People Power Redux

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There is something intoxicating about the sight of hundreds of thousands of civilians taking to the streets, protesting corruption and demanding justice. Those thousands of marching feet, beating hearts and waving placards become in our minds' eye the physical manifestation of democracy's soul. How can they be wrong? They are the people. And the people, after all, are democracy.

What transpired last week in Manila had all the makings of democracy on the hoof: protesters, rousing speeches, People Power-just like the glorious revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos so dramatically, and virtually bloodlessly, nearly 15 years ago. The emotion of the moment carried the day, and one felt cynical questioning the motives of the people or the alleged corruption of departed President Joseph Estrada. But what actually happened behind the scenes to bring about People Power II? And could those very powers-and people-that have brought about the downfall of yet another Philippine President be the same forces that will make it difficult for anyone, including freshly sworn in President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to govern the Philippines effectively?

For Estrada, who never really got the hang of governing the Philippines, effectively or ineffectively, the end came suddenly as the week's initial good news dizzyingly turned to bad. When Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Angelo Reyes and Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado telephoned him Friday afternoon on a secure line from a secret safehouse, Estrada was just 48 hours removed from celebrating what had seemed like a crucial victory in his impeachment trial. By a vote of 11 Senators to 10, he had managed to suppress the opening of an envelope containing the potentially damaging evidence that Estrada controlled bank accounts containing 3.3 billion ill-gotten pesos ($71 million). Briefly, it looked as if Estrada had, through pluck, political muscle and presidential power, survived the impeachment ordeal and won the opportunity to serve out his term. But by the time the military men called on him three days later, the 63-year-old ex-actor would learn that he had lost the allies he most needed if he wanted to hold onto power. He could make it without the Makati business élite and possibly even without the people. But without the army, he was finished.

To make sure Estrada fully understood the implications of this phone call, Reyes dispatched his deputy, General Jose Calimlim, on a mission to personally brief the President on the untenability of his situation. Calimlim, a trusted former aide-de-camp to Estrada, was the appropriate designate to offer the President the pakikisama (show of loyalty) owed to a person whom Reyes would later say he considered a "friend, not an enemy."

When Calimlim arrived at MalacaNang Palace, the President was in his office with several advisers, speaking on the phone. He had already had a few drinks and was slurring his words. In a fit of anger following the call, he ordered everyone out of the office so that he could talk privately with his former aide. "You too, Calimlim?" asked the President, referring to his earlier conversation with Reyes. "Everyone has forsaken me." The President turned despondent, saying: "You know what I'll do? I'll just wait for one soldier to come and kill me." Calimlim remarked later that "it was as if the whole world had collapsed without his knowing what hit him."

Estrada had badly miscalculated in his bid to beat the impeachment trial. By winning the battle to suppress the evidence on a technicality-his defenders argued the material in the envelope was not relevant to the original impeachment charges-Estrada would lose all. It was that small victory that triggered the tumult that would topple the President. When it became clear that a majority of the 21 Senators was prepared to defend Estrada, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel cast his vote against Estrada, and then resigned his post. The entire prosecution team followed suit, throwing the fate of the impeachment trial into limbo. Estrada had been hoping the trial would continue without the admission of the incriminating evidence, leading to an eventual acquittal that would restore him enough legitimacy to serve out his term. What he got instead, when the trial collapsed, was the onset of political rigor mortis: the Senate vote became the symbolic catalyst sending hundreds of thousands of Filipinos into the streets to rally at the People Power shrine built along Epifania de los Santos (EDSA) Ave., where praying nuns faced down tanks in 1986.

That's where Calimlim went when he left the drunken, distraught Estrada on Friday afternoon, joining Reyes, civilian Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado and a roll call of generals and admirals who had similarly shifted their support from Estrada to Arroyo, who had been his Vice President. The Filipino brass who hold so much power in this troubled democracy were welcomed into the opposition stronghold like conquering heroes by some 700,000 demonstrators. Reyes pledged his support to Arroyo in front of the crowd. Clearly grateful for the military allegiance that now seemed to ensure her ascension to the presidency, Arroyo declared: "Now our protectors have joined the people."

