An Empowered Argument for a People Power

On an “Alternative” to People Power Proposal

There is an alternative to people power which is being proposed: “have Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the president for the remainder of her term,” for her staying there “presents our nation with a golden opportunity to change in a deeper, more meaningful and more lasting manner.”

Let me say at the onset that at this point of the political crisis, this proposal is not anymore an alternative, a new or a middle proposal. The progression of the on-going debates and dynamics points to fact that this is the same solution being offered by Malacañang obviously to be able to survive yet again a formidable challenge to its authority. As stated rather eloquently by a pro-Gloria protester covered by the media (who was basically echoing the administration’ s line), the country should just wait for the 2010 elections since that is only about one year and eight months away. “Bring the case to the courts and let all those who are responsible be punished.”

For us reform-minded, we need to ask ourselves: Do we seriously believe that honest and clean elections under this administration are possible? Do we really think that the Ombudsman and the NBI will allow the truth to be ferreted out and hold those responsible for the NBN deal and the Lozada abduction accountable? Do we honestly believe we can bring about genuine long-lasting reforms if we again let another serious “mistake” by the President (which she yet AGAIN apologized for) to go unpunished?

She called a COMELEC official during the 2004 elections. She apologized for it. We let it pass.

The Macapagal Boulevard was overpriced big time. We let it pass.

She passed measures such as the Calibrated Pre-Emptive Response (CPR), E.O. 464 and the Declaration of Emergency Powers that curtailed human rights. We let it pass.

She was linked with extra-judicial killings, and even hailed as human rights protector in her SONA the very person who the UN considered as directly responsible for extra-judicial killings. We let it pass.

For the sake of “stability” and “constitutionality” , we stayed quiet and let all of these pass.

But power that is unchecked will naturally wield more power. Abuse that is not made accountable will result in greater abuses. If they can get away with murder, why would they not be able to get away with 130 million dollars?

The GMA’s camp formula of survival is simple and we are more than willing to take in all the bullshit that they are peddling: Let the “mistakes” in the exercise of power pass for the sake of democracy, for the sake of economy, for the sake of stability and long-term reform processes.

Bottomline, There are Two Options

The bottomline at this point is that we ultimately face two options. On the one hand, we stick with the status quo; keep GMA as President; and work for whatever reform we can get, and avoid any call for her resignation. That’s the administration line.

On the other hand, we join the call of several social forces (factions of the church, academe, progressive/ activist groups, civil society groups, etc.) to hold the administration, particularly GMA to account (with resignation or ouster as one of the accountability calls) and try to be vigilant about the changes that the call for resignation could bring about.

What are the possible outcomes of a call for resignation?

A military take-over is the worst possibility, which I agree we should definitely fight against. However I do not agree that the military take-over threat is only present in a people power scenario. On the contrary, if the present democratic system (which include people power uprising) would not correct itself or would not result in credible measures to correct itself, the argument that military rule is superior than civilian authority could be strengthened. The threat of a military take-over therefore will not be brought about by an EDSA uprising scenario, but by the continued and unabated corruption in the government where both the state mechanism for accountability and societal/ social accountability (which include EDSA uprising) fail to perform their check and balance functions.

The most likely possibility that could result in another people uprising is the conservative option of constitutional succession (I heard the United States has already talked to Noli). In this scenario, the uncertainty of winning reforms is just as much in a status quo scenario. Is this going back to zero? Most probably. But at least, it isn’t working again on a negative mark with the baggage of restrained moral conviction.

So we have two options which both require a risk. If you ask me, between the administration who obviously has been abusing and misusing its authority and the social forces calling for resignation, I will take side with the latter anytime.

A Moral Stand for People Power is a Political Stand

This is the reason I consider people power as a political call whether the grounds for calling such is moral, political, economic, social, cultural, or religious/ spiritual. A people power call has several implications, which make it a political course of action.

When you take a position on this issue given the current context, you are actually choosing a particular side; you are choosing one political dispensation over another. It will ultimately result in changes in the balance or imbalance of power. With the recent developments, the call of the time is to take side.

Is there a middle position/ call as of now? Maybe. But in the dynamics of the state and society and the inter-society interactions in this conjuncture, the middle position might not be as strong, hence could be co-opted by any of the prevailing dominant discourses or could be totally overshadowed, in which case the likely beneficiary is the status quo.

People Power is an Ultimate Societal Accountability Tool

One of the relatives of GMA said in the news, “we do not want chaos.” GMA said several times: “The world celebrated EDSA 1. It tolerated EDSA 2. It cannot forgive an EDSA 3.”

The elites of this country have the temerity to implicitly blame people power for their mess. The people on the other hand allow them to do so, playing within the frame of their silly argument.

