The Explainer: The perils of People Power

Never has the precise moment when the end came for a dictator, been recorded for posterity like the video you just saw. Nicolai Ciucescu, used to terrorized obedience, got hooted, booed, and, soon, ousted from power: shot after a kangaroo trial.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe as in the Philippines in 1986, People Power was Peaceful Power: it was supposed to replace tyranny with democracy. Did it become a dangerously addicting bad habit? People Power since 1986 is our topic for tonight.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




In Mexico, as immortalized in the famous painting by Edoard Manet, they shot the Emperor Maximilian in 1867. That was how revolutions ended: with executions and violent upheaval.

That seemed to be the only way: tyranny or despised regimes had to go by force, and be treated with force; a necessity immortalized in political thought since ancient times, when the dictator Caesar was assassinated because he enjoyed public support at the Senate’s cost.

It was to Rome that opponents of kingship and the political power of landowners and the clergy in France turned to in 1789. They wanted to restore virtue and institute merit in government.

Instead they toppled a king and executed the aristocracy only to embrace an emperor named Napoleon, and so it seemed it would be the endless lot of citizens to endure: you kill one tyrant, and you get another.

This brings me to the other way that began to emerge in India with Gandhi, and was adopted in the Civil Rights Movement in America and then practiced here at home after it proved impossible to bring down the Marcos dictatorship by violent means: peaceful, non-violent resistance, public protest baptized People Power. My column today deals with this article, by Timothy Garton Ash, in the New York Times Review of Books. I’ve mentioned it here before.

Ash’s article is relevant to us, even if it uses the term Velvet Revolution, taken from the People Power they had in Czechoslovakia in 1989, three years after our own version here at home. Ash pointed out that in contrast to violent revolutions, in which one side eliminates the other to achieve total victory, peaceful non-violent People Power is a negotiated revolution. No one gains totally victory which avoids fighting it out to the death.

Government’s ultimate power is the rule of force: but if you deny government a reason to use force, what can government do? In the end it becomes so isolated it cracks apart from within, because the people themselves essentially go on strike. This usually gives way to democracy: but democracy can itself be a double-edged sword. A few years ago there was the Orange Revolution that ousted a dictatorial leader; in recent months, in the same country, the Ukraine, the ousted leader came back to power by democratic means.

Countries that have experienced People Power end up asking, sooner rather than later, whether the whole thing was worth it. The days or hours of supreme bravery and community action give way to the fighting and scheming of regular politics. And because it’s not a winner-take-all situation, People Power lets even those who were ousted have a second chance to going back to power.

Ash pointed out that this sense of lost opportunities can form a kind of obsession, what he calls a postrevolutionary pathology. It creates dissatisfaction and this can radicalize people. When the Russian Emperor fell, democracy proved so messy it made radicalism as represented by Vladimir Lenin attractive.

Here’s a picture of two leaders: the king of Thailand and then President Marcos. Both used the military to wield power: the king used the army to topple governments, Marcos gave our military political power it never previously enjoyed.

The coups and counter coups so much a part of our recent history –the toppling of civilian government by means of tanks- was part of a larger trend in which democracies and the rule of law gave way to military backed or led regimes. And these stayed in power by means of terror.

Yet there would come a time when these regimes would end up falling: and usually, like in 1986, because they thought they could go on rigging elections forever. It would be to demand elections, or in response to cheating, that people would then take to the streets to demand more than a recount: regime change would suddenly become the roar of millions.

Mao Zedong famously said power comes from the barrel of a gun; yet as we showed in 1986 and many other countries have shown since, it also comes from the peaceful assembly of hundreds, then tens of thousand and then hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions armed only with indignation.

As the indignation multiplies, the traditional argument that might makes right proves hollow, not merely empty but eventually, pathetic and even funny. There are the people in the streets and the leader holed up in the palaces.

And yet for us it ended in 1986, not with cries of off with his head! As in Romania in 1989. Is this good, or bad? Ash says it can ultimately be bad if countries don’t adopt the South African model of a truth commission and replacing a dictator’s decrees with the real rule of law.

Only then can the promise, as I put it today, of non violent regime change or people power make moral sense: redemption is open to everyone if everyone accepts responsibility and een blame. Otherwise everyone begins to get a sense of impunity: as happened in 1986, when some of those on the side of People Power themselves took to plotting coups to replace our newly restored democracy.

But in the absence of truth commissions, when no one has to die, what keeps the powerful on best behavior? There lies the continuing relevance of people power, asking, petitioning, government for the redress of grievances.

To be sure, democracy, which usually consults the many only to give jobs to the few for fixed terms, is problematic. Not least because if you use people power, what happens to our representatives? They usually end up the target of public dislike and in turn, they try to shrug off or neutralize what we also call the parliament of the streets.

And this in turn requires returning power to the enforcers of dictatorship: as the rulers view the ruled as a nuisance, the temptation to resort to impunity returns power to those with the guns.

And so what was unimaginable before, things like martial law, becomes rehashed, reused, and suddenly, even popular in some circles. And to push this agenda forward, an argument is used: people power is a dangerous addiction and like any addiction it requires strong medicine to be cured.

And in turn this pushed societies to cannibalize each other; when protest fails, civil war isn’t far behind or at least the fear of it, the possibility of it. As Goya famously painted it, in the context of Napoleon’s conquest of Spain, the bravery of the few becomes pathetic in the face of the guns of the also few –but armed and ready.

So should it be that once there was a country, where people knelt to stop tanks, but later wondered if it should ever happen again? We remember People Power but wonder if it’s something available again. Is it an addiction? Or is it the proper cure?

When we return we’ll tackle the continuing use of People Power: is it a new part of democracy, or actually, it’s enemy?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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