A corrupt and inept president – Joseph ’Erap’ Estrada of the Philippines – has been removed from power by a mass movement on the streets. This comes just months after the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia and a year after the revolutionary events of Ecuador. Once again it has been demonstrated that action – especially mass action – can bring down governments.
Parallels are inevitably being drawn by participants and journalists alike with the ’People Power’ revolution of 1986 in the Philippines which brought down the hated Marcos dictatorship. But this president had been elected with a substantial majority only 31 months earlier in May of 1998. What were the factors which led to the ousting of Estrada and his replacement by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the elected vice president? What is in store for the long-suffering workers and poor of this sprawling archipelago and how can they develop an independent struggle to achieve their own demands?
Differences with 1986
In the third week of January 2001, up to 700,000 anti-Estrada protesters occupied the major roadway in the centre of Manila called Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or EDSA. This was the exact location of the even larger mass anti-Marcos demonstrations which faced down the brutal Philippine army 15 years earlier. But ’EDSA II’ is different in a number of respects. It takes place in a world where the Soviet Union no longer exists nor most of the non-capitalist planned economies which were seen by many in neo-colonial countries as offering an alternative way of developing economies.
Technology has also advanced and some newspapers dubbed the recent events in Manila the ’text message revolution’. In a country where average wages are around £170 a month, mobiles are used to send written messages, which are much cheaper than phone calls. The Sunday Times (London 21/1/01) reported, "The digital insurgents transmitted an estimated 18 million (text) messages in 24 hours" to organise the last push to topple Estrada on 19 December.
Most of the messages would have been like the one from the committee of the Coordinated Multi-Sectoral Opposition: ’Full moblsn tday Edsa…imptnt calls will be made’. But the demonstrators needed to physicall go to EDSA! And, as another English paper pointed out, demonstrators still equipped themselves with "all the traditional accoutrements of protesters throughout history – flags, banners bearing wittily offensive slogans, whistles and klaxons".
So much for claims that IT has made traditional forms of struggle out-dated. Undoubtedly, as Marx and Engels explained, means of communication become been revolutionised by capitalists and utilised by the class they exploit to organise against them. This was as much the case with post, trains, radio or phones as it is with mobiles and the Internet. They are no more than useful auxiliary tools for organising collective struggle. What counts in a revolution is the fighting forces on the streets and their programmes and strategies for victory.
In ’EDSA ll’, there has been a noticeable prominence on the streets of the top representatives of the ruling elite and the business community. As distinct from the Serbian revolution of last October, the industrial working class has not been the decisive factor in the first-round victory of ’People Power II’. A number of strikes on the Estrada issue were reported before the end of last year and a 3-day general strike was planned for Monday 22 January. It could have been precisely the fear of the entry of this layer of society into the fray and the possibility of workers taking the struggle further that pushed the military and political elite of the Philippines to bring things to a swift conclusion on 19 January.
How the crisis gathered pace
From the beginning of October, when a Catholic nun openly alleged that the president’s family was profiting from public funds, the government crisis gathered pace. His own Chief of Staff confirmed stories of Estrada’s late night drinking sessions. Then a crony of his – Luis Singson – who had fallen out with him over money, took revenge with public accusations about the president’s "huge cash rake-offs from an illegal jeuteng gambling racket".
By mid-October, moves were afoot, for the first time in the country’s history, to get a Senate trial to impeach the president on four counts of corruption and abuse of office. He was alleged to have ordered cash payments of $100,000 a time from secret bank accounts holding tens of millions of dollars in secret funds diverted from public sources such as tobacco taxes.
One particular accusation was that he had tried to bail out another crony – Dante Tan – after his investments in massive stocks of a certain BW Resources Corporation had crashed from a great height. The president’s ’interference’ on the Manila stock exchange was said to have paralysed its functioning.
The ageing ex-film star had been elected as recently as May 1998 by a large margin of votes, mainly on the basis of his populist promises. (He was even supported by left organisations, in preference to the ’traditional’ capitalist candidates). Within a very short space of time it had become clear that while the personality at the head of government had changed, graft and cronyism – the bane of Philippine capitalism and politics – continued. Erap was up to his eyes in criminal activities, fraud, illegal gambling and a good deal of fairly public debauchery.
