals sharing an idea, they will form a group. They will eventually come into conflict with rival groups, until finally one or a coalition of groups will overpower the rest and take power. This rests on the fundamental principle that a vacuum of power cannot long exist. This is also why a monarchy is the first and the most natural form of government.
The first kings must have risen to the top via personal and political struggles, personal in the sense of one-on-one combat with others challenging his authority, and political in the sense of him subduing or converting factions to his leadership. These first years were hard, as the idea of a strong State has not yet been fully realized; the story of Damocles sums it perfectly—a king’s power still rested on shaky ground, and he maintained it only by force of will and prowess. Eventually, the office of the king began to stabilize; it acquires religion by way of divine anointment. The dynastic system ensured that there would be a peaceful transfer of power from father to son.
And under a firm and enlightened rule and a stable religious basis he cannot fall victim to any revolutionary movement. But not all kings are just, and certainly not all kings have a firm grasp on their power. The State cannot long maintain a constant state of tension. Only by force of will can a king keep his subjects pliant, more so when ideologies begin to evolve. By force of will Stalin kept the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites subject to his power. It was only after he died that the conflicts of different political factions reemerged, and Hungarian revolutionists took up arms against their conquerors. In the later Roman Empire, the rule of powerful succession of emperors was eventually punctuated by sharp decline and a short state of anarchy. The Julio-Claudian line ended with the assassination of Nero and civil war; the rule of the Antonine Emperors ended with the rise of the Praetorian Guard and more civil war.
Any socio-political structure, after a long period of firm rule and hence political stability, will at some point relax its hold and consequently weaken. This weakening is mostly involuntary, though the Government and its people will not be fully aware. This weakening will attract rebellion and dissent, and sow the seeds for a Revolution. If the Government tries to resist—as it naturally will against forces that would seek to destroy it—it could and would be overthrown by Revolution.
Unfortunately, the “democratic” state caused by a Revolution cannot long endure. Democracies make for very poor governments in the wake of a successful uprising. As we already noted, factions will squabble with each other, and also almost by instinct a stronger, more centralized government—sometimes a monarchy—will evolve. That is why though the modern times eschew the existence of a divinely anointed monarch it reinvented the office of dictator.
We cannot say simply that democracies are governments in transition. Monarchies are also not permanent states, as we have already discussed. If we examine the life cycle of a nation, we shall see that governments alternate between democracy and monarchy. For example, in Rome, the line of Etruscan kings was overthrown in favor of the freer Republican government. The Republic, devolving into a conflict of various political factions, was overthrown by the military leader Julius Caesar. His rule was ended by assassination and followed by civil war. In the wake of civil war the Roman Empire emerged, its imperial government constantly erupted by “democratic rising” and civil war.
Is this cycle of a country alternating between a democratic system and a monarchic system healthy? Yes, of course. In fact, it is as natural as the pumping of a heart. A healthy life cycle of a country involves a long period of contraction—the centralization of control, the taking in of power, and the emergence of monarchy—and then a short period of release, which is the exercise of democracy. Like a heart, a country cannot long stay in a state of contraction: a long period of monarchy is oppressive, tyrannical, suffocating. Power is like air. Even when one takes it, in order to fully exercises it one has to release it. When one has money, one has the potentiality of power; but to fully realize its power it has to be used, exercised. Neither can a country, also like a heart, stay in a state of release. The vacuum of power will become too much and the country will be forced to take in power like a pair of lungs taking in air. To deny either the contraction or the release, will result in a violent response towards it.
Whether or not we are aware of it, the Republic is based on a dual system of controlled-democracy and controlled-monarchy—contraction and reaction. When a President is elected, he is given powers of a limited monarchy. He becomes Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Chief of the Executive Branch, and vested with other offices that manifest power. Contract. After four years (or six; the Philippine system stretches it to its limits) the President, members of Congress in both Houses and various offices in the provincial and local governments vacate their office, and a nationwide election is held. For a short period, power is given to the people. Release.
This is indeed an ideal government, and—as evidenced by the Federal Republic of the United States—a working one. But not all hearts are healthy hearts, and not all countries adhere to the right pacing. In fact, the very act of controlling the socio-political forces of democracy and monarchy itself maintains its very own state of constant tension. And though the system can work in a very long time, eventually it will have to relax, and be overpowered by the forces it was trying to control.
