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Philippines’ democracy in turmoil

Steven Rogers
15 August 2005

The president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was on top of the world only fifteen months ago. Elected vice-president in 1998, she became president in 2001, when Joseph Estrada was forced from office by popular demonstrations. Her early performance earned approval from the Philippine business community, foreign governments, and multilateral institutions; but the less-than-democratic succession left lingering questions of legitimacy, and in the elections of May 2004 Arroyo pursued a new mandate with a near-fanatical intensity.

After a contentious and clumsily managed five-way election Arroyo emerged with a small but clear margin of victory over popular actor and political neophyte Fernando Poe Jr. An exultant Arroyo, facing a new six-year term, promised to put politics behind her and focus on confronting the growing threats of insurgency, terrorism, poverty, and fiscal crisis.

Also by Steven Rogers in openDemocracy, “The United States, tyranny and democracy: a critique of Mariano Aguirre on Michael Ignatieff“

Today her administration is accused of graft and election fraud, and she is fighting for survival. Arroyo is beset by the products of her own errors, by a series of manipulations that seemed, at the time they were undertaken, to be justified by necessity, and by the weight of decades of deepening systemic crisis. Arroyo refuses to fall and cannot do more than stand, and neither she nor her opponents offer any credible avenue for reform. The crisis threatens to undo one of the developing world’s longest-running experiments in democracy, and bears examination by proponents of democratic transition everywhere.

A cumulative crisis

Arroyo’s troubles reach back to the tumultuous fall of her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, a popular actor who gained fame portraying poor characters forced by circumstance to fight against injustice. Estrada won election by a decisive margin in 1998, riding a platform short on policy and heavily padded with generic promises of justice and sympathy for the poor majority.

Once in office, he set aside the interests of the poor and satisfied his own appetites and those of the cronies and political hacks who rose to power alongside him. The formal cabinet was virtually ignored, with real power vested in a “midnight cabinet” of cronies, who made key decisions in the midst of drinking bouts.

Estrada’s numerous mistresses and their families moved into palatial homes, and powerful posts were handed out as rewards for personal favours. The economy slumped, and terrorism surged in the southern island of Mindanao, with Estrada cronies allegedly receiving large kickbacks from ransom paid for the release of hostages held by the notorious militant Islamist group, Abu Sayyaf.

Also by Steven Rogers, “Beyond the Abu Sayyaf” (Foreign Affairs, January-February 2004)

Estrada’s disastrous decisions and boorish personal manners generated opposition from the middle class, the Catholic church, the organised left, the business community, and political elite factions who had not allied themselves with the new president. None of these groups had Estrada’s mass following, but they did have considerable resources, and they were determined to find a lever to remove the elected president, justifying this breach of democratic practice with the argument, not unreasonable under the circumstances, that Estrada was destroying the country.

Halfway through Estrada’s term a member of a prominent political clan testified that he had personally delivered payoffs to Estrada from gambling syndicates managing jueteng, an illegal but ubiquitous numbers game. Jueteng payoffs have been a standard perk for Philippine local officials and policemen for decades, but Estrada brought them to the top table. A picture soon emerged of vast sums of grease money being poured into personal indulgences, including mansions occupied by Estrada’s mistresses. Impeachment proceedings were initiated, and when Estrada’s allies blocked the introduction of key evidence, large demonstrations dominated by the middle class paralysed Manila. Estrada’s long-marginalised formal cabinet deserted, as did the police and the armed forces. Estrada never acknowledged the legitimacy of his successor, but was forced to step down.

The immediate beneficiary of his move was Arroyo, a relative outsider who had run for vice-president on a ticket separate from Estrada’s and parlayed a famous name – her father Diosdado was president from 1962-65 – and her background as an economics professor, into a decisive win. Estrada kept her on the outside of his administration, but this distance served her well when his administration collapsed, and her calm, articulate manner and evident sophistication provided a welcome relief to the upper- and middle-class Filipinos who had been so embarrassed by Estrada’s eccentricities.

The return to the maelstrom

Arroyo moved decisively against the combination of Muslim separatists, terrorists, and bandits that has long plagued the southern islands, inviting American forces for joint operations in the area. She sent a small contingent of Philippine troops to Iraq – though they were later withdrawn after a Filipino worker was kidnapped – drawing US approval and a substantial aid package. Her economic policies aimed at returning to the market-oriented reforms that had generated solid growth during the administration of Fidel Ramos, Estrada’s predecessor, and at addressing the government’s perennial revenue collection.

