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Issue 54, March 2001

Philippines rising

JANUARY'S DRAMATIC events in the Philippines culminated in the removal, through mass protest, of the country's elected president Joseph 'Erap' Estrada. The fact that he was replaced, in a swearing-in ceremony on the streets of Manila, by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, may have delighted the business, church and armed forces elite who were by her side. But, very rapidly, sober assessments have appeared of what exactly happened in those heady days and what now are the prospects for the new government.

A respected Asian journal carried on its front cover a picture of the immaculately dressed Arroyo and the headline, 'Rich People's Power'. This journal, and others, began to spell out the reasons why her government starts out with a legacy of irresolvable problems. Undoubtedly, huge swathes of Filipino people will come to realise that the change in government will bring them little or no material change in their daily lives.

In the first days of Arroyo's presidency rumours circulated constantly of the danger of a military coup - encouraged by her own remarks in a TV broadcast that 'enemies of the state' were plotting to destabilise the situation. It has always been clear that not everyone in the Philippines wanted an end to Estrada's rