The history of the last 18 years has been a dreary one for most
Filipinos. The promise of political liberation and economic and social
progress that accompanied the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in
February 1986 remained just that: a promise.
As the campaign for the presidential elections of May 2004 unfolds, there is a sense in the air that the “EDSA system” may be on its last legs. The administration and the opposition slates are made up of candidates pirated from one another’s ranks; yesterday’s enemies are today’s comrades. The overwhelming need is for a program for economic growth that will address the country’s gaping social inequalities, yet it is a topic studiously avoided by the leading candidates—the administration because it has led the country to its worse fiscal crisis, the opposition because its presidential candidate does not have a grasp of basic economics.
A carbon copy of the electoral democracy that was the country’s system of governance before it was destroyed by Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972, EDSA has reproduced most of its faults of the former: it has encouraged maximum factional competition among the elite while allowing them to maintain a united front against any change in the system of social and economic inequality.
Two Sides of the EDSA System
The staying power of the EDSA system is that, in contrast to the Marcos regime, it is democratic. Yet it is democratic in the narrow sense of making elections the arbiter of political succession. In the principle of one man or woman, one vote, there is formal equality. Yet this formal equality exists cannot but be subverted by its being embedded in a social and economic system marked by great disparities of wealth and income. Like the American political system on which it is modeled, the genius of the EDSA system, from the perspective of the Philippine elite, is the way it harnesses elections to socially conservative ends. Running for office at any level of government is prohibitively expensive, so that only the wealthy or those backed by wealth can usually think about standing for elections. Thus the masses do choose their representatives, but they choose from a limited pool of people of means that may belong to different factions—those “in” and those “out” of power—but are not different ideologically. The beauty of the system is that by periodically engaging the people in an exercise to choose among different members of the elite, elections make voters active participants in legitimizing the social and economic status quo. Thus has emerged the great Philippine paradox: an extremely lively play of electoral politics unfolding above an immobile class structure that is one of the worst in Asia.
Throughout the EDSA years, the Filipino masses were largely a force that was manipulated electorally to achieve the political ends of competing elite alliances. Yet coexisting with the electoral tradition of the EDSA system is another one–an insurrectionary dimension that derives its legitimacy from the manner in which Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from power. In the last 18 years, it was through an appeal to this insurrectionary tradition that the masses occasionally erupted on the national scene, bursting the electoral parameters to which the elite wanted to confine them. In January 2001, the middle class, driven by anti-corruption sentiment, served as the base for the extra-constitutional removal of Joseph Estrada from the presidency in what is now known as EDSA II. Then three months later, in what is now known as EDSA III, the lower classes, particularly the urban poor, came together in a mass uprising that was only dispersed by the military at the gates of Malacanang.
Especially in the case of EDSA III, elite personalities were only nominally at the head of an angry class-based urban insurgency that took the form of a movement to restore to power a defrocked leader who, despite a record of corruption, was seen as a man of the masses. After each insurgency, however, politics settled down to a normal electoral competition managed by elite politicians.
The Anti-Developmental State
While entrenched corruption is the feature of the EDSA system that has elicited loud protest from the middle classes, it has been the utter failure of the system to deliver economic prosperity and reduce inequality that is the greatest source of mass alienation. Close to 10 per cent of the Filipino nation, or over seven million Filipinos, now work or live abroad, and, according to recent surveys, one out of five Filipinos wants to migrate. The sense of frustration is deepened by the widespread sense that our neighbors in Southeast Asia were achieving “economic miracles” while we were paralyzed by factional politics and mistaken policies. However much we may decry its authoritarian policies, it is hard to deny that Singapore, with its controlled competition, prosperity, and security, has become to many Filipinos the ideal polity, the anti-thesis of an EDSA system that has become deeply dysfunctional.
Economic stagnation, according to some analysts, may be related to the political system’s focus on elite representation and the parliamentary mechanisms to assure this rather than on the development of a strong central bureaucracy that is relatively autonomous from the private sector. The influence of the pre-1930’s American model of governance that guided the formation of the colonial and post-colonial state in the Philippines is again evident here. With the rationale of discouraging tyranny, the American pattern of a weak central authority coexisting with a powerful upper class social organization (“civil society,” in today’s parlance) was reproduced in the Philippines, creating a weak state that was constantly captured by upper class interests and preventing the emergence of the activist “developmental” state that disciplined the private sector in other societies in post-war Asia.
In his influential book on contemporary politics in the US, Daniel Lazare says, “Government in America doesn’t work because it’s not supposed to work.” For much the same reason, the subversion of the democratic potential of the masses by the realities of concentrated wealth and power, one can say the same thing of the Philippines.
How long such a state of affairs can persist is anybody’s guess. But the really deep sense of frustration, bitter electoral competition, and EDSA’s insurrectionary tradition can interact in volatile ways. EDSA III showed how this mix can produce a lower-class insurgency, something that can be set off by a concatenation of events. To many observers, the question is not if EDSA III can happen again but when.