‘People power’ reconsidered

Posted: April 5, 2010 in Cory Aquino, Erap, Ferdinand Marcos, FVR, GMA, governance, Philippine politics, Political institutions, Political philosophy, reform

Some twenty-four odd years after the ‘people power’ revolution of EDSA in the Philippines, the country’s democracy is still in trouble and illustrates the continuing problems of cosmetic change with unrevised socio-economic structure. The Philippines’ predicament mimics many of the post-authoritarian regimes created by the third and fourth waves of democratization. In Thailand where the ‘red’ crowds are currently occupying central Bangkok, for instance, the 2006 ouster of a similarly populist political leader (Thaksin Sinawatra) who did not seat well with the Bangkok urban set and the Thai king, mimicked the ouster of Erap Estrada in the Philippines in 2001, and has installed a military-dominated (but sanctioned by the king) regime.  The musical-chairs game in Ukraine seems to raise questions why the Orange Revolution was waged in the first place. It is thus warranted to re-examine the efficacy of the ‘people power’ route to democracy.

The post-Marcos record

The post-authoritarian government of Mrs. Aquino was an uneasy coalition between anti-Marcos civilians and military rebels and ‘reformists’. Critical of Aquino’s initial moves (e.g. freeing prominent CPP-NPA leaders and conducting peace talks with the communists), military rebels and Marcos loyalists repeatedly tried to topple her government up to December 1989 (Thompson 1996). Through these coup tries, Enrile and his military allies wanted to capture state power (which they failed to do in February 1986) for themselves. The US government opposed parlaying with the communists and worried that Aquino would close its military bases. Meanwhile, the communists scored significant propaganda gains through daily tri-media exposure during the peace talks, raising fears of an eventual leftist takeover or participation in a coalition government. The killing of several demonstrating peasants by the police in January 1987 ended peace negotiations and renewed the anti-insurgency drive.

Besieged by insurgents and military rebels, Aquino adopted the policy preferences of more powerful opponents and patrons. The resumption of anti-insurgency operations pleased the U.S. government and eroded the basis for military coups. Keeping options open earlier, she eventually favored retaining the American military bases. Business groups and big landowners were placated by the dismissal of a sympathetic-to-workers labor minister (and other left-leaning cabinet members) and a watered-down agrarian reform law. The regularization of government in 1987-1988, with the ratification of a new constitution and the consequent establishment of a legislature and reconstitution of local governments, returned previously disenfranchised politicians to power at various levels.

The peaceful assumption of the presidency by Fidel Ramos in 1992 and Joseph Estrada in 1998 marked a high point in the consolidation of Philippine democracy. However, chinks begun to show afterwards. A less-than-universally-acclaimed reprise of ‘people power’ ousted Estrada and installed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as president in January 2001 (Lande 2001; Putzel 2001). Arroyo survived a ‘poor people power’ uprising in May 2001 and a military mutiny in July 2003 . She contested for the presidency in 2004, the first time for a post-Marcos incumbent to do so since the 1987 constitution has imposed a single-term limit. Apart from using government’s resources, there was a strong perception that she cheated to win the elections (Muego 2005). In mid-2005, wire-tapped conversations between her and a ranking Commission on Elections (Comelec) officer surfaced and insinuated padding of the count in her favor (Hedman 2006). While her government survived various challenges since then (including resignation of many cabinet members, two impeachment charges, and a coup attempt in February 2006), questions regarding her legitimacy continue to linger and contribute to political instability. In 2007, her government was scandalized by credible allegations of bribery and other corrupt acts. These developments raise serious doubts about the progress of Philippine democratization since February 1986.

To date, a final closure regarding the dictatorship has yet to be achieved. There is no Filipino equivalent of the truth and justice commissions organized elsewhere to pinpoint responsibility and prescribe ways to heal a divided and brutalized society. The AFP, torturers and all, was absolved of its human rights violations during the dictatorship for abandoning its commander-in-chief by merely donning an NAFP (N for new) insignia. The same is true for the US government. Their joint culpability was not even whispered about during the heady days after Marcos’ ouster. The Aquino government eventually allowed the re-entry and political rehabilitation of most of regime stalwarts after Marcos’ death in 1989. The accommodations and compromises reached after February 1986 suggest that the democratic transition was more of a pacto along the lines of the Brazilian case (Hagopian 1990) rather than a real ruptura as argued by Thompson (1996), or the ‘insurgent path’ in South Africa and El Salvador (Wood 2001). This means that the democratic transition in the Philippines continued rather than ended with Marcos’ exile.

However, the analysis of Philippine democratic transition should be distinguished from democracy’s problems. Obviously, the democratic institutions established after 1986 were clear improvements over the dictatorship (Thompson 1996). The effectiveness of civil resistance in ending authoritarianism is clear. However, it could not be reasonably burdened with the task of consolidating democracy in the Philippines and elsewhere. The rather distasteful compromises with the military and regime stalwarts may have been necessary to ensure the survival of a fledging democracy besieged by military rebels and communist insurgents during Aquino’s term.

