Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Who ruined the spirit of Edsa People Power Revolution?

Journalist Anthony Spaeth's story recently put the Philippines on Time magazine's cover (Asia Edition). The story said that while people power ousted a dictator and inspired the world 20 years ago, the Filipino nation has yet to fulfill the promise of those glorious days.

Indeed, after three Edsa "revolutions," people power, it is said, had totally lost its luster and has become a symbol of political instability and lack of adherence to due process. Why?

The common interpretation seems to be captured by a story in this paper's back page (February 22 issue) quoting personalities saying that politics has ruined the vision of Edsa. Maybe. But we think the real reasons are the sins of commission and omission that Filipino reformers failed to achieve after the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The major mistake, the sin of commission, is that post-Edsa reformers destroyed political parties by demonizing "traditional politics" without providing an alternative mode of political socialization and mobilization. It's this demonization of traditional politics-without provision for the ideal alternatives-that destroyed people's trust in political institutions and political leaders, thus ushering in the rise of celebrity politicians that led to the current stalemate.

In the first place, traditional politics is a misnomer. In truth, all politics is traditional; its essence is the struggle to capture and maintain political power. Sometimes, some political actors employ creative or "nontraditional modes" of contesting and capturing power (e.g. mass-based, issue-oriented, populist), but once those political actors have captured power, the same rules apply: maintaining it. This is necessary because a political group or organization needs to maintain power to pursue its program of governance and vision of the future.

The concept of an alternative or "nontraditional politician" being advanced by the Center-Left organizations that coalesced around President Corazon Aquino therefore was a mirage. It was easy then for activists and opinion-makers to continuously bombard media with messages against "traditional politicians" yet they found a hard time producing a face to define "nontraditional" ones.

When the first national elections came, many from the extreme Left (e.g., the "national democrats" aligned with Joema Sison) participated, waving the banner of "alternative"—nay nontraditional—politics. The people, however, rejected them as many of the same leftists had earlier rejected the electoral struggles that were led by Corazon Aquino against Marcos.

The cynicism against "traditional," or trapo (dirty rag) politics, further heightened when the major players in Cory Aquino's yellow coalition, many of whom espoused populist politics, went separate ways as bitter enemies-especially after Corazon Aquino anointed Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) as her heir apparent against the prototypical trapo in Ramon Mitra. For all that may be said against him, Mitra was a dedicated partyman since before Martial Law, in contrast to FVR who seemed to make a "career" out of inventing parties.

When Ramos left office, the Philippine political landscape was simply ripe for celebrity politics, an environment that catapulted action star Joseph Estrada to power. The rest is history and we now have political paralysis.

Wave after wave of political scandals have rocked MalacaƱang, and the "united opposition" had hurled everything, including the kitchen sink, yet The Gloria is still there standing with her perpetual smirk. The main reason is that "there is no alternative to Gloria," and that's because the anti-trapo campaign of the Edsa 1 revolution has managed to discredit every "traditional politician" in the land. It's a phrase that now includes just anybody from the opposition to the party in power.

Do you know why, from Presidents Aquino to Arroyo, the Philippines has always been rocked by coup attempts? It's because people no longer see political parties and movements as alternatives. Instead, what they see, rightly or wrongly, is that only the Armed Forces are “credible enough” (i.e. has the discipline, organization and real power) as an "alternative" to Mrs. Arroyo. It's only a matter of finding an "idealist young officer" to lead us from perdition. This is scary.

But the bigger problem, the sin of commission, is the fact that the Edsa I revolution failed to cut or weaken the nexus between wealth creation and political power in the Philippines. To be an accomplished "tycoon" in this country means one must have political ties to those who grant legislative franchises, provide fiscal incentives in the bureaucracy, provide tariff shelters to favored industries, and those who sign all the administrative and bureaucratic papers and requirements. Piatco, that overpriced Macapagal Highway, the fertilizer scam, Venable contracts—these are just few examples of rent-seeking behavior that characterize the country's political economy. No wonder elections from the presidency down to the barangay levels always attract all sorts of seedy characters and political operators, whose motives always clash with the national interest.

We could have cut this political-economic tangle of sleaze a long time ago.

We could have done so through measures including low and neutral tariff rates (to discourage smuggling, as well as the incentive to make deals with Customs officials), the removal of the pork-barrel system, opening up of entry and exit of all businesses including utilities and telecommunications without having to acquire franchises from Congress, and lowering of corporate taxes coupled with the removal of fiscal incentives, among many others. Some of these options could have worked, who knows? But they were not considered either for lack of resolve or of understanding.

So who "ruined the spirit of Edsa"? And what do we do to restore that lofty spirit? These are hard questions we need to ponder upon as we commemorate those glorious days that freed us from the shackles of a dictatorship.

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Cutting red tape means hitting several birds with one stone

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