Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo proclaimed a state of national emergency on February 24 and withdrew it within days - on March 3, to be precise. During the emergency, she banned celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the original "people power revolution" which unseated Ferdinand Marcos. This unpopular decision was seen in some quarters as a prelude to martial law. The President, on the other hand, claimed that a conspiracy against her administration had been thwarted and normality once again restored.
Gloria Arroyo's critics, instead, pointed out that the emergency and the debate over it across the political spectrum made no difference to the ordinary people, who were preoccupied with their daily "state of emergency needs' as before. The President's answer to such reactions was that the time had come to "return to the proper work of society".
For a number of years now, the Philippines, once a leader among South-East Asian states in terms of social welfare indices, has ceased to occupy such a position. Not only that. Having pioneered the "people power revolution" in 1986, an example that was later emulated or attempted in a few other South-East Asian countries, the country has struggled to establish "participatory democracy". Surprising, especially since this was among the slogans that helped unseat Marcos two decades ago.
Not surprisingly, the proclamation of emergency neither enhanced the "political legitimacy" of Arroyo nor helped galvanise the people into action. However, the negative signs that were evident at the time of withdrawal of the state of emergency can change for the better, if the right lessons are drawn by her and the people.
In prime focus was the government's claim that the coup plot was hatched by a handful of misguided "military adventurers" from the political Right. The main "plotters" were those who headed the Marines and the Scout Rangers, both elite military units. They were arrested hours before the promulgation of the state of emergency.
Rumours of a possible military coup were doing the rounds in Manila long before the plot was exposed. This suited the President, who was obviously uncomfortable at the way in which her opponents were planning to utilise the anniversary of the "people power revolution" as a smokescreen to intensify their campaign for her resignation.
In the event, even as the military "plotters" and their alleged accomplice, the head of a commando-style Special Action Force within the National Police, were nabbed, the President claimed that the Left was among the conspirators. No proof for this was forthcoming, while the authorities banned the February 25 celebrations planned by the Left as also other political groups. In effect, the states of emergency served as Arroyo's edict on the irrelevance of the "people power movement" as a strategy to effect political changes.
Ironically, Arroyo herself was the beneficiary of the second episode of "people power", which was staged in 2001. More important, unlike in 1986, the second version was a campaign launched by sundry groups for the ouster of the duly elected President, Joseph Estrada, and not a dictator like Marcos. Although charges of corruption against Estrada and his associates dominated the campaign, there was not an iota of doubt about his political "legitimacy"; he had been elected President in a landslide. As the Vice-President in Estrada's administration, she succeeded him, even as he vacated the presidential palace by going on leave in the face of the "people power movement".
As in the case of the downfall of Marcos, who had, however, ruled by decree under a martial law, key military personalities rebelled against Estrada too, setting the stage for an "uprising" by the political elite. However, unlike in the case of Marcos, Estrada's opponents commanded only marginal support from among the poor and other sections.
Arroyo herself was not a rallying force for the anti-Estrada campaign. In significant contrast, Corazon Aquino, the wife of an assassinated leader and also the challenger in the presidential poll that Marcos had held in a bid to "legitimise" his martial law administration, was an iconic leader of the civilian movement.
By early March, both Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, a key player in the military-police establishment who played a catalytic role in the anti-Marcos battle, began to articulate the view that Arroyo did not really represent the people from the very beginning of her presidency. For Arroyo, who banked heavily on the support of Ramos even as Aquino started distancing herself from the President about a year ago, this new reality was a serious political setback.
However, one important factor should explain the ease with which Arroyo was able to impose an open-and-shut emergency in late February in a bid to retain power.
The simple but profound factor is the manner in which she has been able to count on the military-police top brass in times of crises. However, as seasoned Filipino observers emphasise, she has now become "increasingly beholden to the military". As a result, her political base, already shrunken, became shaky.
In a sense, Arroyo has herself to blame for losing the support of Aquino, whose post-Marcos presidency marked little more than the nominal triumph of "people power". Ramos, who was President after Aquino and before Estrada, decided to distance himself from Arroyo during the state of emergency mainly because of its status as nothing but part of the President's political survival kit. Well known in this context were the charges of corruption and nepotism against Arroyo and the widespread suspicion that she had resorted to fraudulent practices to win the 2004 presidential poll.
Highly respected Filipino insiders tend to believe that the political process that Arroyo manipulated to declare a state of emergency, was essentially a matter of an alliance between the elite and the military.
In a perceptive comment, Rodolfo C. Severino, former Secretary-General of the Association of South East-Asian Nations, told Frontline that the Filipino "people power revolution" was indeed symptomatic of systemic "dysfunction". Although "people power movements" were nothing new, with the French Revolution being an early example in the modern period, the Filipino experiences showed up "the fun and games" of elitist politics and a "stalemate" in the present democratic process.