People Power Needs Certain Givens to Be Recognized
by Manuel L. Quezon III
A definition of People Power is that it’s a phenomenon that requires certain givens for it to be recognized as such and not considered mob rule. The givens are: People power must be anchored on moral outrage and moral principles; it must be peaceful; it must have wide support cutting across all classes and barriers of gender; it must at the same time be organized and yet spontaneous.
In “Bayan Ko: Images of the Philippine Revolt,” Guy Sacerdoti wrote a clear summation of what Edsa I, two decades ago this week, was all about:
“The Philippine rebellion of February, 1986 was a moral revolution more than anything else. During the election campaign, Marcos used the tired propaganda of all the world’s struggling despots. He pretended he represented the besieged center, fighting a ‘conspiracy of the Right and Left…’
“Desperate to retain the draconian powers he once had, Marcos was forcing the ‘silent majority’ he thought backed him to choose sides. Businessmen, priests, the usually conservative church hierarchy and even the comfortable middle class were slowly realizing that the more radical way was the only way.
“Marcos had violated popular sensibilities of what was acceptable behavior, even for Filipino politicians. He ignored even polite protest to such an extent that these groups — which supported Marcos when he declared martial law in 1972 — began to leap off the fence in packs. If you are not for Marcos, then you must be a Communist. He would never accept that he was forcing the Filipino people into a corner…
“A people’s collective pride and morality were resoundingly offended. It coalesced around the church, never supposed to be political but always so. What was needed was the proper Catholic symbol in an Asian context, and enough military muscle to install it on the altar…
“Mostly, it was publicly perceived as a revolt for the victory of good over evil, the last chance to save a morality built upon cultural heritage. It was outrage at the violation of Philippine mores, however mixed, contradictory or syncretized, which was ultimately behind the revolt…”
Since 1986, there have been two more claiming the title of Edsa revolutions. The basic premises of each were different. The first Edsa was an effort to restore democracy in the face of an illegitimate — by law and by moral conviction — regime. The second Edsa was stymied by being faced with an administration legally, though no longer morally, entitled to stay in office, and which, by the social compact, could only be removed according to certain procedures. Hence the decision on the part of the majority involved in Edsa II — at least on the streets, if not in the secret rendezvouses of the powerbrokers — that the only way out was forceful but loyal petition for Estrada to resign. In one respect did Edsa II surpass Edsa I: in peacefulness. There were no lynchings and deaths as took place when Malacanang was finally seized by the people in 1986.
A fair conclusion to make, in comparing the two, is that Edsa I was THE Edsa; Edsa II partook of the lessons of Edsa I, used many of its methods, was anchored on the same moral principles, but was checkmated by the fact that what would work as a legitimate and moral objective in a popular revolt against a dictator could not be viewed as fully applicable to a constitutionally-elected incumbent. That is why few doubted the legitimacy of Cory Aquino; that is why despite all the legal trappings of judicial, legislative, and foreign recognition, the Arroyo administration remains under the cloud of doubts as to its legitimacy. Too much was said at the time it took power for everything to be swept under the rug and completely forgotten.
The methods and means of People Power were therefore present in Edsa II, but by failing to reach an ironclad and indisputable resolution, Edsa II was a successful exercise in mass indignation but perished at the door of legality. By this I mean that People Power, as proven in the cases of Marcos and the Iron Curtain countries is phenomenon that can only properly exist where a complete political vacuum exists in terms of the lack of legitimacy and lack of moral authority of a regime. It only half-applied in the case of Estrada and so half-worked. And half a People Power, if there is such a thing, is not a complete People Power.
Yet it was a proud moment for the Filipino; it was, despite the flawed nature of resolution that took place in January, 2001, an exercise in direct democracy, a ballotless referendum.
Edsa III was everything Edsa I and Edsa II were not: It was pure mob rule. Edsa III harked back to the massive rallies of the Marcos years, it was the same kind of hooliganism and contempt for order, morality, and due process that characterized the lynching of a Cory supporter during the Manila Hotel comedy-putsch, and in the mowing down of Cory supporters in the 1989 coup; it was, ironically, closest in terms of its bloodthirstiness and desperation, its sheer irrationality and contempt for legitimate government, to the attack on Malacanang during the First Quarter Storm in 1970 than the seizing of Malacanang after President Ferdinand Marcos fled in 1986.
A few pitiful loyalists were lynched in 1986, but in 1970, what took place was an assault on an admittedly crooked and unpopular, but at the time still legitimate, president of a constitutional republic.
In May 2001, Malacanang was attacked not because of a sudden outburst of love for the constitution, a desire to achieve a more orderly and rational resolution of the succession issue, but in aid of what can only be called “rebellion in aid of re-election.” The May 1 rebellion was less about upholding the principle Joseph Estrada had never legally given up the presidency, but rather to ensure either concession for his henchmen or outright victory at the polls for his lieutenants.
The rabble bamboozled into attacking the Malacanang seemed to think that possession is nine tenths of the law, anchoring the rebellion on precisely the sort of flawed and immoral Machiavellianism masquerading as logic that doomed both Marcos and Estrada in the first place.
Most interesting of all, though, is what happened after May 1. Each of the institutions that were major players in Edsa I and II suddenly raised their drawbridges in the realization that what they could rationalize, the masses could easily pervert and hijack to make their own. In February 1986 the morality play was clear; in January 2001, much less so.
Against tyranny People Power remains durable, useful, and the most effective means of toppling a despot. The question Filipinos are wresting with now is: Are they being ruled by a despot?