“Low-key” was the phrase the newspapers used to describe it, and low-key it indeed was. There was only a mass at 6:30 a.m. at the EDSA shrine, where President Arroyo’s upbeat remarks—about her administration, of course—were nearly ignored by the media—and the usual flag-raising ceremony. Only Manila Bishop Socrates Villegas’ sermon on the politicians’ betrayal of EDSA in fact made the headlines the next day; without it the event would have passed only with the barest notice.

The Arroyo administration noted—“celebrated” is not the word for it—the third anniversary of EDSA 2 with as much enthusiasm as a nephew twice removed would have marked the anniversary of a long dead aunt—i.e., one had to go through it, but only as a matter of ceremony, which in any case had to be brief so one can go about one’s normal business.

If there’s anything the administration is indeed committed to, it’s business as usual, despite EDSA 2’s message that neither government nor politics should continue the way Joseph Estrada was orchestrating both, and for which he paid the price of being removed from office.

On January 20, 2001, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had assumed the presidency four days after the Estrada Eleven in the Senate killed any possibility of a credible conclusion to the impeachment trial of a president accused of taking money from sundry sources, amassing unexplained wealth, and governing the country while hung-over and by proxy.

And yet what this country’s politics and governance need, EDSA 2 was saying, is not business as usual but business unusual, meaning an end to the kind of politics that elects clowns and idiots to the country’s highest posts on the basis of popularity, and the kind of governance—inefficient, without vision and corrupt—that results from it.

In taking power on January 20, 2001 Mrs. Arroyo acknowledged both messages by promising a government of transparency and an end to the traditional politics of wheeling and dealing, in which popularity and unprincipled alliances rather than programs often decide elections.

The members of the people’s organizations, civil society groups, professionals, businessmen, workers, urban poor and others massed at EDSA all heard her say that. They cheered, but reserved their judgment. Mrs. Arroyo was Estrada’s successor, said the Constitution, but not quite the leader they wanted.

Though the biggest beneficiary of EDSA 2, Mrs. Arroyo had after all waited till almost the very last moment to cast her lot with it. There was also the matter of her track record, which had been distinguished by compromise with the Estrada government when she was vice president, and support for the Visiting Forces Agreement and trade liberalization when she was a senator.

As far as her politics went, she wasn’t any different either. In winning a seat in the Senate and becoming vice president she had shown no sign setting her apart from the country’s plague of traditional politicians. She too had appealed to the worst instincts of the electorate. She too had sung and danced, clowned around on stage, cobbled together alliances of convenience, and waged a media campaign that relied on her cuteness and her being a supposed look-alike of Nora Aunor,

Today the Arroyo government would rather not be reminded of EDSA 2’s messages—or of its own promise to govern and act by them. Since 2001, Mrs. Arroyo has been guided primarily by her focus on being elected in 2004, and to that end has stopped at nothing. The paradox is that a president who came to power on the crest of the demand for new politics and good governance has turned out to be the very quintessence of trapodom in her shameless pandering to anyone and anything that can help her win in May, whether the United States government, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, the death penalty crowd, or the Estrada cohort, of which John Osmena and Miriam Defensor Santiago, now candidates for senator in the Arroyo K-4 coalition, are among the rancid examples.

As a result, and although she promised to be a good president, the country is far worse off today than it was in 2001, with its economy in shambles, and more Filipinos in the poverty pit. Three years after EDSA 2 Philippine governance and politics are no better and are in the worst state they’ve ever been.

The Arroyo government was turning its back on EDSA 2 even at the very moment that it was entering Malacanang. The force of its example strengthened rather than buried the politics of compromise, deceit, and lack of principle. The country is witnessing one of the worst election seasons in its history as a result. This is evident in the appalling choices open to the electorate, the shamelessness and corruption of most of the candidates, and their being distinguished only by the extent to which they’re willing to trade principle for power.

Was EDSA 2 then of no use, the efforts of 2001 pointless?

Not if we look at that event as part of a process: that of the Filipino’s political awakening towards the realization that only on the strength of their own collective power can this country hope to go anywhere.

Both EDSA 1 and EDSA 2 were demonstrations of this truth, which in other climes once equally desperate had been similarly proven. The political system, allegedly democratic, had failed in 1972 and in 2001, and only People Power could remedy the hideous results of those failures.

In 1972 authoritarian rule rode to power on the wings of the so-called democratic process that through a corrupted electoral process had twice brought Ferdinand Marcos to Malacanang.

In 2001, 15 years after the same system was restored in 1986, it had once again failed the Filipino people by shutting down the only means through which they could redress the error of electing an unqualified and allegedly corrupt president. In response Filipinos in their millions ventured outside the political system, and on their own power removed Marcos in 1986, and Estrada in 2001.

Both EDSAs have since caused much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. One did overthrow a dictatorship, while the other ousted a corrupt and inefficient government.
Neither has fulfilled its promise of reform and good governance. The lament over both is how outstanding failures they have been in fostering principled politics and good government.

The hand-wringing ignores what they did achieve nevertheless. That has primarily consisted of a distinct lesson now being etched in the minds and hearts of millions of Filipinos. What both EDSAs and their disappointments are teaching them is that authentic democracy does not reside in the anomalies that Philippine elections and governments have become, and in the total bankruptcy of the political system. It resides in the sovereign power of the citizenry.

This is a lesson spreading among vast sectors of the population—among the people’s and mass organizations that have taken democratic action to the streets and villages, among the increasing number of workers, students, farmers, women, and professionals who have realized that Philippine electoral contests are not democracy’s expression but its perversion.

This May, the elections will once more emphasize the truth of that discovery. Although it promises to be another pointless exercise, it will still be part of the process that educates by negative example as much as by the positive demonstration by EDSAs 1 and 2 of where the ultimate power and our own hopes for the future lie. Maybe someday it will finally be business unusual.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, January 24, 2004)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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