Last rites for Aquino's 'People Power'

Issue 

By Peter M. Sales

Corazon Aquino was swept into office six years ago on the crest of an amazing People Power uprising in the Philippines. But the upcoming election provides stark evidence that the system has not been overhauled. Opportunities for reform were frittered away.

In the Philippines, as in any graft-ridden political machine, the dead vote early and often. Massive irregularities in registration have already occurred as the country prepares for the May 11 poll. (Filipinos will not only elect a replacement for Aquino as president, but also vote for senators and members of Congress as well as a range of other representatives at the regional and municipal levels.)

Amazingly, a ban on guns has not been extended to cover the so-

called Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit, an abusive militia which includes private armies and vigilante groups. Fraudulent procedures are apparent everywhere. For the poorest of the poor in a land where 70% or so of the population lives below the poverty line, a vote is worth at least 100 pesos ($A5).

The country can ill afford and nobody particularly wants the upcoming extravaganza. Last year's growth rate was zero, confirming the Philippines as the basket case of ASEAN. Overdue reforms, especially land redistribution and a proposed total logging ban, have been shelved indefinitely. Trade is sluggish and the economy stagnant.

The Aquino administration is making all sorts of odious deals as its term runs out. At the direction of World Bank-IMF monitors, it dutifully repays money stolen by Marcos and accepts obligations for even fraudulent loans. On April 14, a new restructuring of debts totalling $US5 billion will be signed with the country's creditors, an agreement completely different from the write-offs and reschedulings offered to other Third World nations.

Nothing so demonstrates the eclipse of the People Power dream as the recent compromise between the Aquino government and Westinghouse.

The Bataan nuclear power plant scandal in the mid-'80s helped in the undoing of Ferdinand Marcos, who received no less than $US17 million for allowing Westinghouse to construct an obsolete and defective 620-megawatt facility on the side of Mount Natib, a semi-active volcano. Now the current administration has reached an agreement with the multinational giant. Bribery charges have been dropped. The deal legitimises $US4 billion in fraud-tainted loans and may yet bring the risky, earthquake-prone power plant

on line. Westinghouse stands to make $US1.2 billion in operating revenue. Aquino's credibility has touched rock bottom.

If corruption is a feature of Philippine politics, it is well represented among the present crop of candidates. Eduardo "Danding" Cojuanco is a serious contender, yet he was the most notorious of Marcos cronies. Even his return from exile was illegal, and a number of charges are pending against him. Getting into the presidential palace might keep him out of jail.

The same may be said of Imelda Marcos, except more so. Facing at least 54 criminal and civil charges, she stumps the hustings as if expecting to meet nothing but collective amnesia. While she is a disruptive influence, the former Iron Butterfly has no chance in the race. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who claims to be an anti-

graft reformer, has proved self-serving and limited in vision; nor has she escaped rumours of corruption herself.

Ex-general Fidel Ramos has been endorsed by Aquino as the most likely champion of democracy for the next term. Yet Ramos was in charge of the notorious Philippine Constabulary throughout the martial law period.

Perhaps the most plausible figure in the line-up, if only by default, is speaker of the House of Representatives Ramon Mitra. One of the so-called trapos (traditional politicians; a trapo is also a cleaning brush), he could be a moderate force. Liberal Senator Jovito Salonga is left of centre, but has spurned radical or leftist overtures and missed the opportunity to forge a broad reformist coalition.

The group which claims to speak for the vast mass of peasants and workers is Partido ng Bayan (People's Party). It has been striving to play a positive (though low profile) role in the campaign.

Confronted by circumstances in which progressive opinion is savagely suppressed, the national democratic viewpoint must be advanced cautiously and with concern for personal safety. When PnB fielded candidates in the 1987 regional elections, nearly 30 of its people were killed. This time the repression has been less severe, probably because money and organisational problems have tended to marginalise the PnB effort.