Foreigners and the business community were satisfied, but Arroyo’s relationship with her constituents was uncertain. A few months after she took office, demonstrations larger than those that expelled Estrada, drawn from the fallen president’s base of poor voters, took to the streets to protest Estrada’s arrest on charges of plunder, a capital crime. Arroyo weathered that crisis, but her approval ratings were never impressive, and her popular mandate was questionable. As the 2004 elections approached, Estrada’s cronies, dominating the political opposition, tried to replicate Estrada’s magical grip on the poor voter by selecting another actor, Fernando Poe Jr, to lead their bid to return to power.

Poe was the worst nightmare of educated Filipinos. He had little formal education and no political experience, and was little more than a tool of the Estrada clique, but his vast popularity as the “king of Philippine movies” made him seem unbeatable. Poe’s erratic behaviour and obvious discomfort with the campaign process narrowed the odds, as did the independent candidacy of Panfilo Lacson, a former Estrada police chief who drew off a significant percentage of the Estrada vote, but Arroyo still managed to prevail only with a slim margin. Her supporters, delighted to be rid of Poe, slammed the door on accusations of election fraud, and Poe died of a stroke – from heartbreak, his supporters claimed – several months after the election.

Arroyo dedicated the first year of her new term to raising sufficient revenue to cut the titanic government deficit. Philippine governments have never been able to collect more than a small percentage of income taxes due, and Arroyo’s flagship tax proposal quietly declared surrender on this front, shifting the burden of revenue collection to an expanded value-added tax (Vat). Arroyo’s new tax would have raised rates and included fuel and electricity; economists hailed the measure as necessary, but oppositionists of left and right quickly pointed out that the burden of the tax would fall mainly on working people.

The condition of the poor did not significantly improve in Arroyo’s first three years as president; economists pointed out that she was trying to build a foundation for a government that had the capacity for effective action against poverty, a capacity it clearly did not have when she took office, but opponents were quick to brand her anti-poor.

Arroyo’s tax proposal was approved in May, and with the administration facing the difficult combination of an uncontrollable surge in fuel prices and the need to implement a necessary but painful tax hike, the opposition struck back. The first round came from a series of witnesses claiming to have delivered jueteng payoffs to Arroyo’s husband and son. Far more damaging was the subsequent release of a series of wiretapped recordings that included conversations between Arroyo and election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, which appeared to include discussion of a plan to subtract votes from Poe’s count and add them to Arroyo’s, an established tactic known locally as dagdag-bawas (add-subtract).

The tapes reignited the controversy over the 2004 elections, and despite initial denials, Arroyo eventually admitted to having discussed the count with Garcillano, calling the conversation a “lapse in judgment” and denying that she had cheated. The denials were not widely believed. Poll numbers showed trust in Arroyo plummeting, and her position grew more tenuous by the day. The uproar climaxed on 8 July, when ten cabinet members – including influential finance secretary Cesar Purisima, resigned, requesting Arroyo to do the same. Groups and individuals ranging from the stodgily corporate Makati Business Club to left-wing NGOs to political icon Cory Aquino called upon Arroyo to step down for the good of the nation, opponents and supporters rallied in the streets, and for several days in mid July, the end of Arroyo’s presidency seemed imminent.

A paralysing stalemate

Since then Arroyo’s position has improved, despite potentially explosive allegations that jueteng money was paid to election commissioners during a pre-election dinner at Arroyo’s house. Opposition politicians, unable to bring street rallies to anything approaching a critical mass, have initiated impeachment proceedings against Arroyo. The president claims to welcome the move, as well she might: the lower house of the legislature, which must ratify an impeachment before it is sent to the senate, is dominated by her allies, notably master legislative manipulator Jose de Venecia.

Opposition politicians are unlikely to force Arroyo from office legally: the wiretapped conversations were illegally obtained and probably inadmissible as evidence, and the legislature is stacked with Arroyo’s allies. Even if an impeachment were successful, vice-president Noli de Castro would succeed Arroyo, which the opposition has already declared an unacceptable outcome. The impeachment proceeding seems less an attempt to remove Arroyo through a constitutional process than an effort to recreate the circumstances surrounding Estrada’s ouster: opposition figures hope that if the pro-Arroyo majority in congress moves to block the impeachment, the people will take to the streets and force a resignation.

This plan is not likely to succeed, because neither the poor nor the middle class seem interested in taking to the streets. The opposition is led by an unconvincing alliance between the Estrada/Poe demagogues and a motley collection of hard-left ideologues. The Estrada/Poe group relies on paid rallyists drawn from Manila’s poorest slums, the left on a core group of radicals that is rarely able to generate more than a few thousand noisy but ineffectual supporters. Neither has enough support to overthrow a government; nor is likely to gain the support of the military, the Catholic church, or other key players; nor is likely to generate mass demonstrations large enough to force a change in power.

