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ROUND TWO: PEOPLE’S POWER IN THE PHILIPPINES REMOVES ANOTHER PRESIDENT


Kim Scipes

The

government of Joseph "Erap" Estrada in the Philippines has just

collapsed, with the president forced out by mass mobilization, and with Vice

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo replacing him as President on January 21. What

might this mean for the country and the region?

Estrada

was brought down after his role in a big gambling scandal was exposed by a

former partner who had been cut out of the succeeding “opportunity.” It’s

been quite a saga, with millions of dollars in pay-offs, phony bank accounts,

false names, enriched mistresses, etc.

Eventually,

Estrada was impeached by the House of Representatives–their governmental form

is based on that of their former colonial master, the United States–and was on

trial by the Senate, when his allies in the Senate who were in the majority

refused to allow pertinent evidence be publicly exposed. In response, the

President of the Senate and the entire House prosecuting team resigned in

disgust, and they were later followed by most of Estrada’s cabinet.

Additionally, key military and civil police leaders sided with the opposition,

and pledged their support to the Vice President.

There

has been mass mobilization over the previous couple of months, but it only hit

big-time late last week in response to the refusal to release the evidence. The

night before the collapse, over one million people were estimated to be in the

streets around the shrine to the 1986 uprising. The major newspaper in Manila

has called it "People’s Power-2."

Obviously

what the rejection of Estrada and transfer of power to Macapagal-Arroyo means is

unclear in many ways. On one hand, it is played out as an inter-elite transfer

of power, with mass mobilization giving an urgency of the need to resolve the

crisis as the economy went from bad to worse. Obviously, the new government will

want to put the genie of mass mobilization back into the bottle as soon as

possible, and resume business as usual, although perhaps with a little more

tastefulness. A number of the old military men and former government

“leaders” have already been placed in highest reaches of the new government.

However,

there are four things that suggest some serious good might come out of this. (1)

This is a country wherein large scale political education and, at times,

mobilization, has taken place over the past 30 years. The 1986 removal of Marcos

is almost a constant referent in the press, where the role of mass mobilization

and political organization is recognized as being key to overthrow of the

dictator, and the middle class revolt that eventually put Aquino into power was

seen as riding on top of, and not replacing, that mass mobilization from below.

The mobilization will strengthen a resurging left.

(2)

Despite the loss of power by the labor movement–plant closings and economic

dislocation in particular have reduced its power–the radical wing of the labor

movement, the KMU, has remained at the heart of the mass mobilization, and it

and its allied groups, have played leading roles. I expect the above-ground left

will come out of this with its power and legitimacy as representing the masses

of people enhanced.

(3)

The on-going saga has dragged out for a couple of months, with considerable

media attention, so there has been considerable "political education"

for the mass audience about how the government really works: bribery,

"gifts," back-scratching, etc.

(4)

The Catholic Church–which can be an extremely potent political force when it

chooses to be such–has mobilized across the country to oppose the Estrada

regime, and I think this will help the progressive forces within the Church.

A

few other factors need to be included in the mix. (5) The economy was not hurt

by the "Asian" economic crisis as badly as other countries–the US

kept its import markets open despite the drastic reduction (approximately 40%)

in the value of the peso, and the reduced ability of the Philippines to import

US goods–and still the economy has weakened considerably since the heydays of

the mid-1990s. The peso has fallen as low as almost 55: $1 during this political

scandal, where it never got below 45:$1 during the economic crisis. The stock

market is down, foreign investment is down. More unemployment and

underemployment are expected, with little improvement being seen in the near

future, especially for workers and peasants.

(6)

The war in the south against the Muslims has dragged on, as the government has

been unable to defeat the insurgency. Although I have no proof, my sense is

somewhat of a growing disillusionment of fighting a war against other Filipinos,

despite the religious differences between Christians and Muslims.

