Walden Bello: How neoliberalism killed the Philippines' EDSA Republic

The EDSA Uprising in 1986 overthrew the military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

The Benigno Aquino administration is down to its final days till it makes way for the new presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in May.

You could make the case that we are also seeing the curtain fall on the 30-year-old liberal democratic state that came to existence with the February 1986 EDSA Uprising that overthrew the military dictatorship of Marcos.

With its penchant for irony — or black humour — history appears to have ordained that the son would preside over the interment of the regime that the mother (Cory Aquino, the first president after the ouster of Marcos) was instrumental in bringing to life.

The demarcation line between the EDSA Republic and its successor may not be as dramatic as that separating the martial law regime from EDSA, it is nevertheless clear: an electoral insurgency propelled Duterte to the presidency — a figure whose campaign was marked by a provocative repudiation of the substance and discourse of liberal democracy that have served as the ideological scaffolding of the EDSA system.

Central to this ideology has been the liberal values of human rights and due process that were institutionalised in the 1987 Constitution, which crystallised the ideals of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. Yet Duterte's appeal to large numbers of voters lay precisely in his sneering dismissal of these values.

This turn was undoubtedly promoted partly by the fear of many citizens that the liberal democratic state could no longer protect them from criminals, drug pushers and the police. It stemmed likewise from a widespread perception that due process, far from ensuring justice, had turned into a system of protection for the wayward, the corrupt and the powerful.

But one must also count as a central explanation for Duterte's success the popular disillusionment with the kind of democracy that the EDSA regime delivered.

The EDSA Uprising and its aftermath had promised a representative democracy more responsive to the masses. The 1987 Constitution even institutionalising a party-list system aimed at ensuring representation of the marginalised sectors.

The EDSA Republic did bring back electoral competition, but it was principally among elite dynasties that could afford the enormous costs of political advertising and huge vote-buying. Duterte's electoral victory was a defiant repudiation of the EDSA regime's corrupt electoral circus. It relied mainly on a mass electoral revolt, in contrast to the big money-backed traditional candidates.

Neoliberalism

Despite its political shortcomings, the EDSA regime would probably have retained a significant amount of support had it delivered on the economic front.

After the disastrous kleptocracy that was the Marcos dictatorship, the 1987 Constitution promised “a more equitable distribution of opportunities, income, and wealth”.

It would be an understatement to say that the EDSA system failed to translate this promise into reality. And for the lower classes that rallied around him, Duterte's main appeal was his populist pledge to shake up an economic system whose rules and practices had condemned them to permanent marginalization.

Perhaps the key tragedy of the EDSA Republic was that it came into being right at the time that neoliberalism was on the ascendant globally as an ideology. Even before the February 1986 uprising, the Philippines had become one of four guinea pigs of the new structural adjustment program unveiled by the World Bank, which aimed to bring down tariffs, deregulate the economy, and privatise government enterprises.

Under the administration of Cory Aquino, pressure from the International Monetary Fund and US banks made repayment of the foreign debt the top national economic priority. Over the next three decades, debt servicing would take up to 20 to 45% of the annual government budget, crippling the government's capacity to invest and stimulate economic growth and provide essential social services.

With the 1992-98 administration of Fidel Ramos, neoliberalism reached its apogee: tariffs were radically cut to zero-to-five percent, deregulation and privatisation were sped up, and the Philippines joined the World Trade Organisation — to “benefit”, it was said, from the tide of corporate-driven globalisation.

Under Ramos and later administrations, the contours of the EDSA political economy were consolidated: pro-market policies, relentless privatisation, export-oriented development, export of labour, low wages to attract foreign investors and conservative monetary and fiscal management.

As our neighbours retained high levels of economic protectionism, neoliberal disarmament resulted in the Philippines' having the second lowest yearly average growth rate in Southeast Asia from 1990 to 2010. Even the second-tier ASEAN economies of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma outstripped it.

