‘We thought that building a democracy was over and done in four days, and that by casting our votes one day every three years we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy.’
LAST week, it was with some amusement that I was reading the to-s and fro-s of many on social media who had an opinion or two about “EDSA.” I am referring, of course, to the period from 22-25 February in the year 1986 when I and other Filipinos in their hundreds of thousands (or millions, depending on who you listen to) gathered outside and around Camps Aguinaldo and Crame to protect Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos from Ferdinand Marcos and prevent him from wielding the Armed Forces of the Philippines as a weapon to eliminate the two.
Those four days ended when Cory Aquino took her oath of office at Club Filipino as President of the Philippines, followed by Marcos and his family leaving Malacañang a few hours later aboard US helicopters, unknowingly bound for exile in Hawaii.
Thanks to history being written by the victors, the “1986 Edsa People Power Revolution” became the darling of democrats all over the world, and was an inspiration that led to the exertions of people power across eastern Europe that culminated in the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the redrawing of a large part of the map of Europe.
Thirty five years after EDSA, Filipinos last week were trading potshots at each other as they debated whether the events were all for naught or were one big celebration of democracy that still deserves to be marked every year. Even Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte is said to have belittled the 1986 events, despite the fact that her maternal grandmother, Soledad Roa-Duterte, was a key anti-Marcos activist in Davao during those times, and despite the fact that one of the EDSA beneficiaries was her very own father, who was appointed OIC mayor of Davao City when Cory removed by revolutionary decree all Marcos-era elected public and replaced them with her own appointees.
The key question asked in many of these to-s and fro-s is this: If EDSA were as good as its boosters say it was, then why does the Philippines seem to be no better off today than it was 35 years ago?
I was at EDSA 35 years ago. What brought me in part to EDSA was the fact that I was the legislative assistant of Rene Cayetano, a close confidant of Juan Ponce Enrile, and they were holed up at the Ministry of National Defense with a few others, including AFP Vice Chief Lt. Gen Fidel Ramos and some members of the Reform the Armed Forces (RAM) Movement.
But I was also at EDSA because as a student of political science I was beginning to worry that our inability to look for new leaders beyond a limited number of the political elite was dangerous to the democratic experiment in the Philippines that began in 1946. When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972 ostensibly to prevent our slide into the hands of communism, he also stopped dead in their tracks the political and economic elite to whom power in the Philippines had become simply a game of musical chairs.
Which was well and good… for a while. Until the political and economic elite was able to adjust, as they did under the Spaniards and the Japanese and the Americans – and soon a new generation of them were gathered around Marcos playing musical chairs but this time without the Constitutional limitations of a charter written under the aegis of the Americans.
They could stay in power forever.
Thus, EDSA. Which, again, was well and good… for a while. Trust the political and economic elite to be able to adjust to the new conditions, and soon, not only were the old political and economic elite vanquished by Marcos back in harness, the evils we decried in the Marcosian order were rearing their ugly heads even under the glow of democracy under Cory.
The slide is easy to explain.
After Marcos was ousted, Filipinos happily returned to the polls holding ballots on which names were printed, many of which sounded familiar. Were they all names that represented the best and the brightest of a newly energized democracy? No. Many were holdovers from the past regime; in fact many were from families that have been holdovers from every past regime. But this time the Filipino had a different way of thinking, a post-EDSA way, and it went like this: when presented with a candidate with dubious creeds, the Filipino would ask himself “Who could be worse than Marcos?” Thus, when presented with a “thief” on the ballot, the Filipino says “Oh, no one could be worse than Marcos,” and the little thief gets a pass and is given a key to the treasury as a public official. So the little thief fills his little pockets with pocket change, and the Filipino says, “Oh, that’s nothing compared to what Marcos took” and the little thief is happy. When he ends his term, his relative takes over, this time with slightly deeper pockets. Not only that, it’s not just one relative; it’s more. A dynasty, even. But the Filipino says “Oh, what dynasty could be worse than the Marcoses?” and the many dynasties all over the country get a pass. Sounds funny, yes? But imagine this happening for every election after 1986: in 1987, in 1989, in 1992, in 1995, in 1998, in 2001, in 2004, in 2007, in 2010, in 2013, in 2016, in 2019, and soon, in 2022.
So it is funny that 35 years after EDSA we look back and wonder “what happened?” “Was EDSA a failure?”
I love going to my dentist, Dr. Jill Chua-Paca, every six months to have my teeth cleaned.
Imagine going to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned one day every three years – but in between you don’t even brush. That you now have dental carries in all your teeth, some beyond repair, and uber serious gum problems to boot, is not the fault of the dentist.
We thought that building a democracy was over and done in four days, and that by casting our votes one day every three years we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy. In between, we trust that the little thief and the budding dynasty can’t become “worse than Marcos.”
EDSA didn’t fail. We did.