The abuse and misuse of power, the pervasive exercise of illegitimate authority and the use of state power and resources for particularistic interest weaken democratic institutions. It is not the EDSA uprising. In fact, there have been EDSAs and the threat of another people uprising because of failing state democratic institutions. Society’s response in favor of people power, what other refers to as “an extra-judicial means”, is valid and logical given the extent of abuse and misuse of state authority which cannot be checked and corrected by the state accountability mechanisms that are weakened by the former’s use of constitutionally/ legally questionable tools (e.g. E.O. 464) and the obviously partisan and patronage-based appointments to accountability institutions.

Let it be made clear that an EDSA uprising is in fact within the legal framework or is perfectly in accordance to the constitutionally- defined nature of the Philippine state as a democratic and republican state. People power as they say is institutionalized in the Constitution. Let us not be deceived by what we see at the surface level. Just because an EDSA uprising prevents you to watch a movie in the Galleria or causes heavy traffic, you would consider it undemocratic, threatening to democratic institutions or not within the legal/ constitutional framework. Just because people who investigate in the Ombudsman wear a Barong or Americana and you can easily watch their investigation on TV in the comfort of your home or not be bothered by it at all, we would consider the process they undertake as democratic or that which will lead in the strengthening of democracy. Last time I check processes with the characteristics of the latter have very bad records in the country, especially if the discussions continue in golf courses and coffee shops, which what usually happens.

Modern democracies probably do not have EDSA uprisings, but modern democracies have functioning and credible democratic institutions, including political parties, which we ultimately do not have. Can the Philippine society wait while democratic institutions developed? With how the state mechanisms and processes are performing so far and with the kind of leaders we have compounded by significant sections of the society expressing in different ways their anger and impatience for what is happening, having faith in the state alone to strengthen its democratic institutions is unforgivable.

We cannot limit the ways society act on abuses and misuses of state authority, precisely for the reason that unlike the state where power is concentrated, the society’s strength and I dare say beauty is its limitless means and ends. “…At its utmost range, it [society/ community] is pedagogic rather than legal; it is a school rather than a state. It is a free partnership of minds, for the exploration of all the fields of the mind; and it always retains the note of freedom, initiative and experimentation.” As Michael Curtis very well said, society is the “ many splendored thing.”

But then we say, “Isn’t it dangerous not to limit what society can do according to what is allowed by the given legal-constitutiona l framework?” But then again, isn’t it also as equally dangerous to concentrate power (in a government) and not to have any other means outside the control of this concentrated power that can serve as a countervailing force? Besides, society checks and balances itself through the dynamics of the many actors and forces that interact and interface as they engage in public affairs. Society in a democratic country naturally produces pluralist discourses. It is unstructured, hence it is characterized by decentralized and dispersed exercise power or influence, where there is no group having the monopoly of coercion.

With Great Power Comes Great Demands for Accountability

In one very rare occasion, I agreed with GMA, “The presidency is as powerful as she wants it to be.”

What we have now is a very powerful Presidency. The President is the Commander-in- Chief, hence she controls the military and the police. The President appoints people in the bureaucracy down to the director level. The President through the DBM holds the power of the purse. The President through the NEDA decides on policies, investments and loans. The President vetoes bills passed by both chambers of Congress. The President passes Implementing Rules and Regulations, which sometimes go beyond what its corresponding Law dictates (the recently released IRR of NAPC as a case in point).

These are just some of the powers of the Presidency and with a Machiavellian disposition of the one occupying the post, the extent of the power of the presidency in the hands of GMA and her political strategists is unimaginable.

Let’s take a closer look at how extensive and creative the exercise of power of the current administration. They would threaten to file or actually file legal cases to local chief executives, to civil society leaders or to business establishments who would dare oppose them. They would abduct you and tell the public you in fact requested for security. They would do the most horrible things, say sorry and are able to sway public opinion that they are the victims in all of these using their children and relatives’ probably genuine emotions towards what is happening.

In a democratic country (supposedly like the Philippines) , the exercise of power must be coupled with accountability. Power and accountability in a democracy are like two sides of the same coin. Accountability mechanisms are in fact integrated within the institutional arrangement of the state. The separation of powers, laws on accountability, integrity and ethics and state accountability institutions such as the Ombudsman, Sandiganbayan, etc. are the state’s accountability mechanisms. In a democracy, you expect that abuse of power or illegitimate authority is avoided and if it is not, it will be punished.

Emerging now is societal or social accountability— accountability measures that are demand-driven and initiated by social forces. These ranges from protest actions to critical collaboration with the government, to partnership with business and the government in governance. It can be argued that the prevalence of societal accountability measures is an indication that state accountability mechanisms are failing or are limited. These mechanisms are unable to check the exercise of power; hence societal mechanisms come in. There will always be the tendency for society to complement what is lacking in the state.

Since democracy balances and checks power, a strong presidency will be balanced and checked by an ultimate accountability measure such as the President’s removal from office. If state processes such as impeachment fail, societal action such as calls for resignation through people power are likely to happen. In other words, the call for resignation from societal forces is inevitable in a democratic state where you have a very strong presidency and weak state accountability mechanisms.

The argument is rather simple. If GMA is as powerful as she wants herself to be, and this is true in paper and in practice, then if things under her command messes up despite having immense power, she should be made ultimately accountable, just as how she gets credit for everything good that happens in the country including the winning of Pacquiao.

But Who are the People in People Power?

Is the call for the resignation of GMA the call of “the people?” Since we conservatively interpret democracy as majority rules, we understand the people as the majority. Is majority of the people calling for GMA to resign?

If you consider the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys as societal mechanisms to know the sentiment of the people, then the consistently very low approval rating of the President (even lower than that of Marcos) fairly answers the question of what is the will of the majority on the call for her resignation.

The other approach to answer this question is by using the “corporatist” view of democracy or a permutation of it, which says that what counts in democratic processes are the actors, groups and institutions that have economic and political power. They say for an EDSA uprising to be successful in terms of effecting change in leadership, the “critical mass,” which will get the support of the military and will signal the sinking of the ship that will lead to the resignation of the cabinet members, is 300,000 key actors, groups and institutions: leaders of the Catholic Church and other religious groups, students, faculty and leaders of universities (especially the four major universities) , progressive political groups, mass movements, middle class/ civil society groups, opposition leaders (unfortunately) , media and unorganized professionals.

The more important argument (which I personally subscribe to) that will answer this issue or an alternative approach to answering this issue of whether people power embodies the will of the “people” lies again on the understanding that a call for resignation is a societal accountability mechanism.

Unlike state accountability mechanisms such as elections where there are structures and processes to systematically determine the will of the people, societal action, by its nature, does not have the structure and systems for general/ national collective decision-making. The sheer size of the population and the geographical factor would make this impossible without centralized power, which society do not and cannot have, unless it becomes a parallel state. It has, however, many and varied collectives/ groups making independent and varied discussions and deliberations on issues. This results in many and varied discourses, which produces many and varied arguments and “rationalities.”

Though not centrally-structured, we however cannot say that the calls or actions of the social forces are unacceptable inputs to political processes. If we say this then we ultimately question the right and capacity of the social forces such as the academe, civil society groups, mass movements, etc. (our right and capacity as an academic institution included) to engage government in the different policy processes. We basically question people’s participation. Does the majority of the Filipino support the social reform agenda that the social forces pushed for? Does the majority of the Filipino support the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act? Does majority of the Filipino agree that their children should be tapped to monitor textbook delivery?

Social forces will end up immobilized and disempowered if their calls and actions will be subject to the criteria of whether it is the will of the majority.

The power and authority of calls and actions of the social forces to influence the outcome of political processes come from the many and varied arguments or rationalities created by its dynamic discourses. These rationalities constantly interact and interface to create stronger and formidable rationalities until a dominant reason will emerge that will post a challenge in the prevailing rationality of the status quo. The more key players and actors within and outside the State are convinced with the dominant argument or rationality of the society, the more likely the course of action being proposed will prevail.

Fundamentally, democracy is founded on reason, as John Locke would argue. The society shares with the state that search for collective or general rationality. The state has institutional mechanisms such as elections, the courts and the executive and legislative policy-making to determine the collective/ legitimate reason. The society has the more fluid and unstructured means of discourses, dialogues and interactions.

So is people power, the power of the “people”? The answer is a resounding yes, especially if you and me will be in the streets, forums and the different venues now explaining and proving why a call for resignation should be the best course of action given the prevailing situation. It is ultimately up to each one of us to make this happen.

The first step is to recognize that our reasons and collective actions are formidable power to determine the outcome of political processes. The second step is to recognize the prevailing dominant arguments and ultimately take side. Only when we are empowered as a society to take a decisive collective action that we can start working towards real changes in the country’s politics and governance without the baggage of unaccounted abuse of power and authority, which can do this country no good in the short or long run. And as we go through this process of exacting ultimate accountability from the presidency yet again, let us learn from the lessons of the past. Our vigilance, discourses and collective actions as a society, ensuring accountability in the exercise of power and addressing fundamental institutional flaw such as a very strong presidency, should continue more vigorously when the inevitable happens—when the president steps down.

This article was first published in