Ninoy Aquino’s Place in History: People Power’s Final Act

Every story comes to an end.

We are a young democracy. If one counts from 1898, then we are 112 years old; we were the first republic in Asia though still historically young at just over a hundred years. However, we were never truly sovereign and independent from the start through the Commonwealth era; much less during the Japanese-established Second Republic. It was only after World War II in 1946 — a mere 64 years ago — that we began to chart our own destiny as a nation. But even that was short-lived. The Declaration of Martial Law in 1972 (38 years ago) curtailed the civil and political rights one associates with liberal democracies, ushering a period of dictatorship that would culminate in the creation of a Fourth Republic in 1981 (29 years ago). It took the People Power Revolution to finally end it in 1986 (24 years ago), hence establishing the Fifth Republic into which we have just elected its fifth president and fifteenth over-all (cutting across Republics).

This quick recitation of facts led me to several conclusions.

My grandmother, who just passed away last April 15, was born during the First Republic. She was 12 years old when women were allowed to vote for the very first time (April 30, 1937). And before that, you had to be male, 23-years old, owned real estate worth P500, paid taxes amounting to P30 a year, literate in either English or Spanish, in order to vote. The right to vote, as we know it now, was introduced in 1935 (75 years ago).

My parents were born during the Third Republic, they met and dated during the Fourth Republic, and I was three years old when the Fifth Republic was born. The democracy and political culture as we know it today is indeed very, very young (I am its kuya). But just to see how different it has become, consider these. Before, it was so ordinary to speak of just two political parties; today we complain why there are so many and argue that we should ‘imitate’ the United States and just have two. Before, people craved to vote but couldn’t; today people are high-minded enough to abstain as they please. (At some moments in our history, it was mandatory to vote.)

What does not escape me is the reality that our country is indeed very young. Think of these republics as layers of sediments you would find if you dug through the earth of our national past. Layers upon layers are filled with heroes known and lost, public servants loved and loathed. We have always been experimenting, trying out new ways to make our country work. At times — World War II in 1942 and Martial Law in 1972 — it was forced upon us to start over again. And we never failed; we’ve always risen up to the challenge and shaped the arc of history to our side.

I am presenting all these to give us some historical perspective.

With the son of former President Corazon Aquino on the cusp of winning the widest plurality vote in the post-EDSA world at 40% (in 1957, Carlos Garcia won with 42%), a lot say that we are about to turn the page of history once again. On June 30, we begin the administration of the 15th President of the Philippines, unending the deeply unpopular and highly divisive administration of #14. Will this usher in a new age? Is the Sixth Republic dawning?

All history is a story.

The phases of a story: beginning, climax and denouement.

In placing Noynoy Aquino’s victory, one need not look beyond the dawn of the Fifth Republic. His campaign and eventual presidency is the product of not just an outpouring of grief over the passing of his iconic mother, but the manifestation of a people’s clamor to believe in government once again after so much disappointment and disbelief under a president widely considered to be ‘the most corrupt since Marcos’. There is longing, a nostalgia for simpler, more innocent times. There is a clamor for a president who can put an end to corruption and begin the much needed healing of our nation.

Hence today’s story began in August 21, 1983 when Ninoy Aquino, the man tipped to be the one to beat Marcos, was assassinated before barely stepping on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport. His death sparked an outrage that sent people to the streets, and eventually to Malacanang. Their conquest of the nation came in the form of his unassuming wife, Corazon, who challenged Marcos in the snap elections of February 7, 1986. The elections were the most violent in history, marred by coercion, intimidation and fraud; innumerable voters were unable to vote. The next weeks were a cascade of rally after rally, until Marcos’ own generals defected and Corazon was declared President of the Philippines on February 22. Four days later, Marcos left the country.

The foremost priority of the newly-installed Aquino presidency was to reinstall the institutions abused or even obliterated by Marcos. The government was excessively decentralized and discredited, the economy was in deep recession, and the military was heavily politicized and loyal to Marcos. The social indicators were not encouraging either; in 1985, two thirds of Filipino families consumed less than the minimum calorie intake and 22% of preschool children experienced moderate to severe malnutrition.

The 1987 constitution, now considered to be highly reactive and thus in need of updating for the 21st century, was the landmark achievement of her term. Through which the basic framework of government was laid down, power was decentralized by re-empowering local government units, and sectors wary of another dictatorship — particularly the military and civil society — were placated. Thoroughly set aside during the Marcos years, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and POs (people’s organizations, now the Party List System) found new life under the Aquino regime.

Several problems remained unaddressed however. Due to the need to service the Marcos debt, Aquino was severely constrained in her ability to address social welfare problems. Poverty and income disparity remained, if not worsened. Moreover, regional and global concerns stifled Aquino further. The Gulf War of 1991 curtailed the income coming from overseas workers in the Middle East, and the Senate’s removal of US bases in the country traded a rent of $480 million annually for national sovereignty. The government was essentially bankrupt, and the NGOs and POs rushed to fill in the gap.

Therefore, there was wide consensus by the end of her term that national welfare relied largely on economic welfare. That only when our country starts generating jobs and revenue can we be truly stable and eventually, progressive.

