News Analysis Society

Power of whose people?

EDSA Revolution

For Filipinos, today is a busy day – in Manila, across the country and around the world. And the reason is it’s Saturday 25 February and the 31st anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution – the mass civil-disobedience coalition that led to the fall of strongman leader, President Ferdinand Marcos. But this year, it looks less like a celebration of that event and more like a standoff between forces that are for or against President Rodrigo Duterte.

The only exception to that is the government’s own marking of this event. That was low key and away from the usual theatre – the EDSA Shrine (photo) in Quezon City – and was held yesterday evening at Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, also located at EDSA.

Taking as its theme “A Day of Reflection: Celebrating People Power,” the government programme started with a morning mass followed by presentation of the Spirit of Edsa Foundation  (SOEF) awards. Duterte was not present at these proceedings which were attended by former president Fidel V. Ramos, Executive Secretary Salvador Medieldea, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, Presidential Consultant for Entrepreneurship and Vice Chairperson of EDSA People Power Commission Joey Concepcion III, and SOEF Founder Christopher Carrion.

But if the government’s observance of the anniversary was subdued, that is likely to be more than compensated for by the opposing camps that have seized today as a platform from which to present their respective – and very different – messages.

Those opposing Duterte are crying “Never Again to Dictatorship,” while the president’s supporters are issuing a “People’s Proclamation” which urges Duterte to establish a “revolutionary government” – presumably, something along the lines of what exists in Thailand, the National Council for Peace and Order, a military junta that has run Thailand since May 2014 (we’ll come back to this). That then, right there, gives a flavour of how far apart these two camps are.

But it’s not – with a few minor exceptions – about ideology, it’s about how each side wants the country run and managed. The pro-Duterte side favours an authoritarian approach to defeat criminality – and the illegal drugs trade in particular; the anti-Duterte side wants a return to the old status quo, the system that was in place during the previous administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – in short, a more benign approach.

So in many ways what this boils down to is a party-political clash between those supporting this government and those who support the old Liberal Party way of doing things. And certainly there’s plenty of evidence of that if you look at the groups involved on each side. The Duterte coalition makes no bones about it. Today’s rallies are billed as “Pro-Duterte Solidarity Demonstrations”; their catch line is “United Democracy and Duterte Supporters”. Its members are predominantly pro-Duterte groups that have been around from the time of his election campaign.

Meanwhile, within the ranks of the anti-Duterte coalition – a grouping of some 44 organisations – taking part in their “Power of We Protest Rally” are the 1MAR Movement, “a volunteer group borne out of firm resolve to support [the Liberal Party’s] Mar Roxas for President and Leni Robredo for Vice President”. And they’re still supporting that cause. Likewise, there’s the World March of Women – the local chapter of the international feminist movement – who are strong vocal supporters of Liberal Party Senator, Leila De Lima, who was arrested yesterday on drugs charges.

Any real ideology that’s at play, though, is within this coalition. Progressive-Left groups like the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, an affiliate of the international Progressive Alliance, and their youth wing, Akbayan! Youth, for example. University and student-activist groups are more in evidence here, too. What are also strongly represented here are Anti-Marcos factions such as, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation; the Coalition Against the Marcos Burial (the late president’s internment at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Heroes Cemetery at Taguig, Metro Manila last November), and the recently formed Nameless Heroes and Martyrs.

These groups illustrate another part of the Anti-Duterte camp’s message – its rejection of Marcos’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, as a contender for high government office. Last May he was narrowly beaten for the vice presidency by Robredo and is now challenging the vote-count through the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. One week ago he learned that his case will be heard. By contrast, the Pro-Duterte camp is largely supportive of “Bongbong” – not least because it is vehemently anti-Robredo.

What’s conspicuous by its absence from the list of Power of We protestors is representation of the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines which has been building its rhetoric against the president over recent weeks, culminating one week ago with a Walk For Life to protest the president’s plan to reinstate the death penalty and to extrajudicial killings which it links to Duterte’s War on Drugs.

The Church – its hierarchy in the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), particularly – was a big player in what took place at EDSA in 1986, so in many ways this is very much a milestone event for them. That doesn’t mean its nuns and members of its priesthood won’t be there; they will. But right now the CBCP is playing its cards close to its chest. It knows that if it comes out too overtly against Duterte – and joining what is ostensibly an anti-Duterte movement at EDSA would do that – it could, and probably would, pay a very heavy price in terms of alienating large parts of its flock.

But what’s behind Pro-Duterte thinking that’s led supporters to want to compel the president to instate a ‘revolutionary government’? These aren’t militarists or police-state adherents by any wild stretch of the imagination – though no doubt by the time the mainstream media get hold of their “Proclamation” that’s exactly how they’ll be portrayed. No, we need to look a bit beyond lazy agenda-driven analysis to find the answer to this.

We believe there are two reasons. First, what these groups fear – along with Duterte supporters everywhere – is that the man who is their leader; the man they love and respect above all others, is in perpetual danger of being overthrown. They know that there are enough financial resources around – the likes of Liberal Party bankrollers, local oligarchs and wealthy clans, foreign governments and overseas backers such as billionaire progressive-liberal, George Soros – to effect a coup d’état. A ‘revolutionary government’ therefore, they believe would give him power not just over the executive branch of government but over the judiciary and the legislature and would enable him to act unhampered at a moment’s notice in countering an insurgency.

The other reason is this. It would give him power to redraw the 1987 Constitution and they are asking him to appoint an independent panel in 2019 to fashion a new charter which would then be put to a national plebiscite. This, in turn, will pave the way for the federal form of government which Duterte wants to set in place. And while abolishing the Constitution may sound revolutionary, it’s not. Corazon Aquino, who replaced President Marcos, did exactly that when she ripped up the 1973 Constitution and issued the present charter.

But back to today. The main arena for the day’s events is Manila. Anti-Duterte crowds will converge on EDSA. Their chosen colours are black and white, though we expect to see plenty of Liberal Party yellow on show too. Pro-Duterte crowds will gather at the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park. Their chosen colours are red and blue, the livery of Duterte’s election campaign.

The numbers? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see but here’s a guide. Pro-D organisers are hoping to get 1 million supporters to their Manila event, and while the Anti-D people haven’t provided a target, they would be extremely disappointed if they couldn’t match that number. And they may well not. If an online spat between the supposed leaders to two pro-Liberal Party groups is any indication, the anti-D camp is in a certain amount of disarray.

Apparently, according to the posts, set for public viewing on Facebook, one of the leaders was asking where some PHP300,000 was to pay “hired ralihista” – in other words, rent-a-mob. It seems the other leader was refusing to transfer funds. This row became so public that other members of the groups urged them “don’t discuss our issues publically” and “these comments are embarrassing” and “the pro-Duterte groups will see these comments and they will be laughing at us!”

The validity or otherwise of that aside, what’s apparent is that while both camps have had plenty of time to galvanise their bases, it looks as if the Pro-D groups have done a far superior job in mobilising theirs with rallies scheduled across the country from Luzon to the Visayas to Mindanao – in all, some 10 separate locations are involved.

And they didn’t stop there. Their groups will be on the streets everywhere from Honolulu to Melbourne; from Geneva to Hong Kong. Between yesterday and tomorrow (Sunday) they will have staged 33 gatherings from the US and Canada, right across Europe and the Middle East to the Far East and Australia.

Abroad though, the Pro-D camp has a distinct advantage. Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), which make up the bulk of Filipino expats, voted overwhelmingly for Duterte in the election. Duterte got 72% of all Overseas Absentee Votes (OAV), compared to 10.3% for Roxas, Similarly, in the VP race, Marcos garnered 44.8% of the OAVs; Robredo managed just 18.5%. Furthermore the OFWs have already established their own Duterte support groups, making the logistics of staging so many simultaneous overseas events relatively easy.

The Anti-D camp doesn’t have anything like that network. It may have plenty of money overseas to throw at efforts to keep the Liberal Party machine well-oiled – Fil-Am billionaire socialite, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, a major Liberal Party fund raiser and benefactor being a prime example of that – but it doesn’t have numbers.

The contrast between the events-scale of the two sides is significant. While those opposed to Duterte are essentially local and focus primarily on the EDSA shrine, those who support him have built a nationwide and a global profile. Based on just that, if this is to be viewed as a referendum on Duterte he’s being given a sound endorsement by the people. But that really shouldn’t surprise; opinion polls have his approval rating hovering in the mid-80% range, and the expected differential in the turnout merely substantiates that.

Of course, that will not be reflected in the press coverage of today. That we guarantee. Coverage will be as dishonest and biased as ever. The pictures will centre on the EDSA shrine, the encampment of the anti-Duterte groups. The headlines and copy will talk of a Filipino rebellion against the president; a mass demonstration on the streets of the capital; the people’s denouncement of his ‘dictatorial’ rule. For what the Liberal Party and the anti-D faction lack in actual people power, they more than make up for with friends in the media.

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