Better an imperfect democracy rather than a return to authoritarianism. A principled commitment to nonviolence may not be needed to oust a dictator. It may however affect prospects for democratic consolidation. If elite political actors once resorted to nonviolence as a political expedient, then violence may be resorted to if deemed necessary in the future. One can only note how easily the Aquino government unsheathed the ‘sword of war’ against the communists in 1987. In the process, democratic principles and civil political dialogue may be seriously compromised. A key problem is how a democracy (restored by a broad political coalition that includes an anti-revolutionary albeit reformed military) will deal with an on-going communist insurgency.

It is quite clear that the democratic credentials of any government will be put to a severe test. Continuing human rights violations by the Philippine military from 1987 up to the GMA presidency are among the worst aspects of post-Marcos governments. Thompson (1996: 197) reminds us however that ‘such crimes committed by an otherwise democratic government in the context of a civil conflict are not exceptional’. These difficulties recall the single most important prerequisite identified by Rustow (1970) in his seminal work on democratic transition and consolidation—that the ‘boundary’ question is resolved. That is not the case in the Philippines. Armed Muslims want to secede and armed communists and military rebels don’t share the consensus around elections and representation.

In other democratization cases, this question was settled. The Soviet empire had to broken up into several smaller states and Czechoslavakia was split in two.

Another problem in the Philippines: how will a restored democracy make its military accountable for its authoritarian past without being endangered by a military backlash? The blanket absolution of the AFP, especially of the RAM leaders (many of whom were accused of being heavy torturers), was essentially wrong yet was politically necessary at the time. The failure to pursue military accountability during martial law was further compounded by a kids-glove treatment of military putschists against the Aquino government by her defense officials, including soon-to-be President Ramos. Ramos himself bought tactical peace with a political settlement with military rebels during his first years in office. The shortcomings of this policy of appeasement will be revealed subsequently by the unhealthy role played by the military in the ouster of President Estrada in January 2001, and the coup attempts against President Arroyo in July 2003 and February 2006.

The Philippine experience underscores the extreme difficulties faced by a restored democracy as it tried to consolidate itself while weighed down by the legacies of authoritarianism (a weak economy, a highly-politicized civilian and military bureaucracy, weak or non-existent political institutions, and continued existence of maximalist forces), the shallowness of its elite democracy, and an unresolved first-order ‘boundary’ question. After Marcos’s ouster, the record of democratic commitment is mixed. The political elites and ‘yellow’ forces in the Philippines would subsequently fail to sustain their democratic credentials in several occasions. A reprise of ‘people power’ in January 2001 failed to impress true democrats since a democratically elected albeit corrupt president, Estrada, was deposed. As an exercise of extra-ordinary or irregular politics, ‘people power’ stunted the growth of the country’s political institutions. These same elites apparently turned a blind eye to a prima facie case of systematic cheating by President Arroyo during the May 2004 elections to prevent a populist Estrada-like presidency. While expedient in 2001 and 2004, the failure to uphold democratic principles is at the root of current political instability. Questions regarding the legitimacy of Arroyo’s mandate have inspired parodies of ‘people power’ since then. After weathering a rather inchoate ‘poor people power’ uprising in May 2001 and a military mutiny in July 2003, her government almost fell apart in July 2005. She survived another coup attempt in February 2006 through emergency rule. While styled as a referendum on her continued rule, the May 2007 mid-term elections failed to settle the legitimacy question.

This high-mindedness could flounder at the realist shoals and rough tumbles of everyday politics. Notwithstanding the less-than-pristine basis of civil resistance in the Philippines, it did depose the Marcos dictatorship. What is of greater value—the ouster of the dictatorship or a principled commitment to non-violent means of resolving inevitable conflicts? Upholding the democratic mandate of a venal chief executive or a preference for good governance? Should irregular politics be frowned upon since they undermine existing institutions or should non-institutional deviations be tolerated or even encouraged given institutional inadequacies and dysfunctionalities? Or are these false dilemmas?

Theoretical propositions

I borrow from work I have done earlier on the Soviet reform project from 1956 to 1991 (Mendoza 1992) and forward these theoretical propositions regarding democratization and democratic transitions.

1. Ultimately, transitions from authoritarianism are both prone to voluntarist action (qua actor-directed processes) and vulnerable to material and subjective (i.e., cultural) constraints. In this sense, therefore, there is no uniform road from authoritarianism and each country necessarily charts an idiosyncratic path.