This insight was central to the administration of President Fidel Ramos, the successor to President Aquino. With the goals of institution-building met under Aquino, Ramos proceeded to focus solely on the economy. He spoke of a strong state premised on people empowerment. Two pillars of his economic reform program were liberalization (widening the exchange of goods and services to include foreign markets and investors) and privatization (selling government assets to private individuals and corporations). By and large, Ramos succeeded in terms of putting the country back on the path of economic reform.

But all that progress came at a price. National economic reform was made possible through traditional political patronage, particularly through the pork barrel allocations which the President used to curry favor among legislators (a practice common to this day). Ramos wasn’t as successful in breaking up monopolies (such as telecomm giant, PLDT) either, lending him the reputation of being business friendly — a reputation that the next president would contrast against to win victory.

Joseph Ejercito Estrada campaigned as the champion of the masses. He didn’t know much about the economy, he said. But he knew what the poor was going through. He didn’t care much about big companies, he said. Because bettering the lives of the poor is what he wants. Estrada’s timing was pretty much perfect for despite Ramos’ successes, the plight of the poor remained. People could wait no longer, and Erap — just like in his movies — was here to save the day. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis also worked to Estrada’s favor. The crisis that began in Thailand shocked America and Europe, and sent waves crashing into the Philippines. The country was already generating wealth, but it slowed down just as Election Day came in May 1998.

Big business was terrified of Erap. Seeing Erap as unqualified and ill-equipped to be President, people predicted failure from the start. He also came from outside the traditional political class, thus displacing the traditional politicians who gained from the system. The odd consensus among many was that the country had more to gain by losing Erap, and the country waited for the inevitable impeachment.

And it came in January 2001. But it wasn’t impeachment. It was “People Power II”.

It was the direct result of what people saw as a frustrated impeachment trial. On October 4, 2000, Chavit Singon, a close friend of the president, came out with allegations of him earning millions from an illegal game, jueteng. The expose immediately led to rage. As the days wore on, opposing senators lashed out in anger. Cardinal Sin, former presidents Aquino and Ramos, and even then Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo exclaimed that Estrada has lost ‘the moral right to rule’. They would eventually call for his resignation.

On November 13, 2000, House Speaker Manuel Villar transmitted the Articles of Impeachment to the Philippine Senate, igniting what would be the highest-rating political telenovela in Philippine history starting December 7 — The Impeachment Trial of Erap Estrada.

I remember living out those days very well. It was an age without the Internet; the mobile phone was just new. Everyone breathed and spoke politics; everyone was in the know. But it was on the evening of January 17 when the Senate voted down a move to open an envelope that allegedly contained crucial evidence against Erap. When the President’s allies ended the motion, thus keeping it sealed, people were outraged. Text messages emerged, calling people to EDSA. Justice has been denied, they said, and justice must be won. And on January 20, Erap was forced to vacate Malacanang.

And that is how we ended up with our 14th President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. But every story comes to an end.

Following the structure of a story, the climax has just ended. The country’s first automated elections was a modest success, leaving us with enough lessons to make it even better. But perhaps, a lot feel, merely getting to hold our elections was a victory in itself.

President Arroyo began on a similar path as President Ramos, but her deals cut deeper. She often claims to not care for her ratings, saying that the right thing to do is not necessarily the popular one. Yet her insistence to go on her own path has alienated her from the people she claims to serve. Her unparalleled political acumen and survival instincts can be worthy of admiration if it didn’t remind us of the authoritarian past we still struggle to move away from. She has held on to power despite all attempts to oust her, and so it is almost unbelievable to think that her time is at an end.

With the election of Noynoy Aquino, the forces of 1986 are alive once again, though this time they have chosen to fight it out in the ballot and not on the streets. And they have won. The son has become the father; and the father the son. The circle is complete.

Analysts now consider People Power II a mistake. It really wasn’t people power, they said, but an event engineered by the very political and business elites that felt out of place in Estrada’s government. This view is so easy to make in hindsight now, especially when we see how all those elites have found a new home in Arroyo’s regime. No wonder they want her to stay in power for all eternity. And no wonder that the color yellow rises once again to show us how it’s really done.

So now comes the denouement, that point after the climax when all loose threads are closed and characters meet their final fate. It is not lost on me that after Noynoy Aquino, no other child of Ninoy and Cory Aquino could possibly assume the mantle. Neither is it lost on me that Aquino is a bachelor, with no dynasty to establish. Unless the Kris and Baby James jokes are to be believed, the name of Aquino’s father ends with Noynoy.

He is thus the third and final act of our young country’s romance with People Power. Will we be a better country after all is said and done? Will there be redemption, or will there be tragedy? Noynoy Aquino has six years to write an ending to this story. I sincerely hope that he leaves us with a foundation premised not just on a strong state but on an empowered citizenry. May he transform government into one that provides us with the tools we need to succeed even after his term ends. For the Aquino name is not the only name he has to protect; there is People Power too.

The history lesson ends here, and the time to learn from history’s lessons begins now. In this time of hope and wonder, excitement and uncertainty, there is only one thing certain: the future is unwritten.

And that every story has an end.


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