Estrada was given a deadline by a panel of opposition negotiators: he had to resign by Saturday at 6 a.m. All through Friday night, demonstrators continued to gather. This has been called the pager revolution for good reason: within minutes of the Senate vote, text messages had flashed through the Manila ether telling anti-Estrada Filipinos to GO TO EDSA. Hundreds of thousands converged on the capital, following directions to, as one message put it, WEAR BLACK TO MOURN THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY. Said another text message: EXPECT THERE TO BE RUMBLES.

Cultural, religious, student and labor groups were on hand, as were stragglers who had just come to see what they hoped would be the latest installment of the People Power show. D.J. Pete Cabaddu, 33, flew back right after high-school graduation in Houston to experience the original People Power. He was thrilled to have a chance to relive history. "We've done it before, we can do it again," he promised. "We don't like the President and we can kick him out. We're ready for a new President, and if the next one is like him, you'll see more of this."

While the television cameras were focused on the rallies-and the commentators became lost in reveries about People Power revisited-behind-the-scenes negotiations had been going on nonstop between military factions loyal to Estrada and those who advocated a quick coup to depose the President. Chief of Staff Reyes and Defense Secretary Mercado had made their fateful call to Estrada after a luncheon attended by all the top commanders. The officers agreed that renouncing Estrada was the best course, in part because some commanders were urging more drastic resolution. If the military did not come to a consensus, there loomed the possibility of factional fighting or, worse, civil war. The group was worried, said Mercado, that "the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] would be divided if no action was taken."

Former President Fidel Ramos had already warned during a visit to Hong Kong earlier in the week of the danger of a "palace coup" by forces allied with Estrada. And other retired officers were already trying to condition the public and the military rank and file to accept the notion that military intervention of one kind or another was a viable option. An ad in the Philippine Daily Inquirer sponsored by the Philippine Military Academy's Class of 1962, whose president is retired General Lisandro Abadia, promised, "The AFP and the PNP will have a crucial role to play in the coming days. The officers, men and women of the AFP and the PNP know what to do during the critical days ahead."

Meanwhile, at least one Estrada ally was believed to be plotting to incite violence that would help the President justify use of his emergency powers to strengthen his grip on the military. According to a retired military officer, Estrada had planned to replace Chief of Staff Reyes with Calimlim. That plan collapsed when General Calimlim joined with Reyes in turning his back on Estrada.

By Friday evening, Estrada was running out of options. His hold on power, tentative since the impeachment trial had commenced, had now been virtually sundered as military and political operatives deserted him one after another. At one point, even former lovers were stepping forward to denounce the famous womanizer. Actress Nora Aunor, formerly a loyal campaigner for Estrada, publicly dumped the President, claiming he used to beat her "black and blue."

Estrada, known popularly as Erap, had never been popular among the gentrified élite, those wealthy descendants of Spanish colonialists who comprised the well-heeled Makati and Forbes Park power brokers. They viewed Estrada, who boasted about his middle-class origins and was proud of his capacious appetites, as something of a parvenu, an uncouth impostor in the palace. His clique of shady Chinese business cronies and provincial politicians was regarded as proof that Estrada was a second-rater, unfit to rule and certainly not one to act in the best interests of the Philippines. And they had their reasons to doubt his policies: Estrada's term in office had been an economic disaster. The Manila Stock Exchange had plummeted 6%, and the peso was trading at an all-time low of 55.75 to the dollar. The business élite had wanted him gone almost from his landslide 1998 election victory; the allegations of corruption and the impeachment trial merely provided the galvanizing issues. Indeed, among the protesters at EDSA last week were students, professionals, doctors, teachers and lawyers-but very few of the lower-class masses who had voted for Estrada and still supported their beloved Erap. "He was the only President who visited us, the urban poor," says Edwin Nacpil, who makes his home in the crumbling squatter area called North Triangle. "We appreciated Erap for what he thought of us and tried to give us."

