This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, March 3,2008 edition, pages S1/4 – S1/5.
If you have signed a statement for GMA to resign or joined a group and are on the streets protesting, this article is not addressed to you. It is addressed to those who are dismayed by the scale of corruption in the government but who are so far not sufficiently motivated to take a stand against it and hesitate to demand that our public officials be held accountable. It is addressed to those who say, “But who will replace Arroyo?” or “What is the alternative?” or “I was at EDSA 1 and EDSA 2 but nothing has changed.” It is addressed to those who have lost heart in the might of the citizenry’s voice and have lost faith in the power of our people to evolve, change and push forward towards improving our governance and other institutions.
In EDSA after EDSA, history is teaching us that we have not done enough! The lesson is that one or two or a dozen or twenty or thirty sacrifices are not enough to achieve even passably responsible governance. If we still expect honesty, accountability and competence from our public officials. If we still expect public policy to be directed to the betterment of our lives not to the mind-boggling enrichment of a select clique of entrenched and well-connected individuals. Then this lesson should not deter us from action today. It should urge us to lend our voices to the cries for change. It should lead us to seek more gains from our efforts, gains beyond the mere replacement of one set of public officials with another.
Defenders and apologists of GMA’s administration argue that people power, i.e., demonstrations, manifestos, calls for her resignation and ouster and other forms of open protest, are no longer appropriate. They argue that the courts, Congress (for impeachment proceedings), constitutional change and the 2010 elections are the proper means of effecting change in a democratic society. GMA herself directs us to channel our energies towards these institutions—the very institutions that she has weakened and corrupted. She does so after she has so cloaked corruption in a tangled web of deceit and cover-up maneuvers that even the Senate is having extreme difficulty unraveling. By employing the power of the purse, she has secured the complicity of a sufficient number of members of the Lower House to ensure that only faulty impeachment complaints can prosper. While we need constitutional change, particularly to curtail the vast powers of the Presidency, we dare not entrust that process to the present crop of Malacañang lackeys. Finally, the 2010 elections are dangled before us, as if we can endure another two-and-a -half years of unabated pillage and in the meantime make ourselves content to entrust the country and our future to a corruption-ridden administration.
This is not to say, that there is no use pursuing initiatives like impeachment complaints, investigations and appeals to the courts. Oftentimes, elections present us with limited alternatives, with choices between worse and lesser evils. Sometimes they result in empowering unscrupulous individuals. We cannot even be sure that our votes will be counted. The electoral process is flawed but we continue to vote anyway. Flawed as they are, we should use all our democratic institutions. In the process of employing them, we may even hone them into better ones. People power is no exception.
The problem is that our democratic institutions are not strong enough to guarantee us even a modicum of good governance. If these institutions were effective, there would have been no need for a Cardinal Sin, we would not today be looking to the CBCP to take a political position, the Senate would not be so beleaguered in the conduct of its investigations, there would have been no need for the distribution of largesse to representatives of Congress and local government leaders, and people power itself would not have evolved. People power came into being because we needed it, because our democratic institutions were and are besieged with capture, formerly by martial rule and currently by the unabashed abuse of power. If a democratic institution is flawed, our solution has not been to disregard it but to change it, guard it and improve it. Our recognition of flaws in the electoral process has led us to develop voters’ watchdog and voters’ education organizations.
People power also requires much greater effort. In exercising it, the citizenry is faced with the power of those whom it previously invested with power and who can now deploy this power against it. There is the power of propaganda, with efforts to mislead the citizenry into believing that legitimate protest is self-serving (when participated in by politicians), that it is distracting (while the administration pretends to improve the economy), that it is de-stabilizing (as if we too should participate in covering up this abominable state of affairs). There is the power of law enforcement that this administration has used to limit its exercise and curtail its effects. However, that there is no lack of courage and determination in the Filipino people is more adequately demonstrated by our history.
It is obvious to any observer of our recent history that people power is capable of unseating a President, but does not necessarily achieve the reform of democratic institutions or the creation of new ones. We have thus far used people power to achieve only limited objectives. Our experience has taught us a lesson that we must take to heart: that attaining responsive and responsible governance institutions lies beyond the replacement of a tyrant or a grafter and must go beyond trusting one leader more than another. It lies in a continuing commitment, by us, to demand and work for the kind of government we deserve. It lies in a continuing and tireless involvement in our political, social and economic affairs, in a watchful and persevering spirit of exercising our democratic rights to the fullest. It lies in a determined effort in building institutions that will serve us. It lies in discarding our cynicism and faint-heartedness. Our experience with people power has found it more suited to expressing demands and aspirations in capsulized form, less so to the actual crafting of public policy that will enable or ensure that reforms are effectively put into place or institutionalized. Can we not evolve so as to wield it more effectively? To make it yield greater and more long-range and lasting gains?