Monday, February 27, 2006

The Limits of People Power

Almost twenty years to the day that former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was forced to flee the Philippines in the country’s first display of people power, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has declared a state of emergency.

The soldiers are restless again, this time aiming to topple a president who may or may not be personally corrupt, who may or may not be a competent head of state but who is no dictator. Whether she is a legitimate president has always been another matter.

President Arroyo’s problems go back to the way she came to power in 2001 in another popular upheaval, known as People Power 2. But, unlike the glorious events of 1986, it was one that left a sour after taste.

She ran for re-election in 2004 and won, but has been dogged by accusations of election fraud. A series of tapes purporting to show her talking improperly to the head of the election committee brought threats of impeachment last summer, threats she successfully rode out until this latest crisis.

Many people forget that it was another disputed election that sparked the first people power protest 20 years ago. In mid-February Ferdinand Marcos seemingly defeated Corazon Aquino, wife of the murdered opposition leader Benigno Aquino, in what was universally condemned as a stolen election.

In that instance, Aquino simply acted as if she had won the election and was sworn in as president. The street and the armed forces moved to her side. Marcos fled the country, and the rest is history. People Power 2 was different.

The ex-actor Joseph Estrada turned out to be as much of a disaster as president as most people in the Philippine middle classes had feared. He was corrupt, incompetent, a drunk. Stories abounded how he signed state papers in the middle of the night while carousing with his cronies.

By rights, he should have been impeached, but the Philippine Congress funked its duty. The House of Representatives sent an impeachment indictment to the Senate without even taking a vote. The senate dithered and never voted to convict Estrada before being over taken by events.

Instead, the generals went to the people power shrine in Manila and announced that they were “withdrawing support” for President Estrada. Arroyo, then vice president, took the oath as president from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Two days later the U.S. recognized her as the legitimate president.

Estrada left the presidential palace but not the country (he’s still facing slow moving corruption charges) He issued a statement saying he was temporarily turning over his powers to Arroyo as “acting president” but he never actually resigned.

Later the Philippine Supreme Court provided Arroyo some fig leaf of constitutionality to what was basically a coup by declaring that Estrada had passed some kind of “totality test” and by his actions had effectively resigned the presidency.

It is worth noting that only a few months later Indonesia went through a similar crisis as the People’s Consultative Assembly voted to remove President Abdurrahman Wahid for misappropriation of funds and general incompetence and replace him with the vice president, another daughter of a former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Megawati, who was generally perceived to be ineffective too, was soundly defeated for re-election in 2004 in Indonesia’s first direct presidential election by the current incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But In Indonesia these two tranfers of power were done constitutionally and democratically without mass demonstrations or interference from the army.

Perhaps then it is no coincidence that of the three largest democracies of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, only Indonesia is currently and free of constitutional strife.

Many in the Philippines think that the solution to the permanent political weakness is to scrap the U.S.-style constitution and create a parliamentary form of government. President Arroyo herself seems to favor such a solution.

But parliamentary democracy isn’t proving to be a panacea in Thailand, where some 200,000 people turned out in central Bangkok Sunday to denounce Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. To stem growing protests over the sale of his personal holdings to Singapore, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called for new elections April 2.

It is hard to predict what will happen in either country over the next few days or weeks, but I’d guess that President Arroyo will again ride out the storm again as she did last summer. I don’t see the stars aligning for a third reprise of People Power.

Fernando Poe, Arroyo’s main opponent in the 2004 presidential election died last year, and his widow, Susan Roces, doesn’t seem to be another Corazon Aquino. Nobody seems particularly hot to see Vice President Noli de Castro take over either.

A short lived mutiny by marines in downtown Manila, led by Gen. Ariel Querubin, a veteran of the 1989 coup attempt against Corazon Aquino (coup plotters are never really punished in the Philippines) fizzled out. Only a couple thousand people turned out to support them.


Blogger Keith Loveard said...

Todd, it is wonderful to read your sharp perspective on Arroyo's latest crisis. Your comments on Indonesia are perceptive. The Yudhoyono government is winning marks and its work is beginning to impact positively on a major problem: international image. The country has been through a remarkable transition since the end of Suharto, and a strong return to stability and growth could boost its economic role in Southeast Asia.

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