Two images may be evoked when considering the event called EDSA-1 in today’s context.
The first has to do with past atrocities committed prior to the event that led to local mobilization and international pressure for the autocrat President Marcos to step down just as many in the Arab people have witnessed take place in their own countries. The second has to do with accusations of present day corruption, impunity and dictatorship by stealth that either camp on the Aquino-Arroyo divide have been hurling at each other.
As far as the image of the past is concerned, many victims still await closure to the dark episode in their lives and the nation’s history. There can be no more appropriate response to their plight but a recognition and apology from the perpetrators of the suffering they have caused. Barring that, the billions of pesos in escrow or in the form of stocks held by those deemed to have illegally acquired it awaiting legislation for their proper distribution to the victims would be a nice token.
The Palace has demonstrated that it can muster a third of the House behind a petition which those signing weren’t even given the opportunity to read to impeach one of the highest officials of the land. If it can use its moral authority to muster support for prosecuting someone in this way, it can perhaps devote a similar amount of effort towards enabling a final judgement to be carried out through legislation. After all its Righteous Path seeks to right the injustices of the past.
In keeping with the memory of EDSA, what better way to honor the lives of those who sacrificed so much to restore our freedoms?
As far as the image of the present is concerned, the picture is more muddled. They say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Care however must be taken that our sense of vigilance does not turn into vigilantism. The strategy and tactics employed by the present government to browbeat the appointees of its predecessor into either submission or expulsion seem a bit heavy handed. This is true particularly when statements are construed towards the overthrow of decisions made by legal institutions through the “will of the people” in order to produce “the rule of law”. If Mr Marcos used the threat of force to intimidate the judiciary into submission and legitimating his “constitutional dictatorship”, the threat of a people power revolt is being held over the heads of the senator-judges of the impeachment court to tow the administration’s line.
The pursuit of anti-corruption measures is an honourable past-time, but restraint must be shown so that it does not degenerate into a vendetta mission that weakens political and legal institutions in the process. We must remember that EDSA-1 occurred because the Marcos regime was either unwilling or unable to entertain or accept the leader of the opposition’s offer of national reconciliation and an orderly transition process through a power sharing deal. EDSA-1 culminated in the overthrow of Mr Marcos and the formation of a revolutionary interim government to lay the groundwork for a democratic transition. In the wake of their overthrow, its loyalists sought to marshal forces to stage a counter-revolution to restore the old order.
The present situation is quite different. After handing over power in an orderly fashion, the previous dispensation in appointing its proxies to constitutional bodies sought to stage a defensive rather than offensive move against those in the present one. In other words, it is not seeking to overthrow the current government, nor destabilize it. It merely seeks a kind of immunity from prosecution. The last line of defence it has, the twelve justices out of fifteen appointed by Mrs Arroyo, has been rattled by the current proceedings in and outside of the Senate. Ironically, the fate of the country’s young legal and institutional traditions rests on the shoulders of a man that was once the architect of their subversion under martial law.
If EDSA-1 was the result of our political leadership failing to come together to form a power-sharing government of national reconciliation, today our democratic institutions are being stressed to the point of breaking once again with the ratcheting up of rhetoric by both sides of the political divide. So much has been invested by the administration in going after the Arroyos and their proxies to the point that the outcome of the impeachment trial has become an all-or-nothing proposition.
There is a tendency to romanticize the people power revolution of 1986, to appropriate the imagery, the language and the memory of this event for political purposes today. We need to recall however that the assassination of the president’s father in 1983 and subsequent events caused the country to plunge into an abyss that led to a lost decade economically. This came about because those in power failed to recognize how tenuous their grip on power was and see their interests better served by accommodating their opponents.
The extreme polarization that characterized that period has returned. It is a reminder to all of how contentious politics is in this country. People power is resurfacing to break the stalemate. This is putting a heavy burden on the institutions charged with arbitrating the situation and the humans that preside over them. Ironically, the deciding votes could be cast by an Enrile, a Cayetano, a Marcos, and an Estrada. Will they be intimidated by the threat of people power?
While the president claims to represent the will of the people and the chief justice represents the judiciary whose authority is legitimated by the constitution ratified by the people. The senator-judges whose mandate comes from the people, the same national electorate that voted in the president, are torn between their sympathies for public opinion and their obligation to the constitutional and legal processes. Despite all the coverage surrounding their chamber, their position is increasingly becoming unenviable.
So returning to the commemoration of EDSA, there are two ways to think about it. We can view it as the victory of people over tyranny, a victory which could be made complete by compensating those stripped of their human and property rights under the Marcos regime using the amassed hidden wealth of the dictator and his cronies, retrieving any of that wealth that got plundered on the way to its intended beneficiaries, and punishing those who did the plundering.
Another way of viewing it is as the result of a failure by our political elite to come to an amicable settlement that would serve the interests of the country and provide an orderly transfer of power. In this vein, the current rupture in our politics may be viewed as another failure by our leaders to work out their differences within the confines of our institutional processes, the very same processes that the people in EDSA-1 fought to restore.