Analysis

Transition from old to new oligarchy

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Twenty-seven years after the Edsa People Power Revolution toppled the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, the government of the restored Philippine democracy is in the hands of the son of the late President Cory Aquino, whose family is descended from the country’s wealthiest political dynasty.

That dynasty, the Cojuangco-Aquino family, owns Hacienda Luisita, one of the largest landed estates in the Philippines.

Cory Aquino was elevated to the presidency on the back of people power, a mass movement driven by a triumvirate of social forces clamoring for national leadership change—the Roman Catholic Church, the propertied class and a segment of the military establishment that revolted against Marcos.

Today, the solidarity of this triumvirate has been fractured by social issues fueled by widespread poverty and the cavernous gap in wealth between the rich and the poor, despite the change brought by people power.

Not much has changed in ownership of wealth since Cory took power from a corrupt and rapacious dictatorship.

At 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 25, 1986, when Cory arrived at Club Filipino (an enclave of the privileged class) to take her oath as President, she came with an entourage composed of the Old Guard of Philippine politics disbanded by Marcos’ martial law rule. By then, most of the dictatorship’s Armed Forces had switched loyalty to the military-civilian rebellion centered in Camp Crame, headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary.

Old elite

Shocked at seeing old faces in the new political order, I wrote for the just liberated Manila Times newspaper—silenced during the martial law regime—in its Feb. 26 issue:

“The people power movement has been an Imperial Manila phenomenon. Their (the elites’) playing field is Edsa. They have excluded the provincianos from their movement with their insufferable arrogance and snobbery, ignoring the existence of the toiling masses and peasantry in agrarian Philippines.

“One is disappointed that none of the people of the lower orders of Philippine society is represented at the head table (at Club Filipino). Most of the people inside are members of old political families whose social and economic background put them in key positions to influence policy decisions. New forces in society crying out for recognition are invisible within the Club Filipino power elite.”

I was writing this dispatch fresh from arrival from Australia in time for the snap election of Feb. 7, 1986, which was stolen by Marcos, provoking the people power protests.

Perfect timing

I had taken a leave from my job as subeditor on the foreign news desk of The Melbourne Age to cover the unrest in Manila. I had also taken a leave from the Center of Southeast Asian Studies in Monash University, Australia, where I was doing my master’s degree thesis on political change in the Philippines.

Close monitoring of the events in Manila for the Age had honed my journalistic instincts and told me that the crisis in Manila was coming to a head.

The flash point exploded with the mutiny of then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos on Feb. 22—perfect timing for a journalist seeking to be at the right place at the right time and in the center of the action.

That was how, by accident, I found myself swept into the human tidal wave called people power.

Balance of power

Proclaimed as leaders of the new order were Cory as President and Salvador Laurel, an opposition leader in Marcos’ New Society government, as Vice President.

The new Cabinet represented a tenuous balance of power between the civilians and the military. Enrile was proclaimed defense minister and Ramos, Armed Forces chief of staff. This arrangement made the civilian government hostage to the military which—under the leadership of Enrile—staged no less than seven coup attempts against the Cory administration up to 1989.

Cory set the tone of the arrangement—i.e., the supremacy of civilian authority over the military—by insisting that she be proclaimed head of state in a civilian venue and not in Camp Crame, the center of the military rebellion.

The stalemate over that delicate issue was the reason her arrival at Club Filipino was delayed for two hours. But she won her point, ensuring that the government succeeding the dictatorship would be a constitutional democracy—not a civilian-military junta preferred by Enrile and his military cohorts.

New challenge

The people power generated by the post-Marcos regime survived turbulent coups but today it faces new issues against which that same power might not be successfully deployed.

The original allies of Edsa I—the Church and the heirs of Cory—have gone on separate ways over new social issues, for example, the reproductive health law that was pushed by the current Aquino administration.

The Church has criticized the priorities of the Aquino administration and its record in alleviating poverty—a major concern of the Church. Like independent economists, the Church has criticized the administration’s performance in promoting economic growth without creating jobs to help alleviate poverty.

The economic issue has taken a high profile as the administration’s economic performance comes under attack in the campaign for the midterm elections, in which the administration is seeking a fresh electoral mandate.

Spell is lost

The 27th anniversary of Edsa comes three months ahead of the elections. Given the diversity of issues that divide the administration and the Church, the mystique of people power as a unifying element in political mobilization has lost its spell and is no longer useful as a framework for attacking social issues related to poverty and equitable distribution of wealth.

Edsa I was expected to empower the masses, democratize the political system and initiate reforms. It is odd that more than 20 years after Edsa I, another descendant of the landed oligarchy, President Aquino, has been recruited and elected from the same social class.

Edsa I was a movement for liberty and a protest against abuses on human and political rights. Yet today’s people power anniversary is dominated by economic and social issues in which political families belonging to the landed few are under fire for perpetuating dynasties that have expanded their wealth on the basis of their hold on economic assets.

Symbol of continuity

The family of President Aquino, which owns Hacienda Luisita, is under fire over its credentials to be an agent of political and social change. This is because his social class has been one of the main beneficiaries of an economic expansion growth that has not created jobs to help alleviate poverty.

Mr. Aquino is perceived as the symbol of the continuity of the dynastic rule of the landed oligarchy from the old generation to the new.

The question now is: Has the Edsa tradition been an agent of social change?

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