The Philippines has had a very unhealthy life cycle. Because Spain had few soldiers to spare for this far away colony, it had to keep the state of Government at an indefinite Martial Law. A full three hundred years of taking in and holding power. Naturally, like a body struggling to hold air, there will be tremors—the Dagohoy and Silang rebellions, for example. Then in the 1870s, a reformist Governor-General allowed the release of some power, then immediately his reactionary successor wrests it back. How do you think a body reacts if after releasing just a small amount of air it takes more of it in? The Philippine Revolution is the expression of a violent release of energy and power; followed by another intake of breath.
Then followed the American system. Another intake of power—except this time, we were allowed to release small amounts of air every few times. The Japanese came for a short period, and then finally we were allowed independence. Think about it. The whole history of the Philippines before 1946 was one gigantic effort to hold her breath. The Revolution against Spain, the rebellions against America, and the guerrilla movements all were involuntary “release of air” by the body, followed by a quick taking in of more air.
When the Republic came to being here, we were in the midst of adjusting the pace of the country’s life cycle. A normal heart, after having held its breath for a long time, even after releasing it, will have quick alternation of inhale and exhale. Panting. Having been in a state of contraction for a long time, the democratic forces were more violent, more unforgiving. This was why in the period of the 1950s and the 1960s, though the Republic began to normalize the life cycle, guerilla movements sprang up all over the country. The Hukbalahap which first formed during the Japanese era now fought government forces. Then the Communist and Moro insurgencies emerged.
The country was no longer used to a healthy pace of control and liberation. Democratic forces were becoming more and more violent, and consequently more and more powerful. Control had to be restored. The country grew hungrily for power, until Marcos stepped in and plunged it to another twenty years of an unhealthy monarchy. If we are to study this period closely we must remember that Marcos’ first term was marked by violent protests and the famous Quarter Storm era. It was the old clash of the historical forces of monarchy and democracy. And the Philippines, not used to “regular breathing”, went through spurts of exhale.
Marcos almost came as an involuntary act of intake of power. But, just as before, he held it for too long. Thus, he was the victim of another upheaval. A social revolution, though not a violent one. The People Power movement came as that involuntary release of air, following by more panting, more rapid exhales. But here, we must Corazon Aquino. She controlled the impulse of the country to violent exhale and inhale. She assumed the powers of a limited monarchy, but held it only as long as was needed and not much of it. She did not act the way Marcos did, though she suffered the violent tremors of a country not used to a regular cycle. We were brought back, at least for a decade, to the Republican system.
Having been twice the victim of a suffocating period of government, for all the efforts of the men in office or among the people, the country would no longer accept the normal cycle. Any form of prolonged contraction, or centralization is met by violent force. When President Ramos neared the end of his term, our eyes were immediately wary of Charter Change, and possible efforts to stay in power.
But there is something more to be said of EDSA Dos. True, Erap was a weak President. And he had a rocky political base from the start, and plagued by anarchic-democratic forces. Yet he had barely been three years, when he was forced out. The gaining of strength of these democratic forces played a part, but we were also victim to prejudice. We needed a stronger government, and an acceptable one.
In any under his leadership, the Republic buckled; it came at a time of global recession. It came at a time of growing Moro banditry—probably anarchic forces coming into play. It lost control. A Revolution soon erupted. The Republic needed a strong leadership to contain the irregular patterns of exhale of the country. Estrada was not that leader.
This time, it was the forces of democratic chaos coming to control. One could feel it in the air—“Everyone resign, Davide take charge”. This was a very prolonged release, and a violent release. Against this backdrop, Gloria Arroyo assumed the Presidency, and was vested with the powers of a monarch. But she was no longer adhering to the restraint of control like Aquino did. She followed the way of Marcos, and set about un-containing monarchy.
Gloria, in the years following EDSA Dos, tried to increase her monarchical powers; she experimented with Martial Law. This was foiled by the Magdalo rebels, themselves prodded by democratist pressure. She sought and acquired reelection, solidifying her then tenuous rule. What we think of her “corrupting” the institutions of government is her actually trying to transform its functions from a Republican to a monarchical character. Her planting allies in Congress, among the local governors, and now the Supreme Court is her trying to reassert a very old system of lords and judges answering to the absolute authority of the king (in this case, a queen). She even has the Sun King-ish statement “Only God can judge me.”
