Philippines: Left unity challenges Arroyo regime
The revolutionary left in the Philippines has deep roots in the mass movement but its influence has been weakened by disunity. The left began overcoming these divisions through a May 2005 Democratic Left Conference.
There had been a series of street mobilisations that all of the major left blocs had participated in, with the exception of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Given the unity on the street, the conference was called to find out the political views of each of the blocs.
The conference began a discussion on the formation of a unified coalition of the left. A month later President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government faced a legitimacy crisis. In June 2005, the "Hello Garci" tapes of Arroyo talking to Virgilio Garcillano, an electoral commission official, became public. The conversation was about how Garci could ensure that Arroyo would get a million votes more than her rival in the 2004 election.
This crisis provided the impetus for the left political blocs to join forces and form Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses).
Laban ng Masa coordinating committee member Sonny Melencio told Green Left Weekly that the coalition "was formed to serve as a counter-pole against the [Arroyo] forces and the bourgeois opposition forces, because the bourgeois opposition do not pose an alternative to the Arroyo regime. That was why the strategic demand of Laban ng Masa was to oust Arroyo then to dismantle elite rule."
Laban ng Masa's 2005 founding congress was attended by more than 100 organisations, representing all 10 major left political blocs outside of the CPP. It is a broad left alliance composed of both revolutionary and non-revolutionary left groups. It includes major left personalities such as former president of the University of the Philippines Francisco "Dodong" Nemenzo and Walden Bello.
Melencio told GLW that the EDSA-style people's uprisings are now failing. In 1986, EDSA 1 brought down President Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship and installed the Cory Aquino regime. In January 2001, EDSA 2 brought down President Joseph "Erap" Estrada's regime and installed Arroyo. EDSA 3 was a May 2001 uprising of the urban poor that was brutally crushed and failed to oust Arroyo's government. Each of the EDSA uprisings was taken over by a faction of the ruling class.
"We need a qualitative change in the uprising", explained Melencio. "We have to appropriate the people's leadership of the uprising for system change rather than to transfer power from one ruling class faction to another."
During the 2005 political crisis, there were three main forces on the street. UNO, the main organisation of the bourgeois anti-Arroyo opposition; the CPP and its Bayan Muna political bloc; and the other left forces, united around Laban ng Masa.
The CPP refuses to join forces with other left groups, Melencio said. It called for Arroyo's ouster and a transitional council based on an alliance between the CPP and the bourgeois opposition.
"Laban ng Masa was projecting a different alliance, which would come from the mass organisations instead of the elite politicians", said Melencio. "We were also calling for the dismantling of elite 'trapo' rule by calling for a transitional revolutionary government."
"Trapo" means the "dirty rug" that you wipe your feet on — it is the name given to the traditional politicians, the political clans and family dynasties that have been in government for a long time. The leaders of the bourgeois opposition who are filing impeachment cases against Arroyo in congress are the sons and daughters of the old trapos.
At a left conference in Manila in January, Nemenzo, who is Laban ng Masa's chairperson, explained: "In the Third World, civilian governments provide the facade of democracy. Power lies in the private sector. Even if the left wins a majority in parliament, there's little that they can do without taking the state out of the current structure. That's why Laban ng Masa doesn't just call for the ouster of Arroyo but calls for the transitional revolutionary government."
During the 2005 protests, Laban ng Masa sensed that the people were worried the protests would be "just another EDSA", said Melencio. "We had two EDSAs that were successful [in ousting governments] but nothing changed, and then the third EDSA was a failure.
"People are tired of EDSA uprisings that don't change anything. That's why we sensed that a third pole was necessary. We had to project our own demands and distance ourselves from the trapos, even from the anti-Arroyo trapos.
"We had to clarify what we meant by transitional revolutionary government. It is basically an alliance of the left and progressive forces with the [reform-minded] military levels. Everyone knows that the possibility of ousting Gloria is based on the capacity of the military levels to do that."
During the 2005 protests, the reform-minded military layers called for the ouster of Arroyo. They were the soldiers who were involved in the 2003 Magdalo uprising, a revolt by junior officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). They intended to oust Arroyo through a coup d'etat and then form a revolutionary council that would implement social and military reforms.
The revolt was a reaction against high-level corruption in the government and the military. It was the first time that a military revolt in the Philippines has come from junior officers.
During the Magdalo revolt, the junior officers revealed that the bombings happening on the southern island of Mindanao were being carried out by the military, which had used them to justify a campaign against "terrorism".
The Magdalo uprising failed and around 300 soldiers were jailed. In December 2005 some of these officers escaped from prison and called for the ouster of Arroyo, leading to talks between the officers and the progressive left organisations.
This meant that the "coalition shifted from a coalition between the left and the bourgeois opposition, which was the usual coalition during EDSA, to a coalition with the military levels", said Melencio. This new coalition was "more important and deeper because it was a coalition with a force that is not bourgeois but is composed of middle-level soldiers and the rank and file who come from poorer sections of society".
"The Magdalo revolt showed the disintegration of the AFP and the formation of a group within the AFP that was clamouring for genuine reforms. This is the group that the left is talking to", he said.
Laban ng Masa's proposal for a transitional revolutionary government is an alliance with the reform-minded junior officers, said Melencio. The group's platform for the TRG includes a series of urgent economic and political reforms that would be carried out during a transition period.
The main part of the transition program deals with countering the impact of the economic crisis, including a program to alleviate poverty through lowering commodity prices; scrapping the value-added tax; taxing the rich rather than the poor; lowering the price of power; and beginning to reverse the neoliberal economic policies.
The second set of reforms are the political reforms, including revamping the bureaucracy, especially the electoral commission; a new electoral law to ensure more grassroots participation; and a proportional system in the parliament.
An important political reform is a proposal to replace the barangay council at the village level with barangay assemblies (people's assemblies). At the moment, barangay councils are controlled by local trapo politicians.
Another important political reform would be the formation of local militia to ensure that it is the people, not the military, that controls police powers in the villages.
"We consider these demands transitional", said Melencio, "but they point towards the dismantling of neoliberal economic policies and dismantling elite rule. Then we would draft a new constitution which would legitimise this process and hold an election."
Melencio told GLW: "We've had discussions with the military levels about this platform and there was general agreement on some aspects of it. The military levels have their own program too but they agree on the main things like the reform of the barangay councils.
"This transitional program is very possible given the political situation but its implementation is dependent on establishing the TRG."
Melencio said that with elections due in May, the political crisis is likely to die down. "The elections are part of the way the system copes with a crisis. There is a tendency for a political crisis to die down during elections because the ruling class will reach a consensus on going to the election."
But he said that the elections won't solve the political crisis. "Gloria will have to cheat in order to remain in power. All the polls show that the next senate will be an opposition senate and it's likely that the opposition will gain more congress seats … If there's no cheating, the opposition might have the numbers to impeach Gloria.
"There's even the possibility of no election. If there are bombings going on, [Arroyo] might use that to declare a state of emergency and stop the election. Arroyo is worried that she could be jailed if she's impeached. The political crisis is likely to re-emerge after the elections."
Arroyo has used emergency powers before. In 2006 Arroyo declared a state of rebellion, allowing her to raid the urban poor communities and arrest the leaders of EDSA 3. In February 2006 she declared a state of emergency.
The left has suffered from a terrible level of repression, including large numbers of people being assassinated by military death squads. "The political killings are also related to Arroyo's attempt to stay in power", said Melencio. "The killings are to break the backbone of the opposition, especially the left opposition in the parliament. The people who are getting assassinated are from the regional political structures of the party lists. The main target is the CPP-New People's Army forces."
"[Although] the political killings started against the CPP, now the killers are going after all of the revolutionary groups in Laban ng Masa. These killings will continue because it is state policy", said Melencio.