In spite of all this, Estrada at that time was still able to mobilise massive demonstrations in his support. Even after the impeachment proceedings began, polls gave him a 44% rating. Right up until his actual overthrow, a majority of Filipinos opposed the impeachment trial for the president. This contrasted with an actual drop in the popularity of today’s president, Arroyo. "In a nationwide survey in December," writes Thomas Fuller in the International Herald Tribune (IHT), "Only 20% said Mrs Arroyo would do a better job than Mr.Estrada as president".
The IHT carries a commentary two days later (24/01/01) reporting that, on the left there is agreement with Mr. Estrada being forced out but not with the ’unconstitutional’ way the new president was installed. New conflicts will arise on this issue.
Many of the poor and down-trodden from whose ranks Estrada has risen, still cling to their illusions that he would perform some Robin Hood-type feats on their behalf – just as he did in the films! He had made a fortune for himself and they just hoped a little of his luck would rub off on them. (A similar outlook must have prompted enough poor people in Thailand to vote a multi-millionaire telecommunications magnate in as Prime Minister, in spite of serious corruption charges hanging over him!)
The poor of the Philippines, condemned to live in the slums and favellahs of the country’s major cities, or eke out a living on the margins of rural society, also harbour a burning resentment against the pampered Philippine hereditary elite. Their huge inherited riches – including that most coveted of property, land – supplemented by profits from business contrast so painfully with their outright misery.
For their part, those representatives of the Philippine capitalist class most dependent on being in good standing with foreign investors and money-lenders, were increasingly disturbed at the repercussions of the prolonged political crisis and instability on the economy (and their fortunes).
The peso had sunk to a record low of 55 to the US dollar, the budget deficit spiralled to $2.5 billion as taxes were not collected and foreign investment slumped. Unemployment went back up to 14%, a level not experienced since Marcos’ days. Growth in the economy slowed to around 2%. In the 1960s the Philippine economy had been the fastest growing in Asia apart from Japan. Now it was becoming one of Asia’s worst performers.
Demonstrations were organised to demand Estrada’s resignation. Figures emerged at their head like Cardinal Jaime Sin, known as the spiritual godfather of the 1986 ’People Power’ movement and the main beneficiary of its success – former president Corazon Aquino.
The Philippines vice-president, Arroyo, who had not been elected on Estrada’s ticket but got more votes than him, resigned as his social welfare secretary and took her place at the head of the burgeoning opposition to him. She was presented as the ’natural’ choice to succeed him and has no intention of calling fresh elections for confirming her position in the presidential post. Politically, as leader of the Lakas party, she has been greeted as a co-thinker of the Christian Democrats of Europe.
Daughter of a previous president, and wife of a wealthy businessman and land-owner, Arroyo herself is purported to have millions of dollars worth of undeclared assets (including in California). She is an American educated economist and firm advocate of the implementation of IMF dictates which include opening up the economy to foreign exploitation. Arroyo was instrumental in getting her country into the WTO with ruinous consequences for some of the poorest sections of society – the small farmers of the Philippines. She will now have particular difficulty satisfying the land-hungry poor of the countryside.
Impeachment trial collapses
The mass movement to oust Estrada really gathered momentum when on Tuesday 17 January the impeachment trial suddenly collapsed after 23 days of hearings in which numerous revelations had been made about the president’s hidden companies, his embezzlement of government funds and the million dollar homes built for his mistresses. Now 11 out of the 20 Senators hearing the case voted not to open an envelope – the notorious "envelope No. 2" – which must have contained indisputable incriminating evidence from the Equitable PCI Bank about the president’s financial activities.
Noone was left in any doubt that the 11 Senators had been well rewarded for their vote in advance! The prosecution lawyers walked out in disgust and almost immediately, angry and noisy demonstrators poured onto the streets to demand Erap’s resignation. Mid-layer officers in the army were reported to be ready to stage a coup and the International Herald Tribune on 22 January reported a retired general as saying, " The young officers were ready to act, to show the world they were with the people". The Army Chief of Staff, General Angelo Reyes, had begun to recognise that "if the top officers did not side with the opposition, the army would fracture". Corazon Aquino and another former president, Fidel Ramos, visited Reyes to persuade him to support their cause.