And the democratic forces—from the Communists to the radicalized middle class—all felt the tug of monarchy and fought back violently. The Magdalo rebels emerged in 2003, and were hailed as heroes. In 2005, following allegations of election fraud, protests mounted and various factions united to call on her to resign. Then began the annual impeachment movements in Congress. Then another Magdalo effort, in 2007.
And the Republic buckled.
Finally opportunity presented itself in the form of Charter Change. By its intention it would seek to reform and return power to the Republic. By practice it would effectively extend her rule. The groundwork is already there: the Supreme Court and Congress is fully entrenched under her, the military ranks have been reshuffled to put to power those loyal to her, and the minor tremors of the overthrow of Padaca and Panlilio is her trying to solidify her support among the provinces. In effect, she has gathered enough force to resist the forces of democratic or republican change.
If we accept the recent events as part of a national life cycle of centralization and decentralization, then it would seem we can forgive Arroyo as a product of historical forces. From an impartial viewpoint, her political maneuvering could be worthy of a Mazarin or a Richeliu—deserving much praise and admiration.
Yet the political backlash has been too severe. Attempts to unseat her, ranging from the legitimate to the radical, have risen in the last few years. Protests, mass demonstrations, and the defections of Cabinet officials, Army officers, and a Vice President have marked her Presidency. The Arroyo regime can pin the blame on the efforts of the Opposition, and seek justification in her rise as having historical precedence. This would, unfortunately, be only partially true. For the Opposition can only gain strength if dissent already existed, and if there was a source for dissent.
We must have then, at least a glancing review of her Presidency in the next segment.
“Only God can judge me”
A Review of the Arroyo Presidency
Author’s note: To the readers who may be offended by the “implied context” of the title in relation to the subtitle, I apologize. There is none. The quote was just too good to pass up—it “reeks” too much of divine destiny, and any one not familiar with it would probably attribute it as being said by an Absolutist King in France or a Russian Tsar. And yes, it’s an actual quote from President Arroyo.
The Administration, in response to the protests, mutinies and impeachments against the President, has largely decried it as part of a larger “destabilization plot” hatched by the Opposition, continually evolving through the ten years of Arroyo’s tenure. This is partially true. It was indeed Estrada’s allies who helped engineer a popular revolution of the masa in May 2001, as well as the military plot and counterplot that led to the standoff in 2003, 2006 and 2007 (Honasan, called by the familiar term kuya, was consulted by the Magdalo officers). Arroyo can blame “historic forces” for the instability of her Presidency.
But one cannot accept this truth alone. The Opposition would not normally gain strength if there was no dissent among the people. And this dissent can easily dissipate if there were no solid, credible sources for it. The Administration is correct in stating that we should focus on the advances the country has made and as well as what more we can do to contribute to it (a Kennedy saying comes to mind); but we cannot fully view the whole picture without tackling the core issues that the “democratists” readily pointed out as signs of the failure of government.
“It’s Good to be the King!”—The Excesses. (Author’s note: I got the title from the catchphrase of Mel Brooks’s King Louis in the movie “History of the World”). Perhaps the most apparent source of popular outrage has been the lavish spending of the Arroyo clan and allies in the course of the Presidency. The recent one involved an extravagant $20,000 dinner during the visit to the United States. It was 2009, and the country was feeling the crunch of a global recession. As part of national policy, the populace was discouraged from unnecessary spending. Budgetary allocations were slashed, and measures were made in all government institutions to conserve or allocate further spending.
And it also was held at an inopportune moment—while Metro Manila was suffering from the wrath of the unnatural phenomenon that was Ondoy. Had this news reached the country during the first few days following the disaster, together with a photo of the Presidential son (and Congressman) browsing for liquor while—as the caption says—the worst of the storm hit the metropolis, the outrage would have been unforgivable. (Then again, whether or not the photo was authentic, Arroyo’s subsequent actions were those of a wartime president, deserving of much praise and negating the issue). The news of the dinner was further compounded by the fact that there were other dinners.
For the ten years of her Presidency, the Arroyos’ extravagant lifestyle has come under painful scrutiny by the public. In a 2005 expose amidst the allegations of election fraud, it was revealed that a great part of the budget was apportioned to pay for overseas mansions and regular polo of the Presidential son. In the midst of the global recession, the Arroyo clan continuously took expensive overseas flights. And how can we forget the infamous Jose Pidal, who fed his extramarital affair with public funds?