This “people power fatigue” is not simply a consequence of ennui. The original “people power” revolution in 1986, the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos, was a rebellion against a brutal and corrupt dictator who had held the nation under his thumb for twenty years. The demonstrations against Estrada were triggered by corruption allegations and moves to quash an impeachment proceeding, but beneath those overt causes lay a deep perception that Estrada was a national disaster and a national embarrassment.

While his removal may have been less than democratic, it was seen as a case where democracy had to be broken in order to save it. Once again, an acceptable leadership alternative was available, in a legitimate and qualified constitutional successor with few ties to the disgraced president. None of these circumstances prevail today. Arroyo may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect president, but she is neither a dictator nor a disaster. Allegations of corruption and election fraud engender resentment but little shock among Filipinos, who have heard the same litany many times before.

The opposition has failed to present a credible leadership option, even for an extra-constitutional process. Fernando Poe, the ostensibly cheated candidate, is dead. Some oppositionists have tried to recruit his widow, actress Susan Roces, but Roces hardly seems cut out to lead a nation. Former police chief Panfilo Lacson, who placed a distant third in the 2004 election, is waving his hand wildly in the background, but there is little evident interest in sending him the call. The Estrada faction of the opposition has vaguely proposed a “governing council” to supervise a new election: not surprisingly, the members of the council they propose would be drawn from their ranks.

The left is demanding a “transition government” composed of “pro-people” figures, without proposing how such a government might be selected or to whom it would be accountable. Either would be completely outside any existing legal or constitutional structure. The opposition has effectively paralysed Arroyo’s government, but has neither effective leadership nor a coherent platform. Faced with these realities, Filipinos are not likely to produce another “people power” revolution.

Somewhere in the mass of accusation and denial is a simple question: did Arroyo actually cheat? The tapes, which can be seen simply as a leader asking for reassurance, are not absolute evidence. A pattern of statistically improbable returns and accounts, some still not public, from the regions in Mindanao where cheating was allegedly focused does suggest that cheating on a significant scale probably did take place. It is also likely, given the prospect of Fernando Poe leading the discredited relics of Estrada’s regime back to power, that those who cheated honestly believed that they were performing a patriotic and necessary act. As in the downfall of Estrada, democracy was broken in order to save it. There is an uneasy feeling, though, that it may have been broken, even with the best of motives, so many times that it may be impossible to put back together.

In search of a new democracy

Arroyo’s defence has been to blame the system: in one of her more revealing public comments, she claimed: “our political system has degenerated to such an extent that it is very difficult to move within the system with hands totally untainted.” She has also offered, as an alternative to resignation or impeachment, to try to fix the system, proposing a constitutional convention to supervise a transition from the current Manila-centered presidential system to a federal republic with a parliamentary government. Her opponents, while conceding that fundamental change is necessary, have denounced the offer as an effort to distract attention from the charges against her. The accusation is legitimate, but since this is the only serious proposal for change on the table at the moment, it deserves consideration.

Proposals for a shift to a federal parliamentary system have been floating about for years, presented by a number of diverse sources. Power in the Philippines is now centred heavily in Manila, with a powerful executive branch often at odds with the legislature, which is composed of a regionally elected house of representatives and a nationally elected senate. Proponents of federalism claim that the move would bring the government closer to the people, often making extravagant predictions of immediate redemption through federalism.

Supporters of parliamentary government point to the potential reduction of legislative/executive gridlock and smoother processes for removing errant executives. Both proposals have serious drawbacks, though, and many of those who promote them are pursuing their own interests, not the nation’s.

The Philippines’ house of representatives has become the power-base of the old regionally based political elite. It is dominated by members of the traditional political clans, many of which have an absolute lock on their districts, but lack the national prominence needed to gain election to the senate, which has consequently come to be dominated by nationally known actors, athletes, media figures, and other celebrities.

Not surprisingly, the members of the old political elite are rallying behind proposals for a unicameral parliament, in which regionally elected representatives would elect and control the executive. Supporters of this scheme point out that it would prevent a Joseph Estrada or a Fernando Poe Jr from attaining executive power. This is true, and an advantage, but it would also effectively turn the country back over to an extremely regressive feudal elite. This is the model that Arroyo is now promoting, though it is not clear whether she sees it as a genuine improvement or as a lever to persuade members of the lower house to block the impeachment proceeding.

The critical flaw that proponents of parliamentarism overlook is that parliamentary systems need political parties to function, and the Philippines has no political parties. Elections are contested by vague, transient, ideologically undifferentiated coalitions, and politicians float freely among them. With no national parties, no ideological distinction between contending coalitions, and the ever-present possibility of a new government taking power, a parliamentary government will almost certainly devolve into a merry-go-round of political manipulations and constantly changing governments.

