THE LONG VIEW
In its latest issue, Katipunan Magazine asked me to write on the 1990s. Here’s what I wrote.
A FAMOUS Atenean, Leon Ma. Guerrero, once wrote of martial law thus, “Today began yesterday,” by way of explanation and apologia. Today’s pragmatic present began yesterday, too. How often have we heard it said in the more idealistic premises of our schools, that in this time of democratic danger, an irony confronts us. For only a free people can afford to be contemptuous of democracy and its liberties. And worse, confusing this contempt with freedom itself, is something that began not in 2005 or 2001, but in 1991, during the happy ’90s.
The achievements of the three administrations of the 1990s – the end of Corazon Aquino’s, the Fidel Ramos years, and the beginning of Joseph Estrada’s – are embarrassingly brief, in concrete terms: some flyovers, the breaking of the PLDT telecom monopoly, two presidential elections. What the 1990s were really about was the transformation of being Filipino – and the Philippines – from a land of pride and promises, to a land of broken dreams and self-shame.
The limitless optimism of the early Aquino years found itself reduced in scope and ambition to simply hoping it would end peacefully and when promised. And so Cory Aquino – and the nation – breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped down from power; she broke tradition by being the first president to attend a successor’s inauguration, but that inauguration after the failed coups of ’87 and ’89, had become the end-all and be-all of her government. Success was no longer about achievement, it was about surviving long enough to pass the baton.
Ramos achieved the disintegration, and not the creation, of a middle ground in politics. His victory was not about getting a majority, which was the goal of presidents since 1935, when we had our first national elections. Instead, his goal was to get a little more than anyone else but also to ensure no one got more than the tiny percentage he realistically expected to get. He was elected by 28 percent of the electorate: No president before, or since, has obtained power with so unimpressive a minority.
“Dagdag-bawas” [vote-padding and vote-shaving], too, dates to the Ramos campaign; and his viability as a candidate announced by a group that included military cronies raiding the House of Representatives and exposing the use of its printing press to produce paraphernalia for the leading candidate, Ramon Mitra Jr. He did not fight clean; who would expect anyone else thereafter to fight cleanly?
Then came Joseph Ejercito Estrada who achieved with one electoral victory what 40 years of anti-insurgency had not: the collapse of Communism as a political force and threat. His victory also marked the defeat of the old Edsa People Power coalition, whose candidates couldn’t unite, while individually being no match for Estrada, the unrepentant Marcos loyalist.
Estrada’s victory, though percentage-wise unimpressive (39.6 percent, which didn’t even match forgotten Carlos P. Garcia’s 40 percent in 1957), was a landslide in that his votes dwarfed any two of his opponents combined. It was a vindication, in a sense, of the Marcos-era methods and machinery; it was a political rehabilitation that could have come sooner had Imelda Marcos and Eduardo Cojuangco not split their votes in 1992.
Populism is nationalism and it would have been positively revolutionary to have a national leader genuinely held in affection by the people; this was the promise and the potential in Estrada’s rise to power. But to be proven a false populist and to betray affection is to court not only contempt, but to risk a gloating reaction. It is to replace optimism with the sense that one has been had, and thus, invite self-loathing. It’s fair to say that while no one had illusions about Estrada’s morals, no one expected him to be so lazy or to be so greedy – not even in Marcos’ cunning, corporate-lawyer way – along the lines of a small-town politician’s adoration of rackets.
And so the country vomited out Estrada. Perhaps everything since has been tolerable, but far from appetizing? But the bitter medicine of democracy’s defeated idealism – that by political means, we can improve our lives, together – has been the promotion of a dog-eat-dog mentality. We failed together, perhaps, we can succeed individually, and so to hell with democracy, idealism, collective action or any effort to create a common cause.
And so, to assess all three is to assess ourselves. We do not like what we saw, we continue to dislike what we see. Collective self-loathing is what the country has undergone since: and collective contempt for everything that once served as inspiration but which now ends up, at best, a tired, unsatisfying parody of all that came before: Arroyo as the mean-minded, mean-spirited heir (now disowned) of Aquino; Fernando Poe Jr. as the ill-fated and ill-suited successor of Estrada; and Ramos reduced to being an opportunist and no longer – perhaps never, ever – a statesman.
The Philippines has not been an optimistic place since; at least, not since 2001, when People Power reasserted itself but was vanquished in months (January to May). And yet, let’s remember it took a decade – 1987 to 1997 – for the original Edsa People Power to exhaust its possibilities and promises. Edsa People Power II took some 100 days, from January to late April, for its luster to tarnish.
* * *
Concerning my previous column, Willy Prilles Jr. writes in his blog that we need to end “the silent practice allowing congressmen to practically appoint public school teachers to new permanent items that are being funded annually in the national budget… The Iloilo mayors were particularly vocal about this demoralizing practice, complaining that unqualified applicants – backed by the congressman – usually end up getting the available items, to the consternation of more experienced and better suited ones.”