People Power 2 began five years ago in the evening of January 16. The impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada had ground to a halt with the 11 to 10 vote that prevented the opening of the second envelope on Estrada’s bank accounts. Slowly at first, but building into the hundreds of thousands, students and teachers, nuns and priests, professionals and working men, doctors and nurses, businessmen and farmers, small traders and clerks– the organized and the unorganized– gathered at EDSA and eventually forced Estrada out of office.
The culminating event of the second instance in which the people had directly acted to oust a president was Estrada’s departure from Malacanang, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s being sworn in as President on January 20.
The first was the need to be “bold in our national ambitions,” so the country could, “within this decade…win the fight against poverty.”
The second was to “improve moral standards in government and society, in order to provide a strong foundation for good governance.”
The third was to “change the character of our politics, in order to create fertile ground for true reforms.” The “politics of personality and patronage,” she declared, “must give way to a new politics of party programs and process of dialogue with the people.”
Finally, she said, “I believe in leadership by example. We should promote solid traits such as the work ethic and a dignified lifestyle, matching action to rhetoric, performing rather than grandstanding.”
Arroyo went on to declare that poverty cannot be solved without promoting “a new politics of true party programs and platforms…This new politics is the politics of genuine reform. It is a structural part of the solution.”
Hindsight now suggests—although there was a sizeable portion of those listening to her that Saturday who did not quite believe her even then—that in the worst, most cynical tradition of the politics she was condeming, Arroyo was merely telling the country and the people massed at EDSA what she thought they wanted to hear.
The problem at the heart of the Philippine crisis Arroyo had acknowledged in her inaugural speech: bad governance resulting from traditional politics, which she correctly pointed out then results in “the social and economic inequities that characterize our national problems,” which include mass poverty, injustice, and mass misery.
Among others, the signs and consequences of bad governance include inefficient, secretive governance; runaway corruption; rank political opportunism and money politics; failed but nevertheless stubbornly implemented economic and social policies; foreign dependency. Over-all, among the denizens of the political class, is a resistance to change and reform they often conceal behind a mask of reformist rhetoric.
The need for a politics based on the party programs and platforms Arroyo referred to, and a political system in which not only the wealthy and already in power could participate, has been evident for decades. It is as well known to the middle class, organized labor, student organizations, farmers’ groups, and activist nuns and priests as it is among political scientists and even some politicians. Mrs. Arroyo’s focus on the need for new politics thus gave those who had brought her to power some hope that finally the political system could be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Many among the individuals and organizations that provided the warm bodies in the Estrada Resign movement and at EDSA 2001 doubted Arroyo’s capacity, willingness and moral commitment to weed out corruption, provide honest government, and over all, encourage through example the growth of new politics.
Hope springs eternal in the human, particularly the Filipino, breast, however. Having benefited from new politics, which drove Filipinos to EDSA in the aftermath of the failure of the impeachment process not only in 2001, but also in 1986 to oust a dictator, there was always the possibility, no matter how faint, that Arroyo could repudiate not only what had made her senator and president, but also her own origins.
Arroyo did repudiate something– and she did so almost as soon as she had crossed the Malacanang threshold in 2001. She repudiated People Power and EDSA 2, making it abundantly clear that it was the traditional centers of power in Philippine society—the political and economic elite, the institutional Church, the police and the military, and of course the United States—she intended to court to remain in power.
But worst of all has her rejection of and hostility to new politics been, and her incorrigible, unprecedented and cynical exploitation of all the devices of traditional politics that have made her the undisputed leader of Philippine trapodom. Among the outstanding examples of her trapo expertise are her use of presidential power and government resources, and the manipulation of the results of the 2004 elections—and, of course, her preference for rhetoric instead of action, for grandstanding in place of performance, and for a level of repression equaled only by the martial law period.
As Arroyo herself pointed out in 2001, “politics and political power as traditionally practiced and used in the Philippines are among the roots of Philippine problems”. Arroyo will of course deliver the usual paean to People Power in celebration—if that is indeed the word—of her coming to power five years ago. No doubt among the things she will neglect to mention is how patently she has failed to live up to her so-called “core beliefs” and to solve the problems she identified then.
Indeed the Philippines will continue to have problems because Arroyo has a problem. But she is not only part of the problem to which, in 2001, she had promised to be the solution. She is the problem.