State of Emergency in the Philippines
by Herbert Docena
Focus on the Global South
www.zmag.org, March 5, 2006
On the very day when Filipinos were to
mark the 20th anniversary of the 'People Power' uprising which
ended Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship, Marcos-style dictatorship
sprang a come-back: this time, in an attempt to prevent another
'People Power.' That day, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared
a 'state of national emergency' after preempting a group of soldiers'
plan to turn their back on her and join thousands of protesters
in the streets.
This aborted climax is just the latest episode in a simmering
political crisis which first erupted in June 2005 with the release
of audio tapes allegedly proving that the President cheated in
the 2004 elections. Since then, calls for the President's resignation
or ouster have grown louder and louder. Defying government restrictions,
protesters have been marching on the streets on a weekly -- at
times even daily -- basis. A dizzying web of political coalitions
against the President, each with different configurations of political
ideologies, has been spun and re-spun.
If this most recent crisis was initially just about the political
survival of Arroyo, it is now fast turning out to be about something
much bigger than the President herself. While the fall-out from
the tape scandal could have easily been contained in its early
stages, a confluence of events have paved the way for a continuing
stand-off which has polarized domestic political forces. Arroyo's
fate is now incidental. Beneath the coup plots, shadow plays,
and shifting alliances in the days and weeks ahead is the old
protracted struggle for power in the Philippines.
After the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in
1986, Philippine conservative ruling elites aided by the United
States moved quickly to reinstate the pre-dictatorship political
system that had since Spanish colonial rule allowed them to entrench
their economic dominance over society.
Smarting from the lessons of Marcos' dictatorship, and seeing
that authoritarianism was not necessarily the most effective way
to maintain their collective grip on power, the elite leaders
restored civil liberties, but restricted democracy to mere electoral
contests that -- given the ossified distribution of wealth and
power in the Philippines -- remained structurally skewed in their
Dubbed variably as "low-intensity democracy," "limited
democracy," or "polyarchy" by academics, the post-1986
consensus became both the linchpin of stability and the source
of legitimacy for Philippine ruling elites.
Through elections, the elite factions were able to manage competition
among themselves while eschewing outsiders who lacked the resources
required to challenge them at the ballot box. Those who won the
elections were able to command obedience from the masses -- not
by force as in a dictatorship, but by reminding them that they
(the leaders) were the people's choice.
Having dominated the state through the electoral process, the
ruling elites have countered challenges to their rule by successfully
thwarting persistent demands for a redistribution of power, wealth
and economic opportunities.
One rough measure of the entrenched inequality: on the eve of
the first "people power" uprising in 1985, the top 10%
of the population took 37% of the total national income; the lowest
20% garnered a mere 5%. Twenty years later, judging by the latest
available official data, the top 10% still controls a whooping
36% of the national pie, while the lowest 20% remains stuck at
CHALLENGED FROM OUTSIDE, CRUMBLING WITHIN
Despite its strengths, the post-1986 political system itself has
also been inherently unstable.
For some reason, the masses couldn't be contented with just being
given ballots; they also wanted food on their table, a roof on
their head, a job to earn a living -- things which the post-1986
political order has not been able to deliver to the vast majority
of Filipinos. Twenty years after the "People Power"
uprising, 57% of Filipinos still consider themselves poor, slightly
higher than the 55% who did in 1983. Up to 20% are unemployed
and as many as 2,000 Filipinos leave the country every day to
work abroad. Economic growth has clearly failed to trickle down
to the base of the pyramid, the promises of globalization notwithstanding.
This evident failure to lift the lives of millions of Filipinos
much more than any allegations of cheating and corruption has
considerably eroded the legitimacy of the political order. At
the same time, even as the system itself expanded the ranks of
the excluded and fueled resentment, it also has had to extend
freedoms that then strengthened the movements calling for substantive
as opposed to 'low-intensity' democracy. The openness afforded
by "democracy lite" ironically accounts for the continuing
vibrancy of the left in the country. Despite its weakness and
fragmentation, it has not been quashed to the same extent as in
neighboring Indonesia and Thailand.