Federalism is also not the panacea it is made out to be. The principle of bringing government closer to the people is admirable, but the process of establishing another layer of government and delineating the various functions of the federal and state governments is likely to be far more chaotic in practice than in principle. Economic disparities among states will be severe; proposals for shifting revenue from prosperous states to less prosperous are easy to discuss but difficult to implement. Worst of all, an effort to bring power closer to the people may result, in many cases, in a system that can easily be controlled by the traditional regional elites.

Several coherent proposals for a federal/parliamentary government have been presented, notably that of Jose B Abueva, published on the site of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

In theory, such a transition could produce a government structure no worse, and potentially better, than the existing one. In practice, the cost and chaos of the transition and the likelihood of the new system being manipulated to serve the interests of the traditional elite make significant improvement unlikely. For all its faults, the existing system has some advantages: single six-year terms should reduce politicking between elections, and a powerful central government could control the excesses of the traditional regional elites. This potential has not been met, but the obstacle is one of political culture, not political structure.

Culture, not structure

The ruling party offers an expensive and time-consuming shift to a system likely to be no better than the existing one. The Estrada/Poe opposition offers nothing but their desire to return to office. The left offers a screeching catalogue of impossible demands and 1970s-vintage socialist mantras. None of them seem likely to produce constructive change. This does not mean the country is doomed, it means that the existing approaches are not providing the necessary direction and impetus for reform.

The governing elite in the Philippines has traditionally been almost completely exempt from the law. This exemption has crippled attempts at political and economic reform: elections and markets succeed through competition, and competition doesn’t happen when some players don’t have to follow the rules. Even when members of this elite have an honest desire to see circumstances change for the better, they still try to cling to their old prerogatives, even though these prerogatives are fundamentally incompatible with progress. No amount of structural change will make a difference until a change in political culture – specifically, the removal of the elite exemption from the law – is imposed. This will not be done by the political elite.

The standard response to this conundrum is to turn to the power of the people. To the frustration of the left, though, this power has proved to be a fickle and uncertain instrument. This is a problem that faces democratic transitions throughout the developing world: the poor people have overwhelming voting power, but often have only the most rudimentary idea of what policies will actually serve their long-term interests.

In the Philippines, as in many post-dictatorship democracies, many poor voters have fond memories of the dictator’s attempts to placate them with subsidies and price controls, and look kindly on the paternalistic politicians who can be approached for favours and handouts. Their idea of a government that serves their interests is, all too often, a government that provides these.

Efforts to explain that the local politicians deliver only a fraction of their gains from corruption while suppressing productive activity that they can’t control, or that subsidies and price controls ultimately bankrupt the government, or that the government has to balance its budget before it can put resources into development, often go unheard. Instead, the poor fall easy prey to demagogues of left and right, who manipulate mass frustration to gain support agendas that produce little or no benefit for the people.

Philippines rising

Despite this apparent dead end, there is an alternative source of leadership rising in the Philippines. The country has a significant and growing middle class of educated and internationally connected professionals, skilled workers, and entrepreneurs, a class that shares important common interests with the poor – most notably in bringing the governing elite within the rule of law – and has the sophistication, pragmatism, and practical experience to develop effective policies.

This middle class is largely young, and while it has flexed its political muscle on several occasions, notably in the rebellions against Marcos and Estrada, it has not yet achieved a fraction of its potential for political leadership. If this potential is achieved, and if effective political bridges are built between the middle class and the people as a whole, the basic changes in the political culture that are needed for democracy to function could be achieved. If this potential is not achieved, the nation will continue to flounder, and will eventually face a regression out of democracy through a coup or revolution led by demagogues who will manipulate and eventually betray the people.

Can those outside the Philippines do anything to help? Not much. Foreign governments must make it very clear that any attempt to change the government by force will receive no recognition or support. Aid agencies, whether private or public, can provide some assistance but must ultimately concede that the primary obstacles to Philippine development are political, not financial or technical.

Scholars, analysts, and commentators need to openly address the reality that the traditional prerogatives of the elite are fundamentally incompatible with the statements about progress and development that so many members of that elite issue on a regular basis.

Ultimately, though, these issues can only be addressed and resolved by Filipinos. This is not a broken state that needs to be escorted and assisted through its first steps toward democracy. It is a country that stands on the verge of democratic maturity, requiring only that its people stand up and claim what is theirs. Democracy cannot be given to Filipinos by any outside power, nor can they wait for an enlightened ruler to appear and bestow good government upon them. They will have to do it themselves.

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