Two decades on, people power haunts Philippines

For all its street protests, colourful elections and raucous debate, the Philippines still does not have enough real democracy, analysts say.

Manila: Tom Talledo has seen it all before.

He hit Manila’s streets to join the million-strong “people power” protests that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and was there 15 years later when Joseph Estrada was forced out of the presidency.

Last Friday, the 40-year-old teacher was dreaming of making history again as he stood in the sweltering heat with several thousand other protesters calling for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to step down as president over allegations of election fraud.

“It will be good for the Filipinos, but not for the corrupt ones,” he said when asked what another uprising would achieve.

“People power means power to the people, so how can it be bad for the people?”

Nearly 20 years after Marcos fell, though, talk of people power often elicits pride and despair in equal measure.

Economic stagnation, entrenched poverty and regular political crises have given Asia’s more authoritarian states plenty of ammunition to defend the view that too much democracy is a dangerous thing.

But the problem may be that the Philippines – for all its street protests, colourful elections and raucous debate – still does not have enough real democracy, analysts say.

The students and nuns who stopped Marcos’s tanks with flowers helped inspire uprisings around the world but left a culture of extra-constitutional change at home whose effects are still being felt.

For some Filipinos, the second uprising in 2001 was as an illegal snatching of the presidency from former movie star Estrada, who is still on trial for corruption.

Four years on, Arroyo is under siege from a bitter opposition that sees her as an impostor.

“I am not sure that the Philippines gives democracy a bad name but it indicates the importance of strong political institutions to the success of a democracy,” said Zachary Abuza, director of East Asian studies at Boston’s Simmons College.

“In the Philippines, people are too willing to resort to extra-legal means at all levels of political-economic life, and that weakens democracy.”

Weak System

Abuza said weak political parties, a civil service undermined by a lack of funds and corruption, and frequent killings of journalists meant the Philippines was missing some essential pillars of a stable democracy.

Despite being hailed as a triumph over dictatorship, the 1986 uprising was notable for continuity as much as change.

Initial hopes for radical reform were dashed as President Corazon Aquino did little to narrow the huge gap between rich and poor or stamp out rampant corruption.

Most importantly, analysts say, she failed to solve the problem of land reform, leaving vast tracts of land under the ownership of elite descendants of Spanish colonisers, which included her own family.

“I don’t think too much democracy is the problem, but an elite that has divided the material and political spoils for much too long, challenged only at times by populists … or various movie stars,” said Ian Buruma, professor of human rights and journalism at New York’s Bard College.

To end the cycle of populism and instability, the Philippines has long debated the idea of shifting to a parliamentary democracy from the U.S.-style presidential model.

Arroyo herself has pledged to make charter change – known locally as “cha cha” – a reality next year.

Proponents says a parliamentary system would end gridlock between the executive and legislature that dogs Philippine politics.

It should foster stronger parties and reduce strife because the government and legislature depend on each other for survival, they say.

The scandals threatening Arroyo have illustrated the shortcomings of the current system.

Separate inquiries in the two houses of Congress have often degenerated into political point-scoring, with the opposition quick to back street protests to raise pressure on Arroyo.

“If there had been a parliamentary system, these pressures would have been channeled into the parliamentary arena, where a vote of no-confidence could bring down a government,” Amando Doronila wrote in his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

But constitutional change is no panacea.

Until strong party loyalties develop, a parliamentary system can result in frequent changes of governments and snap elections, adding to political instability.

And many are sceptical that lawmakers who often profit handsomely from the current system will ever agree on reform.

“It is unlikely that the current Congress will ever amend the constitution,” Abuza said. “Simply, there are too many vested interests with the existing system.”

Stuart Grudgings, Reuters,  June 27, 2005

Categories: Asia, Odious Debts, Philippines

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