The principal parties in People Power II were by Saturday morning comfortably ensconced at EDSA and preparing to march on the palace if Estrada did not honor the deadline to resign. The President's proposal: a call for snap elections in May that he promised not to contest. It met with immediate dismissal from Arroyo and her supporters, who were quick to point out that the constitution was clear on the terms of the Vice President's succession. By holding elections, he hoped to prove that he and his coalition were still popular among the country's poor. Military and civilian negotiators managed, with the help of some of the same special effects that had worked on Marcos-persuasion flights over the palace by the Philippines' antiquated F-5 fighter jets and the positioning of combat troops and armored personnel carriers outside its perimeter-to force a recalcitrant Estrada out of MalacaNang just five minutes before a second deadline of Saturday noon. Although Estrada did not actually resign, he agreed with the decision of the Supreme Court, which had met secretly early Saturday morning. The court resolved that "the people have spoken" and that they could not be ignored. Estrada and his wife Loi boarded a Coast Guard barge moored near the palace for the short trip to their family home in the Greenhills section of Manila, where they will be allowed to stay for five days. On Wednesday, under an agreement negotiators have reportedly reached, they will fly to Australia aboard the executive jet of prominent Erap crony Eduardo Cojuangco. They will live, for a while at least, at one of Cojuangco's properties in Australia. Meanwhile, Arroyo delivered an inaugural address that captured well the spirit of EDSA II by invoking the need to "improve moral standards in government and society, change the character of politics in order to create fertile ground for true reforms" and practice "leadership by example."

It will be a tough challenge for Arroyo, who must now contend with the possibility that any unpopular legislation, controversial executive decision or economic reversal could mean another mass protest and the possibility of yet more People Power. Remember, Estrada-however cynically-was acting within the framework of the law and under the terms called for by the impeachment proceedings. Had he been declared guilty, he would have had to go. The troubling point remains that he had not been convicted. To be sure, the evidence had been going against him-until the court ruled that the envelope could not be opened. And the Filipino people certainly deserved a better President.

But they had mechanisms to legally change their head of state. The option they chose, popular uprising, while rousing and probably justified, could portend a troubling future for democracy. If 10 million text messages go out and 1 million protesters take to the streets at every crisis-when the élite become dissatisfied with the direction of the country, or the military feels that the President has lost his or her mandate or the Catholic church views the head of state as immoral-the result is a perfectly healthy, if rambunctious, version of democracy. But if those protests lead to constitutionally questionable successions, it becomes a subversion of democracy. Even now, we don't know what percentage of Filipinos wanted Erap to go.

In a parting letter, Estrada wished his successor well. However, in a haunting postscript he signaled that, like reruns of his old films, Filipinos may not have seen the last of him. "I continue to have strong and serious doubts about the legality of the swearing in of the Vice President," he wrote. Estrada, for all the wrong reasons, had said what really matters: a democracy that doesn't respect the law will always be vulnerable.

With reporting by Wendy Kan and Nelly Sindayen/Manila

 

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has just about everything a Philippine President could desire. Her middle name, for starters, reminds Filipinos of former President Diosdado Macapagal, her dad. (Arroyo says she is looking forward to moving into to her old bedroom in MalacaNang Palace, the presidential residence.) Though 53 years old, she resembles a delicate ingEnue, a plus in the appearance-crazy Philippines. A Ph.D. in economics gives great gravitas. In office, Arroyo intends to be the reverse image of her disgraced predecessor, Joseph Estrada: brainy, focused and, well, sober. "I won't be drinking with my friends," she tells Time.

It doesn't hurt that Arroyo assumes the presidency on a massive wave of public approval. How many Presidents get pushed into office by a People Power revolution? "We need a leader who is strict, and who will implement the rule of law," says Enrique Gonzaga, a 38-year-old taxi driver. "It's a good thing this is all finished. Now, we start over again."

