Lessons from the Philippine coup

The ousting of President Estrada points toward the future of globalization

By Antonio C. Hsiang 向駿  / 

Fri, Feb 02, 2001 - Page 13

Even before the resignation of Philippines' President Joseph Estrada on Jan. 20, The Economist selected the first Asian leader's impeachment as one of the most important political events of the year 2000 (Dec. 23, 2000, p.6).

In Feb. 1986, thousands of Filipinos stopped tanks sent to quell a military rebellion against dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. This time, the military, together with ex-Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, and Cardinal Jaime Sin, defended the people and the democracy won in 1986. The media called it "People Power II."

After the charges against Estrada for months, Philippines economic confidence has swooned. The peso has hit an all-time low, the stock market has dropped more than a third and foreign investment has slowed to a tickle. The chorus of voices asking Estrada to resign includes top business executives, church leaders, even Vice President Gloria Arroyo.

The protesters formed the "Jericho March,"after the biblical story in which the Israelites marched around Jericho with trumpet-playing priests until the walls came tumbling down.

Estrada grudgingly left office on Jan. 20 after much of his Cabinet resigned and the army and police sided with the opposition. His successor, Arroyo, faces immediate tough decisions, including the prosecution of Estrada as a criminal.

There are at least three lessons we can learn from the people of Filipinos.

-- First, the so-called "new generation" leader can not necessarily bring democracy and competence to public office. Estrada, once a popular movie actor, started out in 1998 with the biggest popular mandate ever given to a Philippine president. The direction of his policies was pretty much determined by his predecessors, Aquino and Ramos, who did much to dismantle Marcos' corrupt crony system and reform the flagging economy.

Ironically, the target of "people power II" was not a dictator but Joseph Estrada, a constitutional executive who had received more votes than any previous presidential candidate and who remained popular among the country's poor. "People Power II" showed how much Filipinos' determination to put their democracy at risk to remove officials who follow the money rather than the people's will.

-- Second is that high-tech plays an important role. On Jan. 17, the Senate voted 11-10 to prevent an envelope, containing records submitted to the court by Equitable PCI Bank, from being used in charges against Estrada's corruption. Within hours, thousands of opposition demonstrators had gathered on the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known as EDSA, to express their disdain for the Senate and demand Estrada's immediate resignation. High-speed electronic text messages sent by cellular phones called for protest and spread like wildfire. The Internet was also used to rally public causes. High-tech products help people, who feel normal political channels are so tainted by money that their voices can't be heard, to oust their democratically elected but corrupted leader.

-- Third, the most lasting effect of the judicial pursuit of Estrada may well be its international dimension. Legal advocacy groups such as the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption (VACC) say they want to begin a much broader campaign of prosecuting other politicians and affiliated profiteers suspected of wrongdoing over the past decade. It is a warning signal to all the dictators that justice won't sleep.

In the Balkans and in Africa, where national courts have proved incapable of halting and punishing widespread atrocities, the new international tribunals are exercising that most guarded of national powers, criminal jurisdiction, on an international basis. In fact, Pinochet's case in Chile already shows that national criminal justice systems are responding to the pressure of globalization. After years of international wrangling, Pinochet's case is being handled where it belongs.

Arroyo's ascension gives Manila a fresh chance to address longstanding problems of political corruption and disappointing economic growth. She comes to the office well prepared. The daughter of a former Philippine president, she graduated from Georgetown University with a PhD in economics.

She served in Aquino's administration, won election as a senator and then, in 1998, was elected vice president.

However, she must make clear that business interests will no longer be able to buy political influence and government contracts through campaign contributions to top legislators.

Contracts should be submitted to open bidding. Independent judges should be named. Sheila Corronel correctly points out that "the task ahead is clear: democratic institutions must be made stronger" (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 28, 2001).

In taking over from Estrada, Arroyo has pledged to "change the character of our politics in order to create fertile ground for true reforms." Her key word is "character."

Without demanding a certain honesty and purity from elected officials that can curb the influence of money, a democracy is not really within the power of the people.

In just one week, Arroyo is already learning a painful lesson: uniting widely disparate factions to unseat one government is very different from getting them to work together to build a new one. In fact, Those factions may try to unseat Arroyo if she does not recognize and reward the role they played in toppling Estrada. Furthermore, supporters of Estrada asked the Supreme Court on January 29 to explain the legality of his removal -- a step that could herald a legal challenge to the new president's authority. Without an institutionalized democracy, "People Power III" will never be far away.

Antonio C. Hsiang (向駿) is assistant professor of the Graduate Institute of Latin American Studies in Tamkang University.