Iraq Deaths Estimator

Live Blog

« December 2005 | Main | March 2006 »

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Twenty Years Later, Near-Martial Law Returns to the Philippines
James S. Henry

PhpypzktpAt first glance, this week's news from the Philippines is even more dismal than usual. But the deepening crisis also discloses some interesting possibilities for fundamental change.

News_1The bad news has arrived in bulk. First, the search for more than 1050 victims of the recent Leyte mudslide has been called off without any progress.

Second,  President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has seen fit to declare a state of emergency -- 20 years to the day after "People's Power"/ EDSA I brought an end to the Marcos dictatorship on February 25, 1986.

Officially, Madame Arroyo attributed her "Proclamation 1017" -- an open-ended declaration of a "national emergency" -- to the supposedly imminent but actually rather vague threat of a coup,  purportedly organized by a cabal of dissident officers, politicians and professors -- in alliance, she claimed, with the Communist Party of the Philippines (!).

Fig_38_president_corazon_aquino_2Technically, this was not a full-fledged declaration of martial law.  But for those on the ground the distinction is theoretical.  At Arroyo's direction, the police moved quickly  to round up (without warrants) at least three Congressmen, a university professor, 25 protestors at an anti-Arroyo rally, and a half dozen senior miltary and police officers -- including a West Point graduate and and a former Chief of the National Police. All permits for political rallies were cancelled. A leading opposition newspaper was raided. 

Fig_31_ferdinand_and_imelda_1Meanwhile, Arroyo produced no hard evidence that any members of this disparate group had done anything more serious than join former Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos  in calling for her to resign.

Even if there had been a coup attempt in the offing, that could have been dealt with under existing laws -- as Aquino did with at least seven coup attempts during her years in office, without requiring emergency powers.


In this respect, to long-time Philippines observers,  Arroyo's declaration is reminiscent of President Ferdinand Marcos' 1972 "Proclamation 1081." That was also justified by a fairy tale  -- a bogus assassination attempt against Defense Minister Juan Enrile that, years later, turned out to have been a theatrical production by his own security guards.

Fig_39_people_power_manila_1986_1It is likely that Arroyo's move is a desperate attempt to head off growing popular demands for her ouster.

Left unchecked, those demands might well have culminated in a huge "People Power" rally this weekend, demanding her resignation.

This popular movement is not based on a disgruntled cabal, much less on some left- or right-wing plot.

Rather, it is based on widespread,  rational disgust with President Arroyo's dismal performance since taking office in 2001.

  • Despite rising levels of economic growth -- 3-6 percent per year since 2002 -- the Philippines "oligarchy" remains firmly in control, less than 10 percent of the population perceives that its economic situation has improved under Arroyo, and  more than 71 percent of the population now considers itself poor.
  • In yet another striking parallel to the "conjugal dictatorship" of Ferdinand and Imelda, Arroyo's own husband Mike has been forced to live in exile because of his involvement in several gambling and corruption scandals.
  • Arroyo is widely believed to have stolen more than 1 million votes in the May 2004 Presidential election, a charge that was only strenghtened by the embarrassing "Gloriagate" tapes. Her position has only been preserved by virtue of her party's dominance in Congress, and her control over the 15-member Philippines Supreme Court, which she has managed to pack with 9 appointments.

Fig_314_joseph_estradaEven before the state of emergency, President Arroyo's popularity rating had fallen below that of any of the last four Presidents -- including Joseph Estrada, who was ousted by popular demand at EDSA II in January 2001. Indeed, by January 2006, "net satifaction" with Arroyo (% satisfied minus % dissatisfied)  had reached -30%, a record low. And well over half of the population simply want her to resign -- ala Marcos and Estrada.


In this situation, one might have hoped that the Bush II Administration would have followed in the footseps of Reagan/ Bush I, circa 1985-86,  and strongly "suggested" to Madame Arroyo that she "do the right thing" and board a plane to Hawaii -- not just for the sake of democracy, but also for the sake of the US' long-term relationship with the Philippines people.

Unfortunately,  this kind of intervention is unlikely,  at least for the moment. 

  • President Bush is much more concerned about the Philippines' contribution to the "war on terror" than its domestic  problems. Arroyo has been very accomodating on the "terror war"  front.
  • Indeed, throughout Southeast Asia, Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have also been turning the other cheek to mis-democracy  -- resuming arms sales to Indonesia's horrific military, indulging the Prime Minister of Thailand in his offshore companies, and so forth. Arroyo is just another example.  
  • Arroyo has also carefully cultivated key US interest groups. She's Bill Clinton's former classmate at Georgetown, who still looks him up on trips to New York. She's also an outspoken fan of neoliberal policies, who has good relations with US  companies, Congress, and, indeed, President Bush.
  • Unlike 1986 and 2001, the opposition has no clear leader that would be acceptable to the US.
  • President Bush may well sympathize with an unpopular President whose electoral legitimacy is questionable, and who also repeatedly violates the Constitution and hides behind the skirts of a hand-picked Supreme Court and Congress.

In sum, from Manila, Bangkok, Egypt, the West Bank, and Iran, to Palm Beach County, Haiti, Caracas, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia,  the US Government only finds "people power" as desirable as the results that it produces. The people of the Philippines should not expect any help from GMA's cronies in Washington.


So to rid themselves of this new usurper,  Filipinos will have to depend on yet another round of Manila popular democracy --  perhaps this time in the face of even more repression. 

Are they up to it? 

Some pundits have recently concluded that, having been through EDSA I and II without achieving very much, and now more economically beleaguered, Filipinos no longer have much stomach for mass resistance.

Indeed, according to one fall 2005 poll,  in hindsight, just 36 percent of the population supports EDSA I, 10 percent supports EDSA II,  and 42 percent believe that doing nothing would have been preferrable.

Images_3On the other hand, 6 out 10 Filipinos still reject martial law as the way to solve the country's problems, while at least 58 percent are willing to support another round of mass demonstrations if President Arroyo is clearly shown to have "cheated in the elections" -- e.g., to have violated the law.

Proclaiming a bogus state of emergency and violating civil rights en masse without a "clear and present danger" should surely cross that threshold.

Furthermore, while everyone now recalls "People Power" as a mass movement, in fact i only 7 percent -- 20 percent in Manila -- of Filipinos over the age of 18 actively participated in  it. That is far below the proportion that now says it is still prepared to demonstrate against Presidential illegality.

As usual in revolutionary situations, however, everything comes down to leadership and initiative -- plus a hefty dose of sheer fortuity. The importance of political entrepreneurship is often underestimated by revolutionaries. However, given such decisive opposition leadership, and its ability to avoid being crushed by GMA's supporters,  her newborn "conjugal dictatorshp" could well be headed for history's dustbin. She has just made, as they say, "A mistake the size of her life."  


February 26, 2006 at 12:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack