Philippine ‘People Power’ Thirty Years On

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Philippine ‘People Power’ Thirty Years On

The legacy of People Power in the Philippines remains ambiguous.

Philippine ‘People Power’ Thirty Years On
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Despite declaring February 25 a national holiday to mark the 30th anniversary of the largely peaceful overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippine “People Power Revolution,” President Benigno “Noynoy” S. Aquino, III is unlikely to find his country in a celebratory mood. People Power attracted international attention as one of the world’s first televised revolutions, with the plucky Corazon “Cory” C. Aquino defeating the wily dictator Marcos, leading to a “heroic” transition to democracy. For many Filipinos who remain poor and disillusioned with the post-Marcos order this appears to be little more than political folklore, as shown by the dwindling crowds at recent annual official celebrations of the uprising. The people themselves seem to have abandoned the idea of “People Power.”

Yet the Philippine People Power revolt influenced a number of other popular revolts against dictatorships in Asia and beyond. South Korean activists in 1987–88, Burmese protesters in 1988, Chinese students in 1989, and Indonesian students in 1997-98 all drew inspiration from the Philippine example. Even Václav Havel, the revolutionary idol of the Czechoslovakian uprising in 1989 and later president of the Czech Republic, said during a 1995 visit to the Philippines that People Power had been an inspiration to him and his fellow Eastern European dissidents. Even where the origins of the term “People Power” were forgotten, commentators applied it to uprisings such as in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, and the Ukraine in 2014.

People Power has come to symbolize a peaceful, spontaneous popular uprising that topples an unbending dictatorship. It challenged prevailing nostrums about democratic transitions, which had stressed the importance of pacts between regime soft-liners and a moderate opposition. People Power showed that it was possible for opposition moderates to overthrow a hardline authoritarian ruler without resorting to violent revolution. Revolutions, it turned out, could be democratic and peaceful.

But in the Philippine case, as in many other countries after peaceful revolutions that brought down dictators, People Power devolved into a troubled transition to democracy. In the midst of a major economic crisis and the institutional decay of the late dictatorship period, Cory Aquino’s government was nearly toppled by military rebels who turned against her administration after she opened negotiations with the communist insurgents who had become a growing threat under martial rule. The economy sputtered as foreign, particularly Japanese investors skipped the country, preferring the Philippines’ more stable Southeast Asian neighbors such as Malaysia and Thailand. Aquino’s successor as Philippine president, former General Fidel V. Ramos, brought the military under civilian control, restored political stability, and undertook key reforms during his 1992-1998 presidency, leading to a return to economic growth.

But the Achilles heel of the Aquino and Ramos presidencies was continued high levels of poverty, growing inequality, and substandard health care and education for the poor. The populist president Joseph E. Estrada, a former movie star whose “proletarian potboilers” that portrayed him as a lonely fighter for the disadvantaged against malicious upper class villains had won him a mass fan base easily transformed into votes, triumphed in the 1998 presidential election by the largest margin in post-Marcos Philippines. Nicknamed “Erap,” an inversion of the Filipino word for friend, “pare,” he promised to be a friend to the poor. Despite making efforts to help the disadvantaged Filipinos and guiding the country successfully through the fallout of the Asian financial crisis, Estrada soon faced charges of immorality (he was a self-confessed womanizer) and corruption leveled by his elite enemies (in the Catholic Church, big business community, and among civil society activists).

The precedent set by People Power in overthrowing a dictator was stretched to legitimize the toppling of an elected leader disliked by the upper classes. Despite being impeached by the lower house, the senate failed to convict Estrada on charges later shown to be dubious. This led elites to take matters into their own hands. With the backing of the military, they launched what they termed “EDSA dos” (EDSA, the street in which these uprisings occurred, is the name Filipinos use for People Power) but which was actually more of a “People Power coup,” driving Estrada from power in early 2001 despite his continued popularity among the poor. Estrada’s lower class supporters, in turn, tried to bring him back to office several months later with a failed “Poor People’s People Power” that nearly overthrew Estrada’s elite-backed successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who proved to be the most unpopular post-Marcos president.

The “Straight Path”

Noynoy Aquino revived calls for good governance (which he dubbed the “straight path”) using the unpopular Arroyo administration – widely believed to have been the most corrupt in the post-Marcos Philippines – as a convenient foil. Aquino had inherited the charisma of his “saintly” mother, Cory, whose death from cancer in 2009 triggered his surprise presidential bid in 2010. Noynoy Aquino is thus a political “descendent” of People Power, with strong upper class backing. His continued popularity is largely based on a reputation for personal honesty and for his ability to keep family and friends away from corruption scandals. (Given that the First Lady or First Gentleman have often been accused of malfeasance in the past, Aquino may have been aided by the fact he was a bachelor president.)

The Philippines has enjoyed strong economic growth (averaging over 6 percent for more than a decade), partly because Aquino did not face coup attempts as did the unpopular Arroyo. Aquino’s administration won plaudits not only from Philippine big business and civil society groups but also from international credit agencies and aid organizations, while its rating by Transparency International improved. But the president’s reformist platform – itself a legacy of the call for good governance that has dominated the post-Marcos era – has recently been eroded by a major pork barrel scandal, rampant smuggling, selective justice, poor infrastructure, and a lack of systematic institutional reforms, as well as growing criminality and still festering insurgencies (communist and Muslim secessionist in the southern Philippines). Moreover, despite a huge increase in funding for a conditional cash transfer scheme (which critics say is often used for political patronage), poverty and unemployment remain stubbornly high in the Philippines. Agricultural productivity and industrialization have stagnated while the country has become heavily reliant on the service sector, a property boom and, in particular, on remittances from an estimated ten million overseas foreign workers (about 10 percent of the country’s population). Another growth engine has been the booming business process outsourcing sector, largely global call centers; although this boon may prove temporary as other developing countries with large English-speaking populations compete with lower labor costs.

But after six years of relative political stability under Noynoy Aquino, it now seems that the Philippine middle and upper classes are again becoming wary of another populist challenge. With vice president Jejomar (“Jojo”) C. Binay leading surveys as of this writing for the presidential election in May 2016 thanks to his appeal to poor voters, trouble seems to be brewing on the horizon. Most elites believe Binay to be corrupt as he faces charges stemming from his time as mayor of Makati City in Metro Manila. But Binay’s disadvantaged supporters look to his humble roots and his extensive social welfare policies while mayor and his more recent efforts to help overseas migrants and other disadvantaged Filipinos since becoming a “rebel” vice president in 2010 (vice presidents are elected separately in the Philippines and Binay has been at odds with Aquino).

This may lead to a return to electoral cycling in which measures to increase economic efficiency through macroeconomic stability and good governance compete with efforts to decrease inequality through job creation and social welfare as the main policy goals of the Philippines’ political system. It may also lead to a new round of political instability if elites once again challenge the legitimacy of a “corrupt” populist president through “People Power.” For now, then, the legacy of People Power in the Philippines remains ambiguous.

Professor Mark R. Thompson is Acting Head, Department of Asian and International Studies and Director, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.