Indeed, it's happened before, and like predecessor Corazon Aquino, Arroyo will need all of her assets-plus some-to succeed in one of Asia's most difficult jobs. Arroyo has an easier lot than Aquino in 1986-she doesn't have to dismantle a 20-year dictatorship. But Estrada left a whole lot of garbage behind, literally: Manila is inundated with uncollected trash due to bad planning by Estrada's administration. (Ironically, and possibly symbolically, the rankest part of town is now EDSA, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos managed to evict a President and also make quite a mess.)

In fact, when the People Power afterglow fades and the political Cinderella gets down to work, she may feel like a sweeper following the elephants in a parade. The peso is at a historic low, economic growth is stalled and public debt is at record levels, which is triggering concern at the International Monetary Fund. The Philippine economy, bypassed long ago by the Asian Economic Miracle, might have found a niche in the New Economy, but any such hopes were put on hold by the Estrada debacle, which plunged the Philippines into its worst crisis of confidence since the Marcos years.

Those deep economic troubles are unlikely to disappear with Estrada, as Arroyo concedes. "Things are so bad now," she says. "Oh yes, they can still get worse." Still, Arroyo has had a shadow cabinet since she quit Estrada's cabinet in October, and says she has big ideas for plugging the Philippines into the global economy. She talks about "structural reforms" and "a level playing field"-the kind of hip, business jargon that never escaped Estrada's lips. "Things can get better under us," she insists.

Arroyo says she has two role models: Cory Aquino and her father. As for the latter, she is quick to note that during his days in the presidential palace, from 1961-65, the Philippines was Asia's star economic performer after Japan. Surprisingly, the mother of three is a relatively unknown figure across the nation, far less understood and loved than Aquino at the conclusion of the first People Power, despite her political pedigree and a stunning success in the 1998 vice presidential election. (In the Philippine system, voters choose presidents and vice presidents separately, and Arroyo got more votes than the highly popular Estrada.)

Competence is all over her resumE. Born in Manila, Arroyo had an unusual upbringing. At the precocious age of four, she chose to live with her maternal grandmother in Iligan, a town on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The reason: she was jealous of a newborn brother. She stayed there for three years, and then split her time between Manila and Mindanao until the age of 11. (As President, Arroyo says she will concentrate on the separatist problem that has plagued Mindanao for decades.) At 14, she moved into MalacaNang with her father. She was always a strong student, earning the top grades in her Catholic girls' high school. (She was valedictorian at graduation.) For two years she studied economics at Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University-at the same time as Bill Clinton, whom she knew-before returning to the Philippines. Her career goal was to be a teacher, a path she followed for a few years before marrying and deciding to return to school to get a Ph.D. from the University of the Philippines. When Aquino came to power, Arroyo was appointed undersecretary of trade and industry, and she remains passionate about the need for freer trade and increased foreign investment for the Philippines. Arroyo won a Senate seat in 1992 and helped write 55 laws on economic and social reform.

Arroyo reads the Bible every day; she also has daily sessions with a hairdresser and makeup artist. It's a measure of her readiness for the world stage that when Estrada was first accused of corruption by a former drinking pal, the allegation that would lead ultimately to his impeachment, Arroyo was in Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II.

Controversy hasn't entirely escaped the new President. In October, when Estrada was accused of taking a cut of proceeds from an illegal gambling racket known as jueteng, Arroyo got loudly questioned about her own personal connection with Bong Pineda, an alleged provincial jueteng boss. Arroyo is godmother to one of Pineda's sons. She flatly denies any impropriety, saying she doesn't associate with Pineda or his crowd. "I don't drink with them," she tells Time. "I don't play mah-jongg with them." When she was asked to be godmother, she says she got counsel from Jaime Cardinal Sin, the archbishop of Manila. "Cardinal Sin said, as a Christian, if I am asked to be a godmother, it is my Christian duty," she relates, "because the sins of the father are not the sins of the son." In addition, Arroyo has included leftist groups in her three-month anti-Estrada opposition coalition; now that she's in power, they could try to water down her pro-globalization bias. That's another echo of the past: Aquino had similar ideological clashes within her government. More déjà vu: change sometimes comes fast in the Philippines-but many things stay the same.

Reported by Wendy Kan and Nelly Sindayen/Manila