Thirty five years and counting

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    ‘If, 35 years after EDSA, the citizenry still prefer the good looking over the capable, or believe that only the poor can steal, then we have been running in place indeed.’

    IT was this day 35 years ago when the key events centering around a stretch of Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue, or EDSA, began to unfold. Around 6 p.m., from the office of the Minister of National Defense, Juan Ponce Enrile – joined by the AFP Vice Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Fidel V. Ramos – resigned from the Marcos government and declared their withdrawal of support from the same. The move was triggered by the discovery, earlier in the day, of a plot by the Enrile-allied Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) to arrest Ferdinand Marcos and his family and cause a military takeover of government. Marcos, holed up in Malacanang with the AFP Chief of Staff, Fabian C. Ver, and all the other generals of the AFP other than Ramos, then went on national TV to ask both Enrile and Ramos to “stop the stupidity” and turn themselves in.

    But Enrile and Ramos did not do so; Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, called on the Catholic faithful to rally to the side of the rebel leaders, and soon EDSA fronting Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo (the AFP headquarters) and Camp Crame (the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary once headed by Ramos) was filled with citizens from all walks of life. They were to stay there for the next three days, serving as a shield against any attacks by military units still loyal to Marcos, while Enrile and Ramos worked the phones getting other units to turn sides.

    On February 25, Marcos and his family were airlifted out of Malacanang by US Air Force units and eventually flown to Hickman Air Base in Hawaii where Marcos would spend the last three years of his life, in exile.

    The exile of the Marcos family paved the way for the installation of Corazon Aquino as his successor as the 11th President of the Philippines. Cory’s term was a mix of undoing the damage inflicted on democratic institutions, while helping restore many of the elements of the “old order” that lost out under Marcos. Her successor, Fidel Ramos, attempted to build on the democratic gains of the Cory years but his administration was burdened by the Asian financial crisis. Joseph “Erap” Estrada was elected 13th president in a landslide, but corruption allegations crippled his administration early on, and he became the second president to be ousted by a “people power revolution.”

    Erap was followed by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, or GMA, seen by many as one of the most capable administrators in recent memory, but her term, like her predecessor’s, was crippled by allegations of corruption piled on top of electoral fraud accusations that tarred her presidency. These allegations overshadowed her efforts at instituting economic reforms.

    GMA presided over the transition to Benigno Aquino III, Cory’s son, whose “ Kayo Ang Boss ko” inaugural address refrain was a clear attempt to bridge the gap between the broad mass of Filipinos and the political and economic elite who have determined their fate for decades. But the gap could not be bridged by slogans alone and in 2016 Rodrigo Duterte was elected 16th president, riding on a populist campaign that promised achievements in three to six months. Among the 15 promises: the defeat of criminal and drug syndicates; the eradication of rice cartels and, of course, the end to corruption. Duterte also promised to jet ski to the disputed portions of the South China Sea so he could plant a Philippine flag as a way of telling China off.

    By last count, not one of the Duterte campaign promises has been achieved.

    Duterte is in his last 15 months in office, and some of his supporters are making noises about Charter change and “revolutionary government,” in the hope, it seems, of postponing if not cancelling the May 2022 Presidential elections or at least extending his term beyond the six year Constitutional limit. At the same time, parallel efforts are being undertaken to convince his daughter Sara, mayor of the city of Davao, to run for President in 2022. A political analyst calls these parallel efforts the “exit strategy” for Duterte.

    Thirty five years after EDSA, it seems that Philippine society has been running in place, if not in fact backsliding. Politics remains no different today from what it was in the 1980s: family affairs from the local level all the way to the national level, with politicians donning party labels for convenience rather than principles. The economy still benefits a small minority of the population, made worse by the economic hardships brought by the pandemic. The pandemic threatens mostly the gains the local economy has savored from a substantial Filipino work force abroad that remits over $30 billion annually; with much of the world contracting, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have no choice but to be repatriated, back home where opportunities are scarce.

    But the greatest backslide may be with the ordinary Filipino voter, they who continue to choose to vote every way but wisely. I cannot forget that video clip of a Filipina who was quizzed about why she was going to support a candidate who had been charged with plunder: “he’s handsome,” she says in Filipino. Wasn’t she bothered by the allegations of plunder amounting to over one hundred million pesos, she was asked. “No, I don’t follow those nor believe those,” she replied. But her succeeding comment was what floored me. “He is already rich, so he wouldn’t steal,” she said, effectively declaring to their world her belief that only among the poor can you find thieves.

    Because democracy is all about “people power” exercised through the ballot box, one must be concerned that the people who exercise that power should know how to do so, just as someone entrusted with a firearm should know the basics of how to shoot. If, 35 years after EDSA, the citizenry still prefer the good looking over the capable, or believe that only the poor can steal, then we have been running in place indeed.

    We hoped for change 35 years ago; that change has yet to really come.