Increasingly challenged from peripheral political actors, political
elites were also increasingly challenged by divisions from within.
Historically, internal stability depended on consensus in putting
their collective elite interests above the narrow interests of
individual factions. This, however, has recently not been the
In January 2001, elite factions displaced by Joseph Estrada's
presidency seized on widespread anger at alleged corruption inside
his government and rode to power on the wave of another people-power-type
In an alleged rigging of the 2004 elections -- and by being reckless
enough to get caught speaking privately with supposedly neutral
election officials -- Arroyo won the ire of fellow elites. The
other elite factions, for their part, have seized on the scandal
and are now trying to knock her from power. But by adamantly standing
her ground, Arroyo has further stretched the limits and contradictions
of the established political order.
THE DIVIDED FRONT
The post-1986 political consensus is now
under unprecedented strain.
Weakened by internal wranglings, the once-united
front of the ruling elites is quickly crumbling. With very little
economic progress to show for the past two decades, the government
is finding it difficult to exact consent from the middle and lower
classes. It is in this larger context that the current political
crisis is unfolding.
Beneath the confusing web of coalitions and alliances among powerful
families, politicians, military factions, religious groups and
civil-society organizations, the fundamental political division
in the Philippines today remains that between those who want to
preserve their position of dominance in society and those who
want to dislodge them. Overlaid on this polarization is the divergence
between those who want to salvage the post-1986 system and those
who want to dismantle it.
The problem for the preservationist camp, however, is that its
proposed solutions to the current crisis have all been dead ends.
To deflect calls for her ouster, Arroyo has been pushing for constitutional
revisions that, among other recommendations, would change the
government from a presidential to a parliamentary system, which
critics argue could be even more easily manipulated by the elites.
The ruling class has been concerned by the power that direct presidential
elections gives to the masses, as demonstrated by the election
of Estrada -- who, while a member of the ruling class himself,
appealed to the poor by stoking their class resentments and notably
was not anointed by traditional elites.
The constitutional solution Arroyo proposes has not gained political
traction, however, and is unlikely to overcome formidable opposition.
Faced with threats both from other elite factions and from the
left, Arroyo has resorted to authoritarian measures, further undermining
the post-1986 system of "limited democracy." The reimposition
of what amounts to martial law by the recent declaration of a
"state of emergency" and other authoritarian proclamations
signals the willingness of Arroyo's government to resort to force
when all else fails.
The anti-Arroyo factions that also strive to salvage the current
political order have likewise only shot blanks. Drawing its constituency
from rightists and centrists, and those leaning center-left, this
motley political grouping is represented by the Aquinos, the Catholic
hierarchy, and the business class, as well as social liberals
Most of them have come together under the banner of the so-called
Black and White Movement. At first, they pushed for strict adherence
to the constitutional order and initially called for the succession
of Vice President Noli de Castro to the presidency. But this has
since been abandoned because de Castro still supports Arroyo,
and even people from within their ranks see him as too lightweight
to safeguard their interests competently.
They later supported last year's impeachment proceedings against
the president. After that move was blocked by pro-Arroyo legislators,
who still dominate Congress, some of them have started pushing
for special elections -- in short, a continuation of the post-1986
system of electoral democracy, although without Arroyo at the
On the other side of this jagged divide
are those who seek to dismantle the system altogether. Though
they have different motivations, tactics and political alternatives,
they have come around to a common conclusion: their solutions
would require an extra-constitutional intervention and would not
be bound by the parameters of the post-1986 political system.
On one end of this spectrum are those who feel that so-called
"limited democracy" cannot be relied on to preserve
order; its openness has only been exploited by so-called "communists"
and by corrupt elites. This camp includes rightist civilian and
military factions who want to establish a military or civilian-military
junta, as well as factions inside the Arroyo government who are
advocating repressive measures beyond those formally allowed under
so-called "low-intensity" democracy.