The decisive moment in Estrada’s downfall came when, on Friday 19 January, Reyes declared himself and his 130,000 troops to have withdrawn support for the government. The Defence minister, Mercado followed suit, saying the "sentiments of the soldiers are no different from the larger population". The whole of Estrada’s cabinet had gone over to the opposition and there was nothing left of the Estrada regime.
The man occupying the highest office in the land was now without a single ally in the political or state apparatus. General Panfilo Lacson, a personal friend of Erap and national police chief had been persuaded to defect by a visit to his office by 50 officers armed with hand-guns and assault rifles, led by the deputy director of the national police!
Estrada pleaded for a few days’ respite and suggested a snap election in May. "We don’t want a snap election, We want a snap resignation." Said one of his erst-while collaborators. A handful of Estrada supporters attempted a counter-demonstration, throwing bricks and stones at the still swelling crowd but they were seriously outnumbered.
By 2pm the next day Estrada was being escorted, reportedly somewhat the worse for drink, by the army tops who had deserted him, onto a barge to leave the Malacanang Palace by river without confronting the crowds outside. The Supreme Court had declared a ’vacancy’ in the president’s job, and Estrada had handed over a letter declaring Arroyo to be "acting president" while he himself was unable to fulfil his duties!
Later in the day, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn into office in an outdoor ceremony amongst jubilant crowds at the EDSA memorial to the martyrs of 1986. Church and business leaders were there along with those foreign diplomats who could make it through the crowds in time to express their unequivocal support.
Estrada is trying to challenge the legality of the transfer of power claiming he has not resigned and, according to the Manila Times (23/1), wants to retain all his properties and money! There are rumours of a coup against Arroyo, but at the moment there seems little prospect of reversing the wheel of history. Not only had all the representatives of state power deserted him, saying the welfare of the people is the supreme law! But a whole number of his cronies, mistresses and even his personal lawyer and family had long ago packed their bags and left the country.
Estrada is now being charged with a number of serious offences including ’plundering the state’- a crime that can carry the penalty of death. Arroyo’s inclination may be to let him off the hook, but big pressure will be exerted from below not to allow him to escape unpunished like Marcos and his wife Imelda. On the other hand, Estrada’s presidency inflicted far less hardship and suffering on the population than that of the military dictator and he is seen by many to have made an attempt to deal with corruption and brutality in the police force.
The new president sworn in on the street will have difficulty putting on trial a man popularly elected and still seen by many as the victim of an arrogant elite who did not like his closeness to the poor. He will obviously want to make a come-back at some stage but when and how successful it could be is difficult to foresee.
It is clear that the Philippine capitalist elite, of whom Arroyo and her husband are thoroughbred members, had no ideological differences with Estrada and his gang. They just wanted to appear to be cleaning out the Augean stables and to be clearing the way for a resumption of ’normal’ capitalist business. The World Bank has estimated the loss to the economy in terms of corruption over the last 20 years to be as much as $48 billion. The years of the Estrada administration were described by the incoming finance minister, Alberto Romulo, as "The years the locusts have taken".
Estrada had no qualms about enriching himself and his entourage through big business practices and had no intention of taking measures against capitalism to improve the lot of the tens of millions of Filipinos living on the poverty line. This was becoming clear to most workers and even layers who had supported him when he came to power saying he behaved "as if he was sent by God to help the poor," as one mechanic commented. "But the poor are still poor and he is still a gambler!".
But the Philippines capitalist elite of Spanish colonial descent had another grievance against Estrada. His ’favours’ were being handed out predominantly to cronies from the rival Chinese business community – "The men with short names" as his enemies would sneer. And they were being squeezed out. In the present atmosphere of triumphalism against these layers, it is possible that a nasty communal mood could be fostered amongst certain layers towards all ethnic Chinese.
