Whither Asia's pioneers of protest?

Corruption cases against Filipino President Arroyo haven't sparked another 'people power' revolt.

david montero
Moral authority: Clergy led past revolts against corrupt leaders, but some bishops like Deogracias Iniguez now say they shouldn't interfere in politics.

As President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo found herself engulfed in a kickback scandal in February, she received a delegation of 40 priests at the Presidential Palace.

On the face of it, the sight was familiar: Corruption brought priests – including prominent opposition leader Cardinal Jaime Sin – to the palace doors in 1986, where they led thousands of citizens in toppling Ferdinand Marcos, one of Asia's longest-ruling strongmen. Their People Power Revolution inspired democratic outbursts around the world. Filipinos did it again in 2001, with Cardinal Sin again leading thousands to force out President Joseph Estrada – and put Ms. Arroyo in.

But the priests who turned up at Arroyo's door in February came not to protest, but to offer a prayer in support.

The move shocked many in the Philippines, and critics say it underlined a dramatic change: Arroyo has divided the Catholic church here more than at any other time in its history, blunting its moral authority as a force of opposition to government corruption. That is a central reason why, despite repeated outcries for the president's resignation, a "people power" revolution has not materialized again.

"At this point, the Catholic church would not want to take up the role of bringing out 'people power.' It divides them, and it reveals that they're divided," says Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bayan, a leading opposition group. "[People power] is not going to come from the Church or be led by the Church."

Another corruption scandal was not what cheering crowds expected when Arroyo took office in 2001. "I will strive to give you a bright future," she said at a jubilant inauguration, while Sin warned the same gathering, "We must never let the mistakes of our past best us again."

Yet the Arroyo administration has become synonymous with corruption. In 2007, Transparency International ranked it 131st out of 160 on its corruption perceptions index.

In the most recent allegations, Arroyo's husband is accused of trying to influence a $330 million deal with Chinese telecom company ZTE, while her former socioeconomic planning secretary is accused of seeking a $5 million kickback. An official tasked with overseeing the deal blew the whistle in February, bringing thousands onto the street in protest. The case is still under investigation by the Senate.

Accusations of grave human rights abuses have also mounted from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, particularly regarding the death and disappearance of some 900 outspoken opposition figures, among them many priests.

Grievances like this brought down Mr. Marcos and Mr. Estrada. But while opposition parties and the military have both attempted coups against Arroyo, citizens have not provided the outpouring needed to sustain these actions.

Analysts cite a number of reasons: Many Filipinos now question the usefulness of protests that seem to replace one corrupt leader with another. Others feel that, with elections slated for 2010, it is better to allow democracy to run its course. But some say people do want change. What People Power is missing is leadership, they add, particularly from the Church.

Angelito Banyo, director of PR Politik, a think tank in Manila, cites a recent poll by Pulse Asia indicating that 16 percent of the 1.5 million people in Metro Manila, a cluster comprising the capital and 15 surrounding cities, are ready to go out on the street.

"That's more than what we had in [People Power I] and [People Power II]. There are sleepers who could be People Power revolters," Mr. Banyo says, adding that "in the absence of a recognizable crop of leaders, it's probably the Church who could give some moral authority to another people power revolt."

But the Church isn't taking on the role. For many Filipinos, this was driven home with Arroyo's scandal in February. Though the Church publicly condemned the corruption, it didn't call for Arroyo to step down. If it had, analysts say, a popular revolt might have resulted. "A decision [by the bishops] to join a street clamor for the President's resignation would have ... sparked a massive people power revolt," an editorial in the influential Manila Times said in late February.

Church officials defend their action, saying that doctrine recently promulgated by the Vatican instructs the Catholic church to refrain from direct political involvement.

"The bishops now have specified some activities as purely political activities, for example, calling on the president to step down," says Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, head of public affairs for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the governing body of the clergy.

But for many Filipinos, there is a perception that something more is at play. Local newspapers revealed in March that the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, a lottery agency run by the office of the president, has given tens of thousands of dollars to the Church for various projects since 2006. "[Arroyo] has 'bought' most of the bishops in the sense that, she's given them support for their social projects," says Banyo.

Church officials have defended the donations, saying they need money, but critics say it shows that the Catholic church has grown weak financially – and is willing to make deals with the government in return for support.

Not that all bishops support the president. "Some of us are rabidly supportive of the government. Some of us are angrily against the government," says Archbishop Oscar Cruz, a prominent critic of the administration.

As a result, the clergy in the Philippines find themselves deeply divided over Arroyo's rule. And that makes it impossible to lead. "We don't speak as one voice," the archbishop continues.

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