Of course, for its part, the Government claims that the lavish dinner was not made at public expense; the blame for the spending has been actually passed from one to another solon, like a hot potato. The easiest defense against the Jose Pidal scandal was to question the identity of Jose Pidal—that, and counterattacking the accuser with his own scandal. (Tit for tat). The overseas flights have been either official trips or “much needed vacations”. And Congressman Arroyo’s “liquor browsing”? Photoshop, etc.
Incidentally, this has also been one of the issues that rocked the government of Louis XVI. Though, for his part, Louis was willing to slash court expenses and give up many of its luxuries; it was the nobility and the elite who refused to surrender any of it, thus prompting the failure of the Finance Minister’s economic reform.
A House Divided Cannot Fall—Mindanao, Spratlys. It is perhaps one of the thorniest issues that the Arroyo Presidency has come across. This is a question of territorial integrity, one guaranteed by the Constitution, and in the last few years has almost been violated. In one, Moro Mindanao would be made practically independent. The other was the virtual surrendering of national claims to the Spratlys.
The Spratlys issue is a much, much more complicated problem than the apparent facts would explain. Diplomatic negotiations and counter-negotiations (and sometimes, as with the Chinese in the 90s, with military force) dot its history. Though what we do know is that one of the reasons for its significance is in its rich oil deposits. And, for the Philippines, its close proximity to Palawan. Imagine a Chinese naval base, situated just a few hundred miles away from Philippine territory. However, because of the tangled-webbed nature of the Spratlys, nothing can be said with much certainty.
Mindanao is also a painful issue in the Philippines. One of our very first criticisms of Arroyo was her following the actions of her predecessor Ramos by returning the bases won by Army blood to the Moro rebels. While this was in line with the granting of semi-autonomy to Muslim Mindanao, by 2008 it became apparent that the Government planned to practically give up the entirety of the Moro regions.
This is also another complicated problem the country has to face. Returning the bases to the secessionists was a pragmatic, Hadrian-ic move. The bases might have been indefensible, and the secessionists might also have needed a “peaceful gesture” from the government. Mindanao also continues to be a political and economic problem; a great portion of the budget deficit is due to it.
Between the private armies of the governors of Moro Mindanao, and the “disjointed” command of the secessionist rebels, we can say that the national government does not have complete control of the region, and is sometimes even at the mercy of these local forces. We need not even mention the latest case of the Ampatuans. In November 2001, Nur Misuari staged a rebellion with loyal followers, holding an entire region hostage. We actually owe a lot to the fact that most of these governors have allegiance to Arroyo. At least they still recognized a centralized power in the government in Manila.
However, in the other case, Mindanao is too politically important to let go of. South of Mindanao is Malaysia; the region will largely be unstable and can either devolve into ethnic civil war or vote to be absorbed to the Federal Republic. (The current MILF actually has ties to Malaysia). It would also make our current claims to Sabah virtually impractical. It would also make tenuous the position of Christian Mindanao as well as the non-Muslim populations in the Moro regions.
“The Death of One is a Tragedy. The Death of a Million is a Statistic.”—the Extrajudicial Killings. This is also a really thorny issue in the Arroyo Presidency. She may or may not have direct involvement in the deaths of hundreds of priests, journalists and activists, but she does have “command responsibility” over her generals.
And though the Melo Commission did conclude that the Army had some responsibility for these killings, nothing has since been done. At least, not in public.
“May 200 ka dito”—the Corruption Allegations. Jose Pidal, ZTE-NBN, Fertilizer Fund, among a few. Corruption has become so rampant and so institutionalized that it has been said that “no one stays bought any more”. Bribery is made at exorbitant rates, and justice is served only by the one who can pay the most or can influence the judge better. Meanwhile, foreign investors have been scared off by the rampant corruption of officials and the high cost of investing, taxation and otherwise.
Taxation has actually been the expression of these officials, when the national budget—due in large part to corruption—has gone to the negative. Value-added tax was increased, and then re-increased, all while corruption has actually hit inflationary rates among officials. It’s not even a “public secret” anymore. The vulgarity of it is continually splashed in newspapers in a matter-of-fact way.
“And I’m Sorry.”—Et al., and a General Analysis. The above-mentioned are only but a few of the major grievances of the public against the Arroyo Presidency. (I omitted the Garci scandal because it was part of the “move to Monarchy”). Apart from this are all the actions the Arroyo Administration has since promulgated—and been ratified—that erode the laws that would otherwise not have bended to her will.
