The birth of People Power

There was a time when many posed as midwives to the birthing of the People Power revolt. A successful revolution tends to be owned and claimed by a thousand fathers and mothers. Now that this “revolution” is seen to have failed, people wonder as to what really was birthed during that time.

The Left says no new thing had been born, as the privileged classes remain entrenched. The “middle forces,” the people President Duterte derisively calls “dilawan,” say that something was born, but it was somewhat deformed: The new baby came out with a strong right arm and an underdeveloped left arm, meaning that the military forces who happened to be at its maelstrom now presume to have the right to direct its course, while the more progressive elements were sidelined or failed to seize revolutionary initiatives that could have been done that time.


Still others, mostly external observers and religious communities present at the Edsa barricades, believe that what we are looking at is a wonder baby, a gorgeous and luminous bundle of life birthed by a people’s grit and will to be free, aided by a somewhat miraculous intervention from on high.

That there is something odd about this baby is obvious enough. Unlike the secular humanism of the French Revolution, which spawned in its wake the Reign of Terror, and also unlike the atheistic underpinnings of the Russian and Chinese revolutions and other such violent upheavals, our People Power revolt was extraordinary in that it was bloodless.


It did not come out kicking and screaming, but charmed soldiers by offering flowers. The people who stood boldly before tanks had a trusting, confident faith that all things were possible with fervent prayer and a little help from clerical friends. In short, we were baffled and fascinated by the event, instinctively aware there was something complex and mysterious enough about it to deserve the making of many books.

The events at Edsa in 1986 have been analyzed mainly within the liberal tradition, seeing it as a “return to democracy.” It has also been critiqued from more Marxist premises—“no change in objective economic and social relations.” Current populism tends to diminish its significance by treating it as a historical cipher.

But, then, it should be noticed that a new element in our political culture has begun to surface since.

From what seemed to be an inert mass, what we call “the people” rose to its political responsibility and displayed remarkable voluntarism. That we could actually topple an iron-handed government in four days of unarmed siege developed an awareness of our own power outside of the usual structures. For once, we displayed a sense of “nation.” We rose from our usual narrow factionalism and moved toward participation and a sense of control over forces once held to be invincible.

This newfound sense of “empowerment” is evident in the political assertiveness now seen among grassroots communities. A year or so after the Edsa events, some 60,000 nongovernment organizations mushroomed, as registered by the Securities and Exchange Commission. This does not count the many informal faith-based organizations affiliated with churches, a result of the faithful believers awakening to their social responsibility.

What has emerged is an incipient culture of protest, an advance from the old quiescence and culture of silence in the past. It is in this sense that People Power is not, as some have alleged, merely a bourgeois convention for laying claim to the achievement of having overthrown an oppressive regime. It also indicated a growing sense among our people that they had a stake in the political fortunes of this country.

It may be asked then: How come we are not seeing this assertion of popular will today, with creeping authoritarianism all over again?


Without sidestepping the complex set of factors behind this, a good answer may be that we are experiencing a kind of “democratic fatigue,” an erosion of our confidence in the efficacy of the usual tools that are in our hands within the democratic system. We have yet to institutionalize People Power as a novel way of exerting direct pressure upon structures of power. This Lockean form of “radical democracy” has yet to evolve into a formal mechanism, just like the institution of “checks and balances” in democratic systems of governance. We cannot keep taking to the streets just to make the powers-that-be accountable.

Unfortunately, instead of doing the hard task of putting in place the nuts and bolts of making the system work, our culture of personalism tends to focus politics on the myth of the strongman, on consolidating the powers of this savior-figure so he can do what he wants. Tinkering with the political machinery in the direction of solidifying autocracy has become a one-answer system to the ills that beset this country.

It could also be that the present indifference is a function of the failure of democracy to deliver on its promises, rather than an index of the people’s democratic impulses. Elections and power transfers tend to be merely bread and circuses for our people, distracted as we are by the daily struggle for survival. Political “rights,” as they have developed in the West, have little meaning to a people barely able to eke out a fragile existence.

Nevertheless, the idea of People Power has birthed in our people a sense of their historic potential. It is not an accident that it has inspired other peoples of the world seeking to overthrow entrenched powers. It has given us a sense of elasticity about what can and cannot be done within the iron fences of arbitrary power. It reminds us that, against all odds, success is probable, given some faith and daring in our political ventures.

Melba Padilla Maggay, PhD, is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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