Another point on this continuum is the tactical alliance among
elite anti-Arroyo opposition groups, most of them right-wing groups
linked to Estrada, but also including well-known personalities
with leftist backgrounds, some associated with the Communist Party
of the Philippines (CPP). Grouped under the Solidarity Movement,
they are calling for a "transitional council" that will
be composed of opposition politicians and some leaders of the
The politicians apparently see this as a way to regain power and
restore elite democracy under their command. The CPP, for its
part, presumably sees this as a chance to infiltrate the highest
echelons of the state, even as it continues to implement its military
strategy of encircling cities from the countryside and seizing
power through armed insurrection.
Another section under the left's banner is the Laban ng Masa (Fight
of the Masses) coalition. They are calling for a "transitional
revolutionary government" (TRG) -- without conservative elite
forces represented in the leadership. This umbrella coalition
brings together a diverse group of leftist political forces: Leninists
together with autonomous social movements and non-governmental
organizations, Maoists together with left-party formations that
do not see the seizure of the state as the priority, socialists,
left-liberals, greens, and others.
Most of the political blocs included here broke away from the
CPP in the 1990s, and the coalition is the highest level of tactical
and political unity they have achieved since then.
According to the coalition, the TRG's aim is to institute economic
and political changes that have so far been resisted by the elites,
such as land reform and the reversal of neo-liberal economic policies
such as privatization and free trade. Elections will then resume
once their conditions are met.
As different groups and factions scramble
for power, the US Embassy has become a very popular destination.
"What everyone is trying to do," confided one of the
cabinet secretaries who recently resigned and joined the anti-Arroyo
movement, "is to get American approval." Even the government
has no illusions as to what the embassy can do: "If the Americans
decide to drop support of the Philippine president, it crumbles,"
the president's former chief of staff, Rigoberto Tiglao, has acknowledged.
That has been borne out historically. The Philippines was a US
colony until 1946, but even thereafter Washington regularly intervened
politically by financing preferred candidates and groups, conducting
widespread covert operations, and helping to stage-manage elections.
In 1950, a US National Security Council document stated that among
the United States' goals in the country was the maintenance of
"an effective government which will preserve and strengthen
the pro-US orientation." In 1972, the US supported the declaration
of martial law because, as a US Senate report put it, "Military
bases and a familiar government in the Philippines are more important
than the preservation of democratic institutions."
When Marcos finally became more of a political liability than
an asset to the US, Washington immediately transferred its support
to the anti-Marcos elite factions, attempted to unify them, and
ensured that they would call the shots in the anti-dictatorship
All these were critical strategies to guarantee that the outcome
of people power would not be inimical to US interests. How exactly
the US is playing its hand during the current crisis may not be
known for years to come. Since the crisis began, however, US officials
have repeatedly stated that they would oppose another "people
TIRED BUT WISER
Unless Arroyo voluntarily resigns or goes
along with counter-elite plots to preserve the current political
order, another people-power-type uprising is still what most of
the groups seeking the president's ouster are leveraging to force
a political transition. Whether the outcome of another popular
uprising will be special elections, a transitional council or
a transitional revolutionary government is still unclear. Until
now the two critical elements for past successful uprisings are
still apparently missing: the support of the military and hundreds
of thousands of people on the streets.
In the military, cracks are showing. The government may have foiled
recent coup movements by some military factions, but it has not
put an end to the restiveness inside the barracks.
And the fissures in society are increasingly being reflected in
the chain of command. A nationalist, and some say progressive,
bloc composed mostly of junior officers, is reported to be emerging.
But as outside the barracks, the military is divided between those
who are committed to defending the existing political order and
those who want to reconstruct it. The question is, who will strike
first and who will remain standing?
So far, the only political force that has been able to fill the
streets on a sustained basis, though on a limited scale, is the
organized left. Some analysts attribute the general public's refusal
to join them to a so-called "people power fatigue,"
and view this as implicit approval of Arroyo and the existing
The other explanation, however, is that the people are not tired,
only wiser: having seen how the previous uprisings only led to
the replacement of one elite faction with another, and witnessing
no real change in their economic well-being, they may be loath
to support another merry-go-round at the top. If this is true,
then they are just waiting for the right reason and the right
moment to come out.
Herbert Docena is with Focus on the Global
South, a research and advocacy organization. A version of this
piece originally appeared on Asia Times Online, March 3, 2005.