credible commitment

Why people power flourishes in the East and founders everywhere else

People Power in Tunisia (image credit:

The parliament of the streets which saw its culmination in the Philippines at EDSA-1 on February 1986 took root shortly thereafter in places like South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Burma. Were it not for the tanks on Tiananmen, it would have triumphed in China back in 1989. It has spread even to Eastern Europe and Russia and garnered support in the conservative countries of the Arab world more recently.

Today in the Philippines, there are still calls for people power. One is being launched by none other than the president of the Republic who has been hinting that if the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice Renato Corona results in his acquittal, people should take to the streets to overturn it. Another appeal is being aired by the Catholic Church, which calls on the faithful to march against the enactment of the reproductive health bill.

In the West, calls for people power more likely than not fall on deaf ears. One recent appeal was issued in the US by former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich whose insurgent campaign to win the Republican nomination for president had been dealt a deadly blow by the leading contender former governor Mitt Romney. An even more recent case is that of Kevin Rudd, a former Australian PM who resigned as Foreign Minister of his successor Julia Gillard, as he sought to challenge her for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. As of this writing, he is expected to lose in an upcoming leadership spill within the parliamentary caucus despite his wide margin over her in opinion polls (update: Kevin Rudd eventually lost the contest in a decisive 71-31 vote).

Both men used the phrase ‘people power’ in defining their respective campaigns as a challenge to the established elites within their respective ranks. In these Western democracies, where institutions are deeply embedded, traditions observed, and the political maturity of the people is very high, such appeals are usually met with much scepticism if not outright cynicism.

It makes me wonder why people power flourishes in the East and founders everywhere else. It is a reverse twist on the book by the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. The thesis of his book is that institutions in the East are not suited for the smooth functioning of markets. Among the urban and rural poor whose informal rights to land are not recognized or protected, for example, the proper incentives for investing in the productivity of such assets is lacking.

Similarly I would argue that the reason behind people power being such a viral phenomenon in the East is due to the lack of mature democratic institutions that would mediate or provide proper regulation of political activity. People in the West can rely on these institutions to guide behaviour even in the most difficult of circumstances. Parties accept the outcome of their processes. There is a greater level of faith or assurance in their integrity even when the hand of politics is glaringly obvious.

What happened in the 2000 US presidential elections is a shining example of this. This was the contest between Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats who won the popular vote and Texas Governor George W. Bush for the Republicans who won the electoral college vote. It all came down to who won in Florida, a state governed by George’s brother Jeb Bush. Gore mounted a challenge to the results which had Bush ahead by a mere 534 votes. The state Supreme Court of Florida ordered a recount. While that recount was under way the US Supreme Court intervened. In a 5-4 vote reflecting the political views of the justices, the recount was rendered unconstitutional.

Al Gore strongly disagreed with the decision but said  “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” When the canvassing of electoral college votes took place in the US Congress, Gore as presiding officer overruled many of his colleagues in the chamber on his side of the political fence who protested the decision of the Supreme Court. He in effect went against his own personal interests for the sake of the democratic institutions of his country.

If the Philippines was ever to emulate these democratic traits, it would require maturity from its leaders and people. It would require us to work within constitutionally mandated processes and institutions even when they result in outcomes that run counter to public expectations. It requires commitment by the polity to abide by the prescribed norms whether they are favourable or unfavourable to the interests of its dominant actors.

People power came about in 1986 to impose “the will of the people” following an election, the conduct of which was widely regarded as unclean and the outcome was deemed dishonest. Another episode erupted in 2001 when the Senate sitting as an impeachment court voted along political lines to go a certain way that was seen as injurious to the cause of those who massed in the streets. It led to the ouster of the man the masses deemed their legitimately elected leader and sparked a third coming of people power some months later.

In the ensuing years, people generally regarded the latter two versions of people power as an adulteration of the first. The problem however is that our present leadership does not seem to heed the lesson of that era. It still holds firm to what it claims is its legitimate right to call for a fourth episode if the current impeachment trial of the Chief Justice runs counter to its expectations.

That lesson is that people power should never be used to overturn a judicial decision or process. Imposing “the will of the people” on a court is a dubious thing because legal processes are distinct from electoral ones where the will of the people is clearly indicated. The executive cannot use its electoral mandate to impose its wishes on other co-equal branches of government claiming that “the people” are on its side.

Over-reaching or over-stepping one’s mandate is one of the reasons for building checks and balances in a democracy. If one branch of government refuses to recognize another branch’s decisions, it would be an open invitation for the military to intercede. When that happens, all bets are off.

So the only way out of our present predicament if we do not want to live under a dictatorship is to remain vigilant in the coming days but not allow our vigilance to turn into vigilantism. Otherwise, we might find ourselves stuck in the same old rut that we have found ourselves politically in the past. And being stuck in the past is exactly where we don’t want to be.