Everything happens in this country in the first quarter of the year, and there’s a reason for it.
Every new year begins with the end of the Christmas holidays. Christian Filipinos take their religious holidays seriously, the celebrations of which they take the greatest pains to make memorable. Not accidentally is the most important religious holiday of all, Christmas, also the longest in Christian Philippines. It is the one holiday Filipinos look forward to, and to which they assign the highest expectations. That is why how Christmas is celebrated—how much people spent, how businesses fared, how brightly-lit neighborhoods are, etc.—has become a gauge of the country’s material as well as mental state.
For the two months starting November 2 and ending on January 1 that unofficially mark the Christmas holidays in the Philippines, the focus is on stringing up those lights, preparing for the Christmas and New Year’s feasts, gift-giving and receiving, and, in general, enjoying food, drink and company. With the sense of plenty and well-being it’s expected to generate, the Christmas season is the one time of the year when Filipinos hope to be happiest.
This explains why, to the delight or disappointment of the social and political elite, the majority of Filipinos cannot be bothered with such matters as the legitimacy of presidents or the wisdom of constitutional amendments during the season, but would rather focus on buying that bicycle for Junior, or serving chicken for Christmas dinner.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. The most the faithful should expect from the season, as generations of priests have emphasized ever since this country became dominantly Christian, is to emerge from it with their faith renewed. But rather than being recharged and strengthened, or inspired and encouraged, middle- class and poor Filipinos who compose the overwhelming sectors of the population emerge at the end of the Christmas season somewhat like the celebrant of the night before awakening to the hangover of the morning after.
The merry- making has not dispelled the demons of uncertainty that haunt the middle class, made the next meal certain for the poor, or assured them all that there’s a bright future lurking somewhere in the gloom of the present. They awake to find out that nothing has changed. The first quarter thus becomes an occasion for once more confronting the brutal realities of Philippine existence, to the persistence of which governance is central.
In the first quarter of 1970, a demonstration before Congress on January 26, when then President Ferdinand Marcos delivered his state of the nation address, turned into a head-bashing spree by the police. It provoked the January 30 siege of Malacanang that in turn fed what has come to be known as The First Quarter Storm of 1970, which consisted of an outbreak of demonstrations, strikes and other mass actions by various sectors all over the country.
There was nothing in the last quarter of 1969 to suggest the Storm’s occurrence. Thanks to his expert use of money, intimidation, and alliances of convenience, Marcos had won a second term via a landslide victory in November, 1969. There were allegations of fraud and terrorism, and of Marcos’ use of “overkill” tactics to win the elections, but these seemed to dissipate as November segued into December.
January 1970 showed that if those issues had at all been forgotten, the lapse was only temporary. Not only in the demonstrations of January, but also in those of February, March and the summer of 1970 did these issues surface. In addition, however, the demonstrations also became venues for a radical critique not only of the Marcos government but of the entire political system.
More than any other political event in memory, the political upheavals of 1970, which were characterized by the awakening of Filipinos from every sector of Philippine society, were crucial to succeeding developments. Among others they marked a decisive leap in political consciousness among Filipinos—the very same political consciousness that continues to distinguish them from their counterparts in Southeast Asia
Equally crucial upheavals occurred in the first quarter of 1986 and 2001. In 1986 Marcos’ theft of the snap elections led to a military mutiny which, when discovered, millions of Filipinos supported. There was very little prior to January 1986 to suggest that EDSA 1—the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship through direct people’s action—could happen.
In 2000, the call for Joseph Estrada’s ouster, made as early as 1999, seemed to be no more than wishful thinking. But one event, the arrogance of Estrada’s allies implicit in the vote on the second envelope, of which Tessie Aquino Oreta’s celebratory dance was symbolic, triggered EDSA 2, which forced Estrada out of office.
As December 2005 passed into history, Estrada’s successor Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo was in a celebratory mood. She had survived the political crisis, a Palace statement crowed, and she was stronger than ever. As if to put her money where her mouth is, Mrs. Arroyo dared presume on her own self-assessment. She proposed, through her creature the misnamed Consultative Commission, the cancellation of the 2007 elections and her assuming the presidency until 2010 once the shift to a parliamentary system is realized.
Her presumption of strength could be mistaken, and her supposed strength an illusion. But it will not merely be because former President Fidel Ramos has threatened to withdraw the support for her that on July 8 proved crucial to her survival– and met with opposition leaders to boot.
Ramos’ withdrawal of support alone, or even the supposed restiveness within the military, will not remove Mrs. Arroyo from the post to which she has clung like a barnacle since July. But both can be critical factors should there be a resurgence of the street protests, led by a vast panoply of middle-class, oppositionist and militant organizations, that nearly ousted her last summer, and now refueled by outrage over the prospect of Mrs. Arroyo’s staying in power until 2010 and even beyond.
Awakening from the happy illusions of the Christmas season, and now once more in ill-tempered confrontation with the demons of corrupt and plain bad governance, among Filipinos there is more than enough encouragement this first quarter for mass expressions of the anger and outrage that in the past removed two presidents.