Siling Labuyo: Liberalism in retreat in the Philippines, Part 2


The first part of this 3-part series delved on the current state of affairs in the Philippines where the party (Liberal Party) espousing a liberal agenda suffered a crushing defeat in the last presidential election that gave rise to multitude of threats to the liberal order. This second part explores the introduction of a new liberal order in the Philippines in 1986 and factors that prevented it from taking off. The first six years was a critical period in history coming off from decades under martial rule. The waning years that eventually led to the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 gave rise to civil society – the Yellow Power led by Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, housewife and widow of the late Ninoy Aquino. Her incredible ascent to power restored democracy and ushered in a new liberal order in the Philippines. The coming together of civil society groups produced a democratic framework called the 1987 Constitution as the centerpiece of reformism in the Philippines. In it were protections from further dictatorial rule rising in Philippine politics including making it more difficult for the president to declare Martial Law. In it too were ultranationalist provisions meant to address the burgeoning socio-economic inequality in the Philippines and the lack of government representation for the marginally oppressed section of society – the partylist system. Despite the lofty ideals of renewed liberalism in the country and an exuberant prospect of reformism post EDSA, Murphy’s Law intervened. She and the other Conjuangcos’ being part of the oligarchy benefitted financially from their business enterprises and got richer during her term of office. The Cojuangco clan being a political dynasty was well entrenched in government being themselves elected officials from senator, congressman, governor or mayor. Their footprints were everywhere in government and private industry blurring the lines between good governance and their business interests. Consequently, the Joan of Arc of the Yellow Army was tarred and constantly being attacked for the Kamaganak, Inc. abuses and corruption in government attributed to her presidential relatives profiting from Aquino’s rule. The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law was passed in 1988 to address social injustice by providing land to the landless. With democracy restored, landowners found their way to the halls of Congress having themselves elected as representatives. Consequently, much like the Conjuangcos, they protected their own lands and stymied the successful implementation of the law by exercising their power of the purse underfunding said program. The fact that she was a Cojuangco and owner of the vast Hacienda Luisita hampered her efforts for land reform and poverty alleviation. Billionaire Eduardo “Danding” Conjuangco, a former Marcos crony himself also owned vast track of sugar plantations in Negros Occidental and still do – a testament to the failure of Cory’s signature program. Her pardon or grant of amnesty to communist leader Joma Sison and NPA commander Bernabe Buscayno precipitated six coup de etats involving the military and police establishments led by the RAM Boys, heroes of the 1986 EDSA Revolution. The worst try was in 1989 that nearly toppled the Aquino government if not for the intervention by the American military and prevented the collapse of her government. Despite such help, it was ironic that the U.S. military bases agreement was terminated in 1992 after the Philippine Senate rejected a proposal to extend the base treaty. The series of coups created great damage to the economy to the tune of billions of dollars. While the termination of the military bases left a vacuum in the South China Sea that allowed China to militarize the disputed islands. While President Aquino had popular support, she lacked the political organization to counter these developments. Consequently, her efforts to establish political stability much less pursue a liberal agenda was hampered greatly. To wit, her chosen successor, General Fidel Ramos did not have a popular mandate and only got 24% of the vote. Aquino’s rise to power made people hope that their lives would be much better. The Catholic Church led by Manila’s Cardinal Jaime Sin exalted her to sainthood during her term. Cory Aquino ruled by personal example believing that personal traits alone could ensure effective governance thus would steer Philippine society towards socio-economic prosperity. The controversies that hounded throughout her administration, however, proved that such was a fallacy. Throughout her six-year rule, the rot in government slowly eroded the political miracle of her astonishing rise to power. Her personal quest to erase the vestiges of the Marcos regime made her lose focus as to what was truly important to the Filipino people. The economy under her rule faltered ushering a great deal of discontent. Land reform, a central promise she made during the campaign languished and failed miserably. Perhaps part of the autopsy should include the failure of civil society to perform its role post EDSA to check, monitor, and restrain the power of political leaders and government officials. While the 1987 constitution provided needed controls to ensure democracy would flourish in the Philippines, civil society balked on fiscalizing Aquino’s rule and failed to raise public concern and expose corrupt practices. Having been part of the Yellow Army, they became part of the problem either as part of the administration or supporters of the administration. It was as if President Cory could not do anything wrong and on the contrary, that she was doing everything she could to right the ship. They did not lobby hard for access to information (that would have exposed corruption) including advocating for freedom for information laws, electoral reforms, or pressed hard enough on land reforms. True that Aquino created the Office of the Ombudsman 1987 tasked with going after grafters in government but it wasn’t until after 1989 with the passage of the Ombudsman Act of 1989 that the office finally got some funding – funding that was not fully appropriated by Congress. Despite the awesome disciplinary and investigatory/prosecutorial powers of the Ombudsman, history tells us that the Office of the Ombudsman was created to fail because of the lack of manpower and financial resources to handle both administrative and criminal cases. Hence, the office lacked the needed expertise to go after big time grafters across the three branches of government. Efforts of the graft busters were also complicated by the courts. More importantly, Cory’s Ombudsman, Conrado Vasquez and succeeding Ombudsmen seemed deferential to the president who appointed them. Consequently, graft and corruption flourished in every branch, agency, and offices in government with no fear of accountability. Aquino also delivered a partylist system that would finally address participation of marginalized societies in equally running the government. It was a novel idea hailed by the United Nations but one that created more confusion in the electoral process. It was intended for underserved sectors but it did not take long before it was easily corrupted by rich politicians. Cory’s chosen successor General Fidel Ramos continued his predecessor’s liberal economic policies and successfully advanced economic and military reforms. His successor, however, Joseph Estrada inherited a healthy economy but whose administration was short-lived having been impeached for corruption charges. His successor, Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, an economist highlighted reforms in governance, rapid modernization of the country’s logistical system and the introduction of an expanded VAT during her term. Her administration, however, was embroiled in many corruption scandals involving her husband and her children and accused of tampering with the presidential election results by corrupting the COMELEC chair famously called “Hello, Garci.” The election of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III in 2010 engendered high hopes once more that he would finally finish the uncompleted work his mother left behind. While principled and well-meaning, his lack of experience derailed his moralistic “Daang matuwid” (Straight Path) campaign. (To be continued)