(7)

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has been regrouping and

restrengthening, although I have no idea of the extent of what is happening–but

I have been hearing consistently it has been coming back. While I do not know

what its specific role in the mass movement has been, but I believe any strength

there is because of its involvement in mass movements and not because it is

controlling them. I would not be surprised if the CPP has intensified armed

efforts in the countryside. The problem is that its program has not developed

much beyond rhetoric, and it insists on trying to dominate efforts rather than

joining with other progressive forces as an equal; accordingly, it has been torn

for the last eight years with considerable internal conflict. Other left

political groups have also being growing, and while perhaps stronger regarding

democracy, these are even weaker on the ground. Power on the left comes from

established above-ground mass-based organizations.

While

I expect all of this will result in greater oppositional movement strength, I’m

not sure what this will mean specifically inside the country. That will be seen.

The

other factor–and this is where impact may be considerably greater–is impact on

other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. The Filipino left is well

respected internationally and particularly within the region. The KMU

specifically has been long-working to build international solidarity across the

Western Pacific-Indian Ocean area. Other leftist organizations–most notably

BAYAN (an umbrella group for above-ground, mass-based national democratic

organizations, which includes the KMU, peasant, youth, women’s and other social

sector actors)–have been involved in challenging globalization through

conferences, international travel (e.g., a Filipino delegation was present in

Seattle), propaganda, etc. Other groups, such as the Freedom from Debt

Coalition–not a member of BAYAN–have also been busy building solidarity across

the country, throughout the region, and around the world.

Of

course, it is within Indonesia that the Philippine situation may reverberate

most intensely. The countries are not only close geographically, but are also

very similar in culture, language and political history: both colonized by

Western countries (and Japan during World War II), both received their political

independence in the late 1940s, both had vibrant democracies crushed by

dictatorship, and in both cases, people have struggled to regain control over

their national governments, both of which have been carrying out neo-liberal

economic policies at the base of the development efforts.

The

rejection of Marcos in 1986 was inspiring to at least some Indonesians. Last

year’s rejection of Suharto in Indonesia, inspiring to Filipino leftists, is now

paralled in this year’s rejection of Estrada. At the same time, President

Wahid’s position in Indonesia has not been solidified; his refusal to testify

in a recent corruption case suggests ongoing conflict among the elite, and

continuing instability in the social order. Ongoing independence movements in

some of the “outer” provinces add to this instability.

The

problem of Marcos and Suharto was "solved" by an inner-elite transfer

of power, with the wing of the elite that had been out of power emerging in

control of the state. Of course, that has meant no changes for the large

majority of peasants and workers in either country. Certainly, that is what is

intended for the Philippines this time, too. The question is whether or not this

will be accomplished, or have forces been unleashed that can effect qualitative

social change? Regardless of outcome in the Philippines, it is certain that the

left and the "parliament of the streets" have been

reinvigorated–hopefully, the lessons learned from the inability to take

advantage of the Marcos overthrow will help guide actions today.

There

is, of course, one more aspect that must be mentioned: how will the US respond?

The US military–whose bases in the Philippines were those from which every US

invasion in Asia were launched between 1898 and 1992–was thrown out of the

country in that latter year. Since then, the military has been trying to get

re-established in the Philippines, and this effort has increased in importance

since the Indonesians removed Suharto, a very pro-US dictator, from power.

(Indonesia and the Philippines lay alongside oil tanker routes that carry oil

from the Gulf to particularly Japan. The US and Japan want nothing to interfere

in the flow of oil to Japan.)

The

Estrada government had signed a Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, that

allows US military forces to conduct training exercises in the Philippines with

the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This has been extremely unpopular,

particularly with the left, which is very conscious of the years of oppression

and exploitation that have been directed against them by the US. It seems likely

that this agreement will come under increasingly hostile pressure as days go by,

with perhaps the new government even deciding to rescind it. While this is

somewhat farfetched to speculate about at this time, it seems likely to be a

lightening rod for progressive nationalist and internationalist attention. I

have no doubt that the US military is watching very closely.

In

short, predictions of the future are risky. Nonetheless, it seems certain that

the "genie" of mass protest–which developed from below and was never

a product of elite mobilization, although one wing of the elite has tried to

inspire and direct it–cannot quickly be put back into its bottle. The situation

in the Philippines will probably remain "unsettled" for quite a while.

How the broad left responds–in the country, the region and the world–to this

will effect developments. We need to help push things forward, supporting the

people’s movements in the Philippines and across Southeast Asia.

 

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