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Declining `people power'

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005 T+T-
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at Manila's Ninoy Aquino airport on September 12, before her departure for the United States to attend a United Nations session.-CHERYL RAVELO/REUTERS

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at Manila's Ninoy Aquino airport on September 12, before her departure for the United States to attend a United Nations session.-CHERYL RAVELO/REUTERS

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo defeats the impeachment motion against her in the Philippines where the country's `people power' politics seems to be losing its shine.

THE political theatre of "people power", not to be slighted when enacted in a genuine cause, is losing its effectiveness, if not also its appeal, in the Philippines, where it has been almost raised to an art since 1986.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a beneficiary of the "people power" strategy in 2001, has now debunked it, even as she has staved off an impeachment move propelled, in part, by the protagonists of this political practice.

The impeachment move, deliberated upon and rejected by the House of Representatives in Manila on September 6, was taken up by the chamber in the context of sustained public protest against Gloria's presidency. The latest protest rallies on the streets of Manila bore most hallmarks of "people power" politics which, when articulated for the first time in 1986, helped Filipinos get rid off the hated Ferdinand Marcos, a long-time dictator.

Significantly, Corazon Aquino, the celebrated icon and rallying force of that first and authentic version of "people power," led protesters outside the House of Representatives on September 6 as the impeachment move against Gloria was being debated. The political symbolism of the event was not lost on the legislators and Gloria herself. However, Corazon's triumph in 1986 was not quite repeated this time.

In the event, as the latest version of "people power" did not acquire momentum of the kind witnessed nearly two decades ago, the House tossed out the impeachment move by 158 votes to 51, with six abstentions. A minimum of 79 votes were required for the House to refer the charges to the Senate for trial.

Rejoicing over the failure of the Opposition, Gloria hailed the people for choosing to keep a President in office through a vote in "the halls of constitutional democracy". For her, it was a sign of "grand political maturity" on the part of the legislators and others for not "forcing a President out of office through people power".

Now, although the charges against Gloria have not been proven in any court of law, her disparaging comments about "people power" as an antithesis of "constitutional democracy" have a ringing irony about them.

In 2001, when she was Vice-President, public demonstrations against the then President, Joseph Estrada, who had been duly elected to the post, led to his fall from power. She was then made President, without actually being elected to the position at that time. Her ascension to the executive presidency was hailed as an expression of "people power", and she did not at the time see any anomaly in "forcing a President out of office through people power". Gloria's assumption of the presidency was then endorsed judicially.

To emphasise her changed views about the political legitimacy of "people power" is not to imply that she should have stepped down from office now in response to the protest rallies. The point, simply, is that the political art of holding mass rallies seems to be losing its shine and sting in a country where it was elevated to high respectability.

It was only in 2004, almost three years after she first became President, that Gloria was elected (technically, `re-elected') to that position. It is also a matter of some irony that the failed impeachment move against her was based primarily on the charge that she had "rigged" the 2004 presidential poll (Frontline, July 29).

The question really is not whether tears should be shed over Gloria's debunking of "people power", which had been of some avail to her in the past. The issue is whether the doubts cast over her election to the post in 2004 have now been set at rest fully in the context of the collapse of the impeachment move.

The Opposition, which does not have a leader to rally round and challenge Gloria, has indicated that the apex court might be approached for a pronouncement on the allegation that she had influenced poll officials to win the presidency.

The virtual "guest appearance" by Corazon at the Opposition's high-profile protest rally on September 6 signified little more than "moral support" for the impeachment drive. Although she cannot stand for presidency again under the current constitutional provisions, Corazon's stature is derived from the fact that she became President on the basis of a democratic election that followed the downfall of Marcos.

Gloria and, more specifically, her husband and others in her entourage have been accused of corruption and nepotism as well. These allegations, too, have not been proven, while the charge of "electoral fraud" is traced to a taped conversation between Gloria and a poll official before the announcement of the result in 2004.

An interesting but unsettled issue in this sub-text pertains to the "illegality" of the electronic eavesdropping that resulted in the recording of the conversation. Admitting that she did make that telephone call, Gloria said on June 27 that it was an inconsequential "lapse of judgment" on her part and expressed regret that she talked to a poll official when the result had not yet been firmed up, even though her victory, though not publicly announced, had already been established.

It is now thought possible that the question of "illegality" of the recording of that conversation might come into focus even as the Opposition tries to keep the charge of an "electoral fraud" in the public domain or take it to the apex court.

While the image of "people power" may have become an issue in the Philippines today, there has been no change in the props for the presidency. Not only Gloria has warded off the impeachment move, but analysts reckon she still retains the support of influential sections of the armed forces and the police organisation, at one level, and those among the clergy. Benjamin Muego and other experts on Filipino politics cite the support of the United States, too, as an important factor for the chief executive of the Philippines. The decisiveness of this factor remains to be tested, though, with reference to any President of the Philippines, and not just Gloria.