THE partisans of Renato Corona made it a point during the four months of his impeachment trial to warn the public of the danger of dictatorship should Corona be removed from the Supreme Court and Benigno Aquino III left to choose his successor.
That would assure, they said, Aquino control of every branch of government. With the elections of 2013 practically guaranteeing that his coalition would emerge victorious in the Senate and House elections, he would have control of the Executive, the Judiciary, and both houses of Congress by next year.
These were strange emanations from the camp of an appointee of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the one post-martial law Philippine President who most qualified for the Marcos mantle of dictatorship. Neither did Corona have a track record of championing land reform or anyone’s independence, least of all that of the judiciary. Because the Corona Supreme Court’s lack of independence – its supposed bias for Arroyo – was not only among the seven articles of impeachment, but was also widely suspected, few took the Corona camp’s claims seriously.
For the virtues of his parentage, meanwhile – and for his public image as an amiable, laid-back playboy who can’t really be into anything as devious as aspirations for dictatorship – thanks to the media, Aquino III is practically a candidate for every Boy Scout merit badge in the universe by virtue of his alleged goodwill, honesty, sincerity, and a mind uncluttered by malice, among other complications.
Few among the so-called thinking class thought the “impeachment-is-Aquino’s-revenge-for-Hacienda Luisita” argument valid, or even relevant. Even with Corona out of the way, and Aquino III now free to choose his own Chief Justice, it is unlikely that the country will soon see the Supreme Court reversing its ruling on the distribution of Hacienda Luisita land to its tenants and shareholders.
Two reasons would make the Court’s reversing itself problematic, at least before the 2013 elections. The political fallout would validate the Macapagal-Arroyo bloc’s claims that Corona was impeached for being a champion of land reform. The second is that there are other opportunities for aggrandizement in government once the Aquino group – which includes one particularly cunning uncle among his legion of kin, various associates, cohorts, cronies, and even one “leftist” formation – has consolidated control and swept away most of the remaining members of the Arroyo clique still in government.
The possibility of authoritarian rule in some form or another is something else. The threat of a right-wing dictatorship whether formal or otherwise, but sustained anyway by military bayonets has been a constant in the Philippines since the Carlos P. Garcia presidency (1957-1961).
The Marcos dictatorship was not a fluke due to the quirks and peculiarities of character of one man, but was the logical consequence of the unwillingness of the ruling elite to meaningfully use power to address the basic problems of the nation because to do so would undermine its own interests and those of its foreign overlord. Instead, the Marcos wing of it used that power in 1972 to suppress the social unrest that for over 300 years has demanded an end to poverty, mass misery, and injustice in this land of woe.
The Marcos dictatorship was a low point in ruling elite efforts to contain both the social unrest characteristic of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the demands for authentic independence and the democratization of power during that period.
Its overthrow in 1986 returned the country to where it was before September 21, 1972, and no changes in the structures of either power or social relations took place in the decades after. The result has been continuing social unrest, its visible expressions being protests, strikes, demonstrations, rebellions, insurgencies, and a revolutionary movement that has endured, and could eventually prevail.
The second Aquino administration’s sole contribution to the effort to interpret the Philippine crisis of poverty, injustice and mass misery has been the argument that corruption is at the root of it all. No coherent analysis of Philippine society has so far distinguished it from past administrations.
None probably ever will: it is both unable and unwilling to do so. The limitations of ruling elite capacities have always prevented it from developing the analysis that should be the foundation of policy. But neither is it willing to think beyond the conventional parameters of band-aid solutions to festering problems. A coherent critique of Philippine society would after all lead to the conclusion that the ruling elite, whose roots go back to the collaborationist principalia, is not the bearer of the solutions to Philippine problems, or even part of it, but is the problem.
Driven by the imperatives of maintaining elite rule without addressing the social and political roots of the Philippine crisis, dictatorship will not be prevented by the benevolence, goodwill, sincerity, and those other virtues that individuals of whatever class may have. Authoritarian rule has been, and will continue to be, an option propelled by the interests of the entire elite, which at one point in the history of this country opted for open dictatorship, but which at other times since has disguised repression with pious claims of adherence to democratic standards.
Since 1986 the country has not had to wait long for the return of authoritarianism. The many attempts by military putschists and their civilian patrons in the 1980s and 1990s to restore it were replaced by a sustained attempt to restore authoritarian rule in the first decade of the 21st century. While savaging free expression, making extrajudicial killings policy, destroying supposedly independent State institutions, financing warlordism, terrorizing its rivals, and paying off the more susceptible among the legal opposition, the Macapagal-Arroyo regime, using the language of the martial law period, attempted to reproduce it through its 2006 declaration of a state of emergency.
Today, in addition to Aquino’s imminent control of all three branches of government, we also have some of the same characteristics of the Arroyo regime, among them extrajudicial killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, the bombing of communities and the displacement of their residents, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other egregious human rights violations.
Aquino III has done nothing to stop these atrocities, perhaps because he thinks they’re necessary to the counter-insurgency campaign, and/or because to do so would be to step on the toes of the warlords and the military who are responsible. A Boy Scout Aquino may be in some respects. But as we saw during the Arroyo regime, it takes only a few more steps after consolidating control over the entire government to restore authoritarian rule.