On the other hand, it looks as if Arroyo will be keen to deal with another aspect of national or religious tension. She will try to include at least one Muslim leader in her cabinet and has announced her willingness to renew talks to try and find a settlement to the costly ’wars’ with both Muslim and ’communist’ guerrilla forces. (The bombing in Manila on December 30th, which killed and maimed dozens of people, is widely regarded as not being the work of either of these movements. It was organised with military precision and suspicion points in the direction of elements close to the challenged Estrada regime).
Although Arroyo has made it clear she wants to appear as the clean pair of hands in government. Corruption is a handy issue for capitalist rulers to use in a bonapartist fashion to maintain their rule. The new president and has announced measures ostensibly to prevent nepotism and corruption, although reports already circulate of her own links to corrupt characters. Also, she is not starting out with a totally unsullied team in government. For obvious reasons, she has retained the services of the army and defence chiefs of Estrada’s regime – as a reward for services rendered. Her choice for Police Chief turns out to be linked with a high profile killing and the escape of the accused. A different candidate has had to be found!
Arroyo’s four ’core beliefs’ including improving moral standards and reducing poverty hardly square with the ’reform’ policies she is known to favour of privatisation, de-regulation and cuts to try and make the budget balance. "Many poor people," says John Aglionby of the Guardian, writing from Manila, "fear she will have to pander to the desires of the elite group who put her in power".
Arroyo already has the approval of the new US administration and other western capitalist powers and Asian leaders for her assumption to power. Guillermo Luz, Executive Director of the Makati Club of the very richest Manila businessmen, has warmly welcomed the inauguration of Arroyo and Romulo as ushering in a period of stability and ’progress’. Luz not only strode out at the head of the anti-Estrada demonstrations with such unlikely street protesters as the aristocratic Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, patriarch of the largest business conglomerate in the country; he was one of the main organisers!
When the Manila stock exchange opened on Monday 22 January, share prices shot up. The 30 Company Philippines Composite Index finished a record 17.55% higher at the end of the day. With trading worth 7.16bn pesos, instead of the daily average over recent months of 500 million, the exchange’s computer system temporarily over-loaded and stopped!
50% of the massive buying of shares was accounted for by foreign investors. One of the few losers on the stock market, as the ABS-CBN web-site reported, continues to be the successor company to Tan’s BW Resources Corporation – a company called FAIR!
But the euphoria felt by sections of the elite along with others who wanted to see the downfall of Estrada could be short lived. Hopes for a rosy future are marred by the prospect of a downturn in the world economy. The developing recession in the US will hit the Philippines hard given the extent of the dependence of its economic health on its links with the US. Japan also is in no state to come to the aid of ailing Asian economies and will itself be undergoing economic and social convulsions in the near future.
An editorial in the British Financial Times (22/1/01) expresses its fears about the ability of Philippines’ new leader to cope with the "desperate social problems" that persist in that country. They point elsewhere to her shallow roots in ’civil society’ and reflect on the fact that Aquino as president was "never able to muster enough authority to control these (corrupt corporate) vested interests". The editorial finishes with the words "Now is not the time to put away the banners"!
If they mean by that, that they fear Arroyo will not be able to carry out her programme, they echo some of the sentiments expressed on the left flank of the EDSA ll demonstrations.
Along with the ’text brigade’ and the country’s top church, political and business leaders were tens of thousands of trade union and student activists. Many had covered their faces in black and carried placards saying ’We mourn the death of truth’. Others displayed banners saying things like ’Oust Erap but his ouster not enough!’ and ’End elite rule!’.
These layers will have huge hopes and big demands of the new government. The Confederation of Filipino Workers (BMP) and the Sugar workers’ leaders, for example, have warned the government that workers will be looking for real and tangible improvements. Whole layers of Philippine society – particularly the working class – have been left out of the political decision-making process.
Unfortunately, some left organisations, instead of mobilising to demand fresh elections under the control of the labour movement have expressed their disappointment at not being involved in the negotiations between Estrada and Arroyo.
The nature of the anti-Estrada demonstrations was a coming together of all classes in the pursuit of one aim – the removal of Erap. But this was no reason for dropping the pursuit of independent demands on the part of organisations made up of workers and youth. Involvement with politicians who defend capitalism is no way out for workers. They must resist any idea of establishing with them any kind of alliance for National Renewal. This would amount to a form of coalition tying workers’ organisations to the political representatives of the bosses.
