Corazon Aquino and the limit of ‘People’s Power’

The death of Corazon Aquino (1933-2009) reminds us of the mid-1980 popular movement that sprang up to oust the corrupt Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was an amazing example of non-violent struggle as hundreds of thousands of ordinary Filipinos took to the streets to force Marcos out of power. The story of the Philippine revolution not only demonstrates the power people can have when they withdraw consent, but only the limits of a revolution especially when it leaves the old political power base intact.

Aquino’s tumultuous six-year term as President of the Philippines shows that personal virtues are never a guarantee of effective or successful governance. Secondly, she was a good woman. But at the end, was her goodness alone enough to save her country?

Ferdinand Marcos was At one time one of the world’s most powerful dictators. First elected president of the Philippines in 1965, he pulled the strings of power like a master puppeteer. He consolidated power by manipulating public opinion, stealing elections, perfecting the arts of political patronage and bribery. Arrests and assassinations kept the public living in fear.

After the last manipulated election in 1986, Cory Aquino spoke to a crowd of one million people at a rally in Manila. She proposed a seven-part program of nonviolent resistance, including a one-day work stoppage and a boycott of Marcos-controlled banks, stores and newspapers. She urged people to “experiment with nonviolent forms of protest” and declared: “…if Goliath refuses to yield, we shall keep dipping into our arsenal of nonviolence and escalate our nonviolent struggle.” The revolution had begun.

At about nine o’clock that night, Marcos and his family sneak out the back door of Malacañang Palace and take a boat across the Pasig River where helicopters are waiting. At Clark Air base they board a U.S. Air Force plane headed for Guam. Marcos, who ruled for twenty years as one of the world’s most powerful dictators, is now just a sick old man fleeing his country like a frightened dog.

When Marcos’ departure is announced jubilant Filipinos celebrate in the streets and flood into Malacañang Palace. There is some fighting and retribution against citizens and troops who had been loyal to Marcos, but it is minimal.

After violent revolutions there are always scores to settle, grudges to satisfy, revenge to extract, and the cycle of violence continues. But because the Filipino people created major political change largely without violence, national reconciliation was that much easier.

While the Philippine revolution deposed a powerful dictator, it left much of the old centralized power structure unchanged. The U.S. still retained major influence through military aid and bases. The Philippine military remained intact under Defence Minister Enrile, the same man who had gotten rich from political connections while serving as Defence Minister under Marcos. The new President, Cory Aquino, was from a wealthy family. The poor were still poor, and the rich were still in charge. Capitalism emerged stronger than ever.

What the story of the Philippine revolution demonstrates is the power people can have when they withdraw consent. The same dynamics apply, no matter what the issue. Had Filipinos decided to go on and struggle for a more equitable distribution of wealth, the abolition of the military, or a decentralized government that was more responsive to their needs, who knows what more amazing things they might have achieved?

After her presidency, Corazon Aquino ran a think tank and centre on nonviolence that carried her husband’s name. She also every so often led public protests opposing the policies of her successors, if not her successors themselves. She led demonstrations to remind Ramos that she had promised to dismantle America’s bases in the Philippines. He complied. She joined crowds that led to the overthrow of the inept and corrupt government of the actor-politician Joseph Estrada.

She also led protests against her former ally, the second woman President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in the wake of corruption charges against Arroyo and her husband. Whenever the country appeared to be in a crisis, Cory Aquino rose above the bureaucratic procrastination that had always bogged it down, reminding her people that they once astonished the world with their bravery – and that they could do it again. But Filipinos must now take stock. Whom will they march with now that their saint has gone to meet her God?

According to TIMES, The arc of Corazon Aquino‘s life lent itself to maxims, but two hard-nosed ones seem particularly worth pointing out. First, political sainthood is a gift from heaven with a Cinderella deadline – once past midnight, you are a pumpkin. Second, personal virtues are never a guarantee of effective or successful governance. What was truly shocking about Aquino’s tumultuous six-year term as President of the Philippines was that those maxims proved untrue. Midnight always threatened Aquino but never struck; and she was a good woman. But at the end, her goodness alone was enough to save her country, at least for a while.

The Philippino President today is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Mrs. Arroyo’s domestic political position is precarious. A poll released June 8 by the Pulse Asia polling firm pegged Mrs. Arroyo’s public approval at only 26 percent. Street demonstrations against her are routine and growing in size. These protests are in response to a dubious mandate following a dirty 2004 election and numerous allegations of corruption against her family and administration. Her husband, Mike Arroyo, has left the country and used doctors’ notes to say he is too ill to obey court summons related to corruption charges.

The Philippines has become less free during Mrs. Arroyo’s 10-year presidency. According to Freedom House, “Corruption is extensive throughout the Philippine state apparatus, from the lowest to the highest levels. Bribes and extortion seem to be a regular element of the complex connections among bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, the press and the public.” In Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, the Philippines ranked 141st out of 180 nations on a list in which No. 1 is the least corrupt. The level of Philippine corruption is tied with Iran and Yemen and worse than in dodgy places such as Libya and Nigeria.

The corruption problem is affecting Manila’s relationship with other allies. A senior Philippine official told The Washington Times that German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Mrs. Arroyo an ultimatum last month that Berlin-Manila ties are at risk if the Philippines don’t pay $60 million owed to the German government for Manila’s new international airport. The Philippine government seized the airport and refused to pay a German company — which is partly owned by the German state — for its construction after revelations that the contract allegedly was laden with millions in bribes and kickbacks.

There are also serious human-rights abuses in the archipelago. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, “The Philippines ranks sixth worldwide among countries that fail to prosecute cases of journalists killed for their work.” Between 1992 and 2008, at least 34 journalists were murdered in the Philippines; there were convictions in only three of these cases. Four more members of the press were killed this June alone. Opposition voices regularly disappear as well.

On top of all this are machinations by Mrs. Arroyo to cling to power by setting aside next May’s presidential election. The president and her allies are pushing to amend the Philippine constitution to change the current U.S.-style presidential system into a parliamentary system whereby Mrs. Arroyo could serve as prime minister. This would allow her to circumvent the presidential term limit which prevents her from staying in office. This move, incidentally, is similar to the strategy strongman Ferdinand Marcos used to stay in power after declaring martial law in 1972.

Criticising Mrs Arroyo’s government, the Washington Times stated: The relationship between Washington and Manila is an old and important one. After the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war in 1898, the Philippine islands were a U.S. colony for half a century and have remained a close ally in the six decades since independence was granted in 1946. The current Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries allows U.S. troops on Philippine soil to help in the war on terrorism and to assist the Philippines with its fight against Islamic insurrection in the southern islands. But the nation should be differentiated from its lame-duck leader.