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?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.