Filipino history repeats itself - quicker

Peaceful street protests that mirror 1986 overthrow of Marcos bring former President Estrada's swift downfall.

They're calling it "People Power II."

But compared to the democratic uprising of the Filipino people 15 years ago, the sequel was faster, smarter, and smoother.

Facing corruption charges, a stubborn President Joseph Estrada was forced to leave Malacanang palace in only a matter of weeks, making way for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who became the 14th president of the Philippines on Saturday.

The last time Filipinos cast out a leader roundly deemed corrupt, they first spent 21 years under Ferdinand Marcos's rule - including 14 under martial law - and suffered through a dark, violent chapter in their crusade to see Mr. Marcos driven from office.

But this uprising seemed to run on a different sort of voltage - one with the force of instant information technology, and one that showed an unprecedentedly insistent demand for responsible leadership. While other nations in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, saw a similar populist transfer of power marred by bloodshed, the dramatic changing of the guard in Manila this weekend was peaceful and is being taken as a sign of democratic progress. "The revolution is not over," says Alexander Magno, transition spokesman for President Arroyo, who was hailed at an emotional "thanksgiving Mass" and prayer rally last night. As she basked, closed-eyed, in a shower of religious blessings beneath a monument to the 1986 people-power rebellion - a sculpture of heroic fighters with arms thrust skyward - she seemed to don the mantle of anointed successor as though the job had been waiting for her all her life.

As the daughter of a former president, some suggest it virtually has. Whether a product of the moneyed Filipino elite can be the engine for overturning entrenched bureaucracy and endemic corruption is a question that many here ask, warning even as they celebrate that they will watch Arroyo closely.

Change that will stick

"We don't want to have to do this a third time," says Guillermo Luz, executive director of the Makati Business Club, an influential group whose call for Estrada's resignation was an important factor in the former president's loss of support among investors and international donors. "I don't think that business confidence will return if people see that this is just one group of politicians dealbreaking with another, and that they can just buy themselves back into power. That is why we have to go after Estrada and his cronies," says Mr. Luz, "or suspicion will fall on this government that nothing has changed."

For some, the success in having managed to oust Estrada for Arroyo - trading a former movie actor whose presidency has been racked with reports of professional and personal scandal for a no-nonsense economist who studied at Georgetown University - is partially eclipsed by the way in which it took place.

Estrada was the subject of an impeachment trial on corruption, bribery, and fraud charges that was to come to an end in mid-February. But prosecutors resigned en masse last Tuesday after a group of senators voted against admitting key evidence of bank accounts that might lead to Estrada's conviction.

That brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Manila's Edsa, the same urban intersection where demonstrators had gathered in 1986. By week's end, as the protests swelled in size and began advancing toward the presidential palace, Estrada's Cabinet resigned. In a final blow, the military and national police on Friday said they were withdrawing support for Estrada and backing Arroyo.

If the speed of that downward spiral were not dizzying enough, judicial, military, and religious leaders announced that they would swear in Arroyo by noon Saturday - even before Estrada had agreed to leave office. Indeed, he still has not formally resigned and never used the word "resign" when he announced Saturday that he would leave the palace. That has left some here questioning the very constitutionality of the succession, widely touted as a shining example of democracy in action.

"It's an extraordinarily good thing that Filipinos have brought about this transition without bloodshed, but there's also the breakdown of the process of impeachment itself, and that doesn't bode well for democracy," says Gerard A. Finin, a Southeast Asia expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii. "It reeks of a politicized military," adds Mr. Finin. "There is some need to have some separation between church and state, and between military and state, and that's one big blur at this point."

Different this time

Still, when compared with the character of the first installment of people power 15 years ago, the depth of military involvement in the civilian process appears to be less extensive. Then, in addition to the importance of Marcos's loss of military backing, US diplomatic intervention and the presence of American troops here played a key role in the course of events. This time, the US was merely an observer, which many here view as a healthier, more indigenous route for change.

That's a road that seems to be more traveled by others in the region, most recently in Indonesia and Thailand. Reverberations of people-power success are already being felt by Manila's neighbors. "All of these countries have attempted to find ways to reduce corruption," says Finin. "It's a significant trend that should not be overlooked."

What lessons may other leaders be learning from Estrada's mistakes? Chief among them may be the fact that it simply is not as easy as it used to be for politicians to enrich themselves from public wealth. Estrada's spending spree was particularly conspicuous because he allegedly had some 17 luxury homes built for himself, his family, and various mistresses over the 2-1/2 years since he was elected president by a wide margin. Powerful photographs of such excesses were due to be exposed to the public during the trial.

In a press conference after her swearing-in ceremony, Arroyo said that her predecessor's woes may not be over. "I want justice to take its course in a dignified manner, so there won't be a circus."

Arroyo said she was considering setting up an antigraft commission. Graft, immorality, and Estrada's compentence were all issues Arroyo addressed in her inaugural speech, moments after taking her oath of office on a makeshft stage at the Edsa shrine.

Apart from fighting poverty, Arroyo said she also wanted to improve moral standards in government. "I believe in leadership by example. We should promote solid traits such as work ethic and a dignified lifestyle, matching action to rhetoric, performing rather than grandstanding."

Another important moral of the Estrada story is that news, good or bad, travels faster than ever, thanks to Internet access and cellular phones with text-messaging capability. Both of those were pivotal new tools in spreading discontent with Estrada and organizing masses of people in almost as little time as it takes to press the "send" button.

With media ever harder to control, what took more than a decade to organize under Marcos took a matter of months under Estrada. Still, even those who were rooting for his downfall admitted they were still a bit stunned by the past 72 hours' turn of events. Out of sheer habit, some were still calling Arroyo "vice president" after she had already been sworn in as president.

Says Randy David, a sociologist at the University of the Philippines, "We were all preparing for a post-acquittal [of Estrada] scenario, because many of us never believed in the impeachment trial as a mechanism for fairness. For young nations like ours, democracy is a work in progress. It's a question of constantly adjusting. In the next two or three years, we can expect a government that is much more careful, more mindful - or at least a lot cleaner in appearance."

Abby Tan, in Manila, contributed to this article.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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