2. Democratization is a politically contentious process. First, since it proposes to change or to disrupt existing institutions (understood in a broad sense ala Douglass North as ‘rules of the game’), it will always invite opposition from interests and groups comfortable with the status quo or from those who believe that the changes that had been achieved so far are quite enough. In addition, there is a time lag before the benefits of democratization could be realized or made apparent. This delay and the difficulties experience during the period could be used as arguments for scuttling the democratization process. For one, the post-authoritarian democratic regime must (by definition and by necessity) recognize and guarantee the political enfranchisement even of unrepentant or latent sympathizers of the deposed regime. Secondly, even in the rare case of apparent unanimity for the necessity of change, differences on the nature, pace and sequencing of democratization reforms will most likely arise and precipitate political struggles. Thirdly, the dysfunctionalities and turmoil generated by democratic transitions also provide leeway for other political projects to be implemented. The possibilities for non- and pseudo-democratic projects are almost always present. This is quite apparent in post-1986 Philippines as exemplified by the current presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo since 2001.

3. The above proposition leads to a third major insight—the open-endedness of political processes—one gained through a hindsight evaluation of transitions from authoritarian rule initiated from the top, or what I call abo-reformism (reform from above). Notwithstanding the ‘people power’ circumstances of the authoritarian regime’s demise, all transitions from authoritarianism are elite-directed processes. This is the necessary and logical outcome both of the difficulties of maintaining long-term popular mobilization and the inherent appetite of elites to limit democratic changes. In fact, many transitions could be characterized as popular projects hijacked by elites.

Appropriate institutions and technologies of ‘people power’

It can be argued that the democratization project is the evolution of appropriate technologies and institutions. A careful reading of the Bolshevik (which was a ‘people power’) project indicates that it entails the institutionalization of new and appropriate technologies of production and distribution and, above all, of governance. While the post-authoritarian project of democratization may not seem, at first glance, as comprehensive as the Bolshevik project—the realities in underdeveloped jurisdictions like the Philippines where socio-inequalities can undermine legal equality require a similar broadness.

Social-hierarchical (as opposed to technical-hierarchical and therefore socially-neutral), rather than horizontal or associational, relations between persons imbricate the existing technology of production the world over. Taylorism organized the capitalist labor process so that it was conceived and directed from a hierarchical center and could be executed with parts of the entire process done by distinct groups of workers supervised by foremen and surveilled by timekeepers. The institutional expression of Taylorism is the factory assembly line and the consequent shopfloor division of labor. The objective was to remove any element of worker control over the pace, intensity and quality of work. Taylorism was adopted by Lenin himself instead of ‘workers’ control’ since Taylorist methods were seen as particularly useful in building the Soviet industrial base with a work force which was relatively young and inexperienced and which was not weaned from its peasant origins, traditions and values.

The available technologies of distribution and economic organization are limited to the market and centralized state allocation, or metaphorically, the ‘invisible hand’ and the ‘central plan’. The German ‘social market’ is an attempt to essay a third way just like other social democratic welfare states in West Europe. Karl Polanyi (1957) noted that the organizing principles of reciprocity and redistribution characterized pre-capitalist societies. Plan and market are weak in several respects. For one, the problem of monopoly arises in both cases. The most likely reaction to institutional failure is to adopt its antipode; that is, the response to state failure is to marketize and vice-versa. “Third way’ experiments appear to be doomed by Kornai’s detection of the strong affinity between specific modes of property ownership and economic coordination mechanisms, i.e., between state ownership and central planning and between private property and market coordination. On the other hand, the rule of the few over the many is the essence of the technology of governance and political organization used through much of recorded human history.

In contrast, democratic (and socialist) governance is a promise of self-activation and management of society for the benefit of all its members. At its purest, democracy is majority self-rule. Vincent Ostrom submits that a self-governing free society is governed by an elaborate structure of institutional arrangements that conform to two basic rules. The first is the basic golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. Under this rule, humans takes the perspective of others, discount partialities associated with self-love, and strive for impartiality. The second rule is W.R. Ashby’s ‘law of requisite variety’: To realized specified effects, there must exist as much variety in the strategies available as there is variety in the conditions that obtain.

The historical experience so far reveals that the problem of democratic governance is accentuated by the phenomenon of ‘substitutionism’, disguised as representation—a malady denounced by Rousseau in his Social Contract. This seems to be unavoidable given the size of modern societies. In a democracy, the people are supposed to be sovereign and they appoint their representatives as ‘public servants’. The age-old question of who will guard the guardians recurs repeatedly. How can the ‘servant’ be made accountable for its actions and decisions to the sovereign principal? What can prevent or alleviate the effects of an agent’s action which is detrimental to the principal’s interests? So far the institutional (meaning nonviolent) means available to principals for checking their agents are freely-contested elections and mechanisms for recall or impeachment of treasonous, incompetent, or corrupt public officials. However, problems of the authenticity of electoral exercises as well as the politicization of the recall/impeachment processes reduces control over agents.


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