Although the economy registered 6-7% growth rates from 2012 to 2015, there was no “trickle down” to counter the legacy of stagnation bequeathed by neoliberal policies. At nearly 25% of the population, the percentage living in poverty last year was practically the same as in 2003.

For many visitors, comparative statistics are superfluous. Extreme poverty is so wretchedly visible.

The neoliberal paradigm was not, however, the only cause of the EDSA regime's failure to address the deepening social crisis. Corruption was a problem, as it was in the Philippines' neighbours. But even more consequential than corruption was class.

Just as they had forced Marcos to halt his land reform program in the 1970s, the landed class successfully resisted the implementation of Republic Act 6657, Cory Aquino's already watered-down land reform program.

A civil society push to reenergise the program, which was passed in 2009, was bogged down under the Benigno Aquino III administration owing to lack of political will and presidential indifference.

By the end of the program in 2014, about 700,000 hectares of the best private land in the country remained in the hands of landlords, violence against land reform beneficiaries was common and rural poverty remained stubbornly high.

Unaccompanied by structural reforms, the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program of the Benigno Aquino administration, though it eventually covered over 4.4 million families, or nearly one-fifth of the population, could barely make a dent on poverty and inequality.

Breaking with economic status quo

The incoming president's comprehensive understanding of the sources of the country's economic and social malaise still has to be fully demonstrated. But in his victory speech on June 2, Duterte zeroed in on one of its major causes — the “onslaught of the World Trade Organisation.”

This, he said, had destroyed the country's food security and made it dependent on food imports from Vietnam and Thailand. He has also identified as key problems workers' lack of security of tenure, conservative government spending policies, and a horribly abusive mining industry.

In his appointment of two people closely identified with the leftist Makabayan Bloc, Rafael Mariano and Judy Taguiwalo, as heads of the Department of Agrarian Reform and Department of Social Welfare and Development respectively, Duterte has acknowledged the need for drastic social reform.

The question is, will his evolving approach breach or remain within the neoliberal paradigm that has served as a straightjacket on the economy?

To satisfy those who have voted for him, Duterte probably realises that he needs to make a thorough macroeconomic overhaul. This will mean a break with the neoliberalism of the EDSA regime.

If the new regime does break with neoliberalism, then what may emerge as a paradox at its heart is that while it is likely to undertake policies, like extra-judicial execution of criminals and other people, that are hostile to fundamental human rights and due process, it may also promote policies that advance citizens' social and economic rights.

Given this, liberals and progressives will find it challenging, to say the least, to relate to the new regime. In the view of many, it will be hard to avoid a stance of strategic opposition.

Ambiguous legacy

A new framework is at hand, and its character and thrusts will probably be expressed in a new constitution or a 1987 Constitution that is significantly amended and altered.

Given its failure to break the system of traditional elite politics and produce a new social and economic deal for the country's deeply discontented majority, the EDSA regime will not be missed by most.

Indeed, some say that EDSA is already an orphan, with the disintegration of the Liberal Party-led “Yellow Movement” that had once loudly proclaimed a monopoly to its legacy. There is also the shameless rush of its partisans to the bandwagon of Duterte, a man they pilloried during the campaign as a “dictator” — forgetting that the best antidote to dictatorship is a vigorous opposition.

Yet the EDSA regime, it must be acknowledged, has not been without its positive contributions to the country's political development.

One can only hope that whatever the structure of the political regime that follows, whether unitary or federal, parliamentary or presidential, it will not throw overboard two key principles of the 1987 Constitution that represented the hard-won gains of the 14-year struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.

These are: Article II, Section 11, which reads: “The State values the dignity of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights”; and Article III, Section 1, which says that: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws”.

Whatever the fate of the EDSA Republic, and however much its record might have deviated from its aspirations, let us make sure that we retain those universal principles of democratic governance enshrined in its Constitution, in the absence of which polities quickly descend into arbitrary rule, dictatorship or fascism.

[Abridged from InterAksyon.com. A founder of Focus on the Global South and a former member of the House of Representatives, Walden Bello ran for the Senate in the May 9 general election, as an independent candidate of the broad left.]

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