The pragmatic decision to “scuttle” Mindanao and the Spratlys, as was discussed, owes a lot to complex factors. It is, however, a Constitutional mandate to maintain the territorial integrity of the country; one might say that Arroyo, in almost agreeing to both, is a traitor to the Constitution, and even technically a traitor to the national cause. Though on the other hand, there is no other easy answer to both.
The “rampant corruption” would not have been so bad if it did not come at the inopportune time of economic pressure. The PEA-Amarri scandal could well have blown during the Ramos period, but it would not have culminated in any violent uprising, because Ramos at least had the decency to also actively improve the economy, and let it trickle down. And his corruption never reached African- or Afghan- style vulgarity. We can at least reduce some of this weight against Arroyo in at least the fact that she does not always control the actions of her officials. Neither can she control her local governors.
Her and her family’s excesses are a lot harder to defend, except as royal privileges. In fact, most of her actions to spite her opponents are for the better part expressions of monarchic power, flaunting Republican laws in the process. Though the chief of the Presidential Guard took the blame for the withdrawal of the guards at the deathbed of former President Aquino, it must be noted that it is never a practice of the PSG to act without express Presidential orders. The fact that these excesses already exist, imply a bad shape of things to come.
Rampant corruption also exists—and persists in the Army. The indictment of General Carlos Garcia was only one of the many cases. It is one of the Magdalo grievances, detailing how commanding officers “negotiated” with the rebels while their own ranks were thinned down. There is also the Moscow trip of some of the top brass.
However, the extrajudicial killings will probably not be solved, owing in large part to the internal loyalty of the Army; the “mistah” brotherhood will not betray any of their kin. This is actually very understandable in the context of the Army institution.
Arroyo, however, has accomplished some measure of reform. Through her appointment of Bayani Fernando, traffic in major roads has eased. The Abu rebels were substantially defeated in 2002, though with significant US military assistance (it was actually part of Bush’s war on terror). There is still continuing negotiations between the secessionists and the Communists, the latter actually gaining strength. And the economy has improved, though thanks in large part to the weakening of the dollar.
Author’s note: Admittedly, there have been many overarching reforms, economically and socially, and I do apologize for not mentioning these for the most part.
However, the grievances largely outweigh the reforms, sometimes even offsetting them. There is economic progress. But if the profits do not even trickle down, or get lost in the process, then the only solid claim we have of progress is within a statistic. And the economy is a volatile body resting on psychological factors. Confidence. Trust. If the level of corruption is raised to the point of absurdity, then the economy plummets. And the Arroyo Presidency bases its foundations on this “gangsterist” style of government?
There is also the possible future danger of her attempting another scuttle of Mindanao; if she gains absolute power, she cannot be stopped. The country will buckle, politically, and economically. She may not be the source of all the sins of her Administration, but it will continue to flourish under it.
The Final Analysis
When I first began this article, I held the view that Arroyo, by the force of historical inevitability, will prevail over EDSA Revolution and rule beyond 2010. This is still mostly correct, as the democratic momentum of EDSA Dos has been mostly spent in the upheavals of 2005, 2006 and 2007. And the national life cycle has passed back to contracting, after long spurts of exhale.
By her actions she has made sure that though the Republican system of government will go through its cyclical phase of weakening (the election season), her monarchist rule will continue in force. She is also covering her bases against democratic forces rallying against her by ensuring she transitions to Congress, and hence the possibility of returning to monarchist power. (I’m briefly reminded of that sleight of hand trick, where you pull the table cloth so fast that the glassware stays on the top of the table).
However, predicting Revolution is comparable to “bottling lightning”. Her rule has extended to a full ten years, and by now the state of tension in her government (and the patience of the democratists) has been stretched to the breaking point. The country has held its breath for too long; if it continues like this, then historical forces might compel Revolution. Maybe, she has the institutions to back her up. She has the military. She has the blessing of the United States. But Revolution can come from any point, and if it has gained sufficient enough strength, even her allies will desert her. Consider Batista’s Cuba. Or Chiang-Kai Shek’s American allies.
It may come from the Magdalo. Though the major leaders were detained, the other officers have since been released—though discharged. Their ranks may fill ex-military right-wing groups. Or they might turn to the Communists, who have been courting their support. It might come from the protesters. Remember, though soldiers fired in the Bastille, the prison were nevertheless violently stormed. We might find ourselves in new incarnations of Quarter Storms.
