Philippines: EDSA Revisited


Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

Estrada's ouster on 20 January and the swearing in as President of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were not the end of Estrada. In late April over a million people staged pro-Estrada rallies in the same sites as the anti-Estrada ones earlier in the year. On 1 May tens of thousands massed in front of the gates of Malacañang palace, forcing a nervous Macapagal-Arroyo to pronounce the existence of a state of rebellion. These rowdy demonstrations by a mostly lower-class constituency were a prelude to the local and national elections of 14 May, in which senatorial candidates from Estrada's party unexpectedly won a significant number of seats.

The sense of unorthodoxy or even deviancy in Philippine politics comes from the extraordinary role of the crowd in influencing change. More specifically, we have seen the birth of a tradition called ‘EDSA’, named after Epiphanio De Los Santos, the main boulevard where millions massed in February 1986 to lend their support to the anti-Marcos rebels led by Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile. This so-called ‘EDSA I’ process culminated in the swearing of Corazon Aquino as president even while Marcos was still clinging to power in the palace.

During the administrations of Aquino and Ramos, memories and icons of ‘’EDSA’ were fashioned into a tradition of "people power" protest against authoritarian or even plain incompetent national leaders. A huge shrine of the Virgin Mary was erected at a busy intersection to serve as a focal point of rallies, both religious and political. After Joseph Estrada won the election in 1998, the EDSA shrine became the primary site of public protests against his leadership, which was depicted as the return of Marcos-style corruption and immorality. The EDSA tradition was successfully harnessed in the events of last January, now dubbed ‘EDSA II.’

Quite unexpectedly, however, at the end of April the EDSA site was taken over by a huge crowd that attempted to overturn the achievements of EDSA II. The shrine of the Virgin Mary was desecrated, the meanings imposed on it challenged by opposition politicians who egged on the crowd to march to the presidential palace to remove Macapagal. Smuggled photographs of Estrada and his son in jail sowed compassion for a man deemed to have been unjustly treated by the authorities – which was precisely what his cinematic persona, Asiong Salonga, had signified. In contrast to the largely middle-class crowd at EDSA last January, this April crowd was drawn mainly from squatter and rural areas, or summoned by sectarian religious leaders Eraño Manalo and Mike Velarde. It was fairly disorganized and inchoate, and was eventually dispersed.

The foiled ‘uprising’ of April 30-May 1, dubbed ‘EDSA III’ by some, was initially dismissed by the press and government supporters as the behavior of a mindless ‘mob’ manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. Subsequent soul-searching, however, led to the realization that EDSA II and the ouster of Estrada mainly by the Church, the business community, and the middle class, had failed to take into account the perceptions of the poorer classes and the millions of Filipinos who are followers of alternative Christian leaders. Cardinal Sin apologized publicly for the Catholic Church's neglect of the poor. Macapagal-Arroyo swiftly changed her presidential style to a more populist one, visiting squatter areas, preferring to be called ‘Ate Glo’ (big sister Gloria). Her attitude towards her jailed predecessor became more flexible and conciliatory in deference to Estrada's continuing (though diminishing) popularity among the poor.

In view of the dramas that have been enacted at EDSA, we can understand why, in the May 14 elections, Estrada's Puwersa ng Masa won a good number of senatorial seats, though still a minority compared to Macapagal-Arroyo's People Power Coalition. After all, Puwersa ng Masa translates as ‘Power of the Masses’, which means the same as ‘People Power Coalition’. For the real "masses" or "people" who voted en masse (85% turnout), it makes sense that Macapagal-Arroyo, backed by the Church hierarchy and big business, should not have a monopoly of power, lest the poor be forgotten again.

WATCHPOINT: The ‘parliament of the streets’ may continue to haunt leaders who forget the masses.


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