“People power” used to be synonymous with the Philippines. In February 1986 Filipinos captured the imagination of the world when they rushed into the streets to support a military uprising and ousted strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Fifteen years later, in January 2001, they again surged into the streets to bring down President Joseph Estrada, widely believed to be the recipient of hundreds of millions of pesos from illegal gambling activities.
Today, however, they are largely absent while another president stands accused, this time of stealing elections.
Intercepted telephone conversations between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and an electoral commissioner during the elections of May 2004 showed her attempting to influence the outcome of the polls. Unable to deny it was her voice on the taped intercepts, Arroyo publicly apologized for a “lapse in judgment.” But instead of defusing the situation, the admission triggered widespread calls for her to resign.
In early September 2005, nearly three months after the scandal broke, Arroyo blocked a bid to impeach her, clinging to power despite a recent poll giving her the lowest overall performance rating among the country’s five most recent presidents. Those numbers were not, however, translated into numbers in the streets. The biggest rally anti-Arroyo forces could muster numbered, at most, 40,000. In contrast, hundreds of thousands had clogged the main highway running through Manila, popularly known as EDSA, for days on end in 1986 and 2001.
What happened? asked Manila’s veteran street activists. Why were the people no longer protesting a clear-cut case of electoral fraud by a president who was already vastly unpopular owing to ineptitude, uninspiring leadership and widely believed allegations of corruption even before the telephone intercepts surfaced? The truth is that while people dislike Arroyo, they are also deeply disillusioned with the political system, which has come to be known as the “EDSA State.” Conversations with middle- and lower-class citizens inevitably produce the same answer to why they’re not out demonstrating: “Well, whoever replaces her will probably be as bad, if not worse.” Intrigued at the discovery that only a handful of students in my undergraduate class in political sociology at the University of the Philippines, the traditional hotbed of activism, had attended the rallies, I posed to them the question, Is this democracy worth saving? Two-thirds said no.
Rather than taking to the streets, people are fleeing in large numbers to Europe, the United States and the Middle East. Some 10 percent of the Filipino labor force now works overseas, and one out of every four Filipinos wants to emigrate. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of Filipino households now subsist on remittances sent by 8 million expatriates.
Cynicism about democracy here is understandable if one considers that it has served as a mechanism for frenzied competition for political office among elite factions while enabling them to maintain a united front against social and economic change. Some Filipinos point out bitterly that while authoritarian Vietnam reduced the proportion of its population living in extreme poverty from 51 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2003, the Philippines could only bring it down from 20 percent to 14 percent in the same period. They decry the fact that at 0.46, the Philippines’ Gini coefficient, the most reliable measure of inequality, is the worst in Southeast Asia.