We could be saved by the “Republican wildcard”. A democratist-Republican coalition has rallied under Noynoy Aquino. And he has gained increasing popular support on all sectors. At this period the democratists are largely divided because one faction is just waiting for the inevitability of the Revolution, the other is using Noynoy as a vehicle to achieve control through peaceful means. Noynoy’s camp, meanwhile, represents the last Republican effort to wrest power away from both the monarchist and democratist forces.
The other candidates represent the existing strength of the Republican force, also efforts to wrest power back to the legitimate vehicle of the Republic. Then there is Villar, who represents the Republican realpolitik—yet rumors prevail that he has already made an alliance with the monarchist faction. So now we have a monarchist-Republican faction against a democratist-Republican faction.
There is a growing movement of de-politicization after years of political instability and frustration. With it could be that one hope of renewed efforts to reestablish the weakened Republican system. That is, if the country can take it. Right now, what the country needs is a political pacemaker. That element that will force control, hold restraint, then release. And repeat the cycle.
But while we may have her as a “democratically institutionalized monarch”, does she win her case for an enlightened leadership? There are too many cracks in the structure of her government, too many defects that cannot be ignored with the accomplishment of reforms. The fact that the President is willing to surrender a substantial part of this country indicates the uncertainty of future international affairs. Securing a hold in Congress and becoming Prime Minister would make her both the Legislative and Executive bodies; her power would be practically absolute.
This question, then, is one of leadership rather than of form of government. We can accept a monarch, but one with the virtues of a monarch. (Personally, I would not protest if the Constituent Assembly elected the Aquinos to virtual monarchy. They have popular support, have all the proper virtues of enlightened autocracy, and adhere to a sense of social responsibility.)
Consider one who will throw away territories for the sake of realpolitik, or will let the country devolve into an Afghan- or African– level of politico-economic gangsterism. And they will have their own Winter Palaces outside the country, enjoying the luxuries of Arab emirs and sheiks while their people live in terror of the Cheka–turned Army.
There is also the important consideration that not only will the consequences be severe, she will also hurt the country, and contributing to an already unhealthy cycle of Government. In her speech she declared that the world “barely tolerated EDSA 2” and will no longer accept another EDSA. But the country needs to exhale at some point and it will find a way to do so. The move will be involuntary; elections will not sate it. Marcos did not contain the Revolution when he held snap elections.
It will also be bloody.
President Arroyo declared in her commemoration speech that the “glory of EDSA” has ended. She explained that it had failed because the 1986 Revolution was tainted by partisanship, but that under her steady leadership the country has since recovered and there are signs of warring factions reconciling. She seemed to me to echo the thoughts Napoleon must have had a few years after overthrowing the 1789 Movement.
She was, however, wrong in thinking that the EDSA uprising had failed. The People Power movement had long since run its course—and succeeded in both overthrowing the monarchist force of Marcos and transferring power back to the Republic while staving off the increasingly agitated democratic forces of the Left. And the Republic under Ramos and—to a lesser extent—Estrada largely flourished. Perhaps she was thinking of the other EDSA that put her to power and which she seized power from.
And no, she did not make her case with her leadership. She has eroded socio-political institutions on her way up, and her “steady leadership” has left the rest of the country internally and externally unstable.
So, to conclude: in the normal sense, yes. Arroyo’s move is much welcome to centralize government in the wake of the chaos of EDSA 2 and 3. However, owing to the course her Presidency has taken, her accession would be the single largest mistake this country will make.
Unless, of course, God appears to her on the way to Damascus… subtext: sudden unexplained, total change of heart.
This article represents the penultimate point of my political analysis and writings, starting with “Antithesis” in 2008. There is no more left to be said after this; they will only be variations of the struggle between the two historical forces, or the reemergence of the third. I will probably be left analyzing geo-political strategy in the Middle East, or wherever conflict reemerges.
My efforts also reaped an unforeseen reward—I began two years before to search for the best form of government for our country. I was planning to write an article on the virtues of monarchy. But now this search has drawn to a close—I have found that the Republic is our most practical and ideal choice. This third option moderates the excesses of democracy and monarchy, and accepts the reality of the constant struggle of the two opposing forces.
Admittedly my writing style is still largely free-form. I organized a rough skeleton of what I was going to write, with a clearly set thesis, but came up with a different conclusion. Halfway through, my ideas evolved, and this article took a life of its own. But the exhilaration of free flowing ideas, and its final product, is indeed good.
Damn, it’s good to be back.