A new period of class struggle is bound to open up. This is partly because there will exist an enhanced mood of the confidence amongst workers that action and struggle pay off but also because the economic and social situation will bring the working class and urban and rural poor up against harsh reality. The 3 day strike planned by the anti-Estrada camp was overtaken by events. Soon this kind of weapon of struggle may be on the agenda for fighting on issues like a minimum wage and against redundancies and closures and against the very government that has just been sworn into office.
The Philippine working class and youth have a proud tradition of confronting the bosses and fighting against political and economic exploitation. During the election in which Estrada and Arroyo were elected along with the senators and congressmen, the working class had no chance to vote for workers’ candidates arguing a socialist case.
Only people and parties with big money can stand and the left-wing Sanlakas organisation, for example, while it had candidates from the factory committees in Manila, gave strict instructions that no socialism should be talked about in the election campaign. Since then, one or two new parities have emerged, which include the word socialist in their name.
A programme to fight for
Such parties should be campaigning for new elections, probably to a new kind of assembly. There should be no financial restrictions on parties or candidates to stand and access to the media should be available for all to put their case. The elections themselves should be under the scrutiny and control of committees democratically elected in the workplaces and communities. No more elections where money, electricity black-outs and shooting matches decide the results!
An assembly in which a workers’ and poor people’s elected representatives would form a majority would begin to be able to address the massive problems facing the majority of the population in the Philippines. They could run society in a far more open and democratic way than any capitalist government. They could mobilise for the taking into public ownership of the top 30 companies, the land and the banks and the operation of a plan of production and distribution under the democratic control of workers and poor people.
One of the most immediate slogans of the hour must be ’Open the books’ to expose all the fiddles and scams that go on behind the backs of the workers with the money they have earned for their bosses. Set up committees or tribunals of elected representatives of workers and poor people to investigate all allegations of corruption and embezzlement. End the political domination of the plutocracy, the millionaires, lawyers and land-owners.
Guarantee school-leavers a job or free further education. Say no to redundancies and closures. For a sharing of the work with no loss of pay. No discrimination or harassment of national or religious minorities and the full right of self-determination for any oppressed peoples.
What we have seen in the Philippines has indeed been the beginning of a new upsurge in the process of revolution. In the course of the crisis at the top in society, the state machine was riven with splits and the government suspended in mid-air. The middle class was undoubtedly in turmoil – in fact out on the streets in their numbers demanding real changes. A festive air pervaded the streets as in any revolution.
If the working class remained more or less in the role of observer in these events, this is only a temporary phenomenon. Once the proletariat moves into decisive action it will make its mark on events and even change the course of history. Only when this happens will the prospect of ending capitalism come into view and the struggle for socialism gain real momentum.
For now, the revolution has been limited. It was a political revolution but not a social revolution like that in Russia in October, 1917. This great historical event saw the transfer of power over the economy and society from the hands of one class to those of the exploited classes in town and country. On the surface, the events this January in the Philippines have looked more like a feud between different wings of the ruling classes, leaning for support on different layers of the rest of the population.
The capitalist class can breathe a sigh of relief, but not for long. A prolonged struggle would have lead to more political conclusions being drawn and to the working class and youth seeing the need for independent class action and independent class parties.
For the social revolution to be victorious, workers and young people must put no trust in representatives of classes other than their own. They must plan and execute independent class action that will bring results. They must forge a conscious leadership – a party – which can foresee what is going to happen and draw up a strategy, programme and tactics for winning the battle for socialism world-wide.
It is not clear how protracted will be the ’democratic’ phase of the Philippine revolution. How long will it be before the heroic Philippine working class breaks free from the parties of the millionaires and plutocrats, forges a party of struggle and takes things into its own hands? Until it does, it will continue to be called on to fight other people’s battles – to carry through a political revolution, like the current one, only to replace one set of representatives of the ruling class with another. The heroic Philippines workers and youth want and deserve better than that; the next battle starts now.
The example of ’People Power ll’, in spite of all the limitations, will act as a spur and an inspiration in the rest of Asia to all those struggling to replace crony capitalism with genuine democratic socialist societies.