March, but mourn not the demise of EDSA Republic

Feb 24

originally published by Rappler.com

The EDSA Republic’s failure to live up to its promises spawned Dutertismo

The EDSA uprising was a memorable step in the Philippines’ struggle for democracy, and for this reason alone, it would be important to pencil it in as a red letter day for the country.

Remembering the EDSA uprising, however, should not mean celebrating the EDSA Republic to which it gave birth, as has been the practice institutionalized by the Yellow Establishment over the last 30 years. EDSA was a flawed victory, and its flaws eventually led to its replacement by President Rodrigo Duterte’s barely disguised fascist rule. Indeed, the EDSA Republic’s failure to live up to its promises spawned Dutertismo.

There were three unhealthy birthmarks that marred the EDSA Republic: the role of the military, the intervention of the United States, and the leadership of the elite.

The prominent role of the military rebels in triggering the insurrection gave them a sense of having a special role in the post-Marcos dispensation. Only after seven failed coups was civilian constitutional rule stabilized. But, in retrospect, military discontent was not as damaging to the EDSA Republic as US patronage and elite hegemony.

A US protectorate

The US was not only a player; it was a decisive player. Even before the Aquino assassination in 1983, Washington sought to nudge Marcos and the elite opposition to arrive at some compromise. These pressures escalated in 1985, resulting in Marcos’ calling for the snap elections that became the vehicle for the mobilization of the middle class and some of the popular sectors against the regime and paving the way for the military mutiny.

At that point powerful forces in Washington overcame President Ronald Reagan’s reluctance to cut Marcos loose and moved to directly remove the dictator from the scene. At an off off-the-record briefing at the State Department in Washington on April 23, 1986, to which I was mistakenly invited, Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost openly boasted of how the US moved during Marcos’ last months in power: “Our objective was to capture… to encourage the democratic forces of the center, then consolidate control by the middle and also win away the soft support of the NPA [New People’s Army]. So far, so good.”

The US role in serving as midwife led it to consider the EDSA regime as a protectorate. While the opposition of the Senate majority to a new bases treaty was disconcerting to Washington, it got what it wanted from the government in virtually all other areas. It got Cory Aquino to make repayment of the foreign debt – especially that owed to US banks – the top priority of the new government. And it eventually brought its overwhelming military presence back with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, where Cory’s son, President Benigno Aquino III, agreed to allow Washington to set up US bases in nominally Philippine bases.

From factional monopoly to class monopoly of power

The third flaw of the EDSA Revolution is that it was an uprising whose direction was set by the anti-Marcos factions of the elite. Their aim was to restore competition among the elites while containing pressures for structural change.

The 1987 Constitution enshrined the rhetoric of democracy, human rights, due process, and social justice for popular consumption but these aspirations were frozen in amber owing to the dearth of implementing laws and actions that would translate them into reality. Via periodic electoral exercises, the factional monopoly of power under Marcos gave way to a class monopoly, open to intra-elite competition for the most important national, regional, and local offices but virtually closed to the lower orders as money politics became the order of the day.

Despite its political shortcomings, the EDSA regime would probably have retained a significant amount of support had it delivered on the economic front. Indeed, it would be an understatement to say that the EDSA system failed to translate its promise of delivering less poverty, more equality, and more social justice into reality.

Economic debacle

Perhaps the key tragedy of the EDSA Republic was that it came into being right at the time that neoliberalism was on the ascendant globally as an ideology. Even before the February 1986 uprising, the Philippines had become one of four guinea pigs of the new structural adjustment program unveiled by the World Bank, which aimed to bring down tariffs, deregulate the economy, and privatize government enterprises.

As noted above, under the administration of Corazon Aquino, pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the US Treasury Department, and US banks made repayment of the foreign debt the top national economic priority, and Washington and the IMF ensured that succeeding administrations would follow suit by having Congress adopt the automatic appropriations law that made repayment of the state’s debt the first item in the national budget. Over the next three decades, debt servicing would take up to 20 to 45% of the annual government budget, crippling the government’s capacity to invest and stimulate economic growth and provide essential social services.

With the 1992-98 administration of Fidel Ramos, neoliberalism reached its apogee: tariffs were radically cut to zero-to-five percent, deregulation and privatization were sped up, and the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization — to “benefit”, it was said, from the tide of corporate-driven globalization. Under Ramos and later administrations, the contours of the EDSA political economy were firmed up: pro-market policies, relentless privatization, export-oriented development, export of labor, low wages to attract foreign investors, and conservative monetary and fiscal management. Since the Philippines’ neighbors retained high levels of economic protectionism, neoliberal disarmament contributed to the Philippines’ having the second lowest yearly average growth rate in Southeast Asia from 1990 to 2010. Even the second-tier ASEAN economies of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma outstripped it.

Although the economy registered 6-7% growth rates from 2012 to 2015, there was no “trickle down” to counter the legacy of stagnation bequeathed by neoliberal policies. At nearly 25% of the population, the percentage living in poverty in 2015 was practically the same as in 2003. The gini coefficient, the best summary measure of inequality, jumped from 0.438 in 1991 to 0.506 in 2009, among the highest in the world. For many Filipinos, the statistics were superfluous. Extreme poverty was so wretchedly visible in the big urban poor clusters within and surrounding Metro Manila and in depressed rural communities throughout the country.

Corruption and class

The neoliberal paradigm was not, however, the only cause of the EDSA regime’s failure to address the deepening social crisis. Corruption was a problem, as it was in the Philippines’ neighbors. The administrations of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became synonymous with unbridled corruption. But even more consequential than corruption was class. Just as they had forced Marcos to halt his land reform program in the 1970s, the landed class successfully resisted the implementation of Republic Act 6657, Cory Aquino’s already watered-down land reform program.

A civil society push to reenergize the program, which was passed in 2009, bogged down under the Benigno Aquino III administration owing to lack of political will and presidential indifference. By the end of the effectivity of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Extension Law (CARPER) in June 30, 2014, about 700,000 hectares of the best private land in the country remained in the hands of landlords, violence against land reform beneficiaries was common, and rural poverty remained stubbornly high.

Unaccompanied by structural reforms, the World Bank-supported Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) anti-poverty program of the Aquino administration, though it eventually covered some 4.4 million families, or nearly one-fifth of the population, could barely make a dent on poverty and inequality.

Over the cliff

Class callousness, double standards, and inept governance finally drove the EDSA Republic to the edge of the cliff during the Aquino III presidency. Popular support had steadied the EDSA Republic when it was challenged by military coups in the late eighties.

By 2016, however, three decades of disillusionment had made it a tired, discredited system waiting to be pushed over the cliff, and it was, by the electoral insurgency that brought Duterte to power and his subsequent moves toward fascism.

Dutertismo was EDSA’s vengeful offspring, calling as it did for radically sweeping away the “dilawan.” The EDSA Republic’s ignominious ending was underlined by the spectacular defection of 95 per cent of the Liberal Party, the political formation most identified with its legacy, to the dictatorial Duterte less than three weeks after the elections–an unparalleled opportunistic move that was blessed by Aquino himself to protect him and close associates like former Budget Secretary Butch Abad from prosecution under the new dispensation.

Bury EDSA, fight fascism

Let us remember the EDSA Uprising as an event in our country’s long struggle for democracy, but let us not mourn the EDSA Republic.

It deserves to be buried. Instead of ceremonially evoking nostalgia for the past, what we should do on February 25 is to look to the dangers of present and respond to the challenge of the future.

Let us march against fascism in power and renew our struggle to fight for a truly democratic system, one that goes beyond EDSA’s fatal limitations.

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