PnB grew out of the BAYAN alliance, an umbrella group of sectoral interests, progressive bodies, non-government organisations, human rights groups, trade unions and the like. It suffered early reversals at the hands of the Aquino forces and other reactionaries. Its charismatic young leader, Lean Alejandro, and many less prominent activists were killed by military elements.

Some BAYAN stalwarts began planning a couple of years ago for the 1992 elections in an effort to reinvigorate the legal

left. However, BAYAN has again adopted a boycott position, promoting its theme of revolution, not elections.

This is a problematic strategy for at least two reasons. First, a refusal to participate in the 1986 elections hurt the struggle for reform; second, the leaders of the people's cause must balance their own disillusion against the hopes of ordinary folk for orderly and non-violent change.

PnB has devised an extensive program for establishing a truly democratic system. It includes proposals for people empowerment and popular participation as well as self-determination by indigenous groups.

The group has an exciting agenda aimed at restructuring the economy; introducing genuine land reform along with more self-

reliant forms of industrialisation; implementing socio-cultural improvements; even turning the armed forces (AFP) into a pro-people force; and introducing an independent, non-aligned foreign policy. PnB's mandate derives from the long struggle of ordinary Filipinos against feudalism and dictatorship, foreign intervention, corruption, military abuses and the depredations of landlords and comprador urban elites.

The People's Party must overcome the disinformation and red-scare tactics of its enemies, but it is beginning to mobilise youth groups and others who have rejected the old methods. PnB inherits the vitality of the "parliament of the streets"; it preaches a message of reform, defiance and national spirit. It offers the only non-violent means of changing the system.

The large field of "presidentiables" raises the likelihood that nobody will score an outright majority. The AFP insists that if a successful candidate has not emerged by the end of June, it might take over the country — no idle threat in view of no less than seven coup attempts against the Aquino administration.

Yet the AFP is not doing well. On February 15, a company of the 23rd Infantry Battalion was ambushed in Marihatag, a village in north-eastern Mindanao, suffering no less than 41 killed, 21 wounded and five captured by its New People's Army attackers, who were led by famed rebel ex-priest Frank Navarro.

AFP headquarters in Manila immediately alleged that the commanding officer had been beheaded while other troops were tortured and killed after surrender. Reports from the scene suggest quite the opposite, with guerillas even providing first aid at considerable risk to themselves. Even the government's own Commission on Human Rights made a full investigation and dismissed the army's version.

The encounter highlights how irrelevant the election campaign is to the pressing concerns of Filipino people. Will its outcome in

any way affect the insurgency in the countryside? Will the incoming president address the urgent issue of agrarian reform, the major cause of rural unrest? Presidential politics are largely confined to advancing the interests of the ruling elite. No changes will occur for peasants, workers or the enormous numbers of dispossessed who drift into the urban centres in a desperate search for jobs.

Aquino and her advisers are still threatening to deliver a strategic blow against the 23-year old insurgency this year. Over and over, AFP spokespeople have recklessly predicted the complete demolition of the underground movement by mid-1992.

The military implemented its latest counterinsurgency strategy — OPLAN Lambat Bitag (Operation Net Trap) — to isolate the Communists from their mass base and to dismantle the main rebel fronts. Navarro's was one of the guerilla strongholds chosen for special attention. The AFP cannot possibly pretend any longer that its program is on track.

The armed forces are also reeling from allegations of massive gun-running, with corrupt and/or underpaid soldiers selling NPA guerillas everything from their weapons to petrol and combat boots. Like some of the trapos running for office, the AFP may be tempted to grab power in order to silence critics and to conceal its graft and venality.

The role of the United States remains critical, too. Vice- President (and candidate) Doy Laurel has declared that the US withdrawal will leave the Philippines "strategically naked". But US ambassador Frank Wisner announced that Washington will maintain close military ties with the Philippines even after Subic naval base has closed. Many sceptics are watching for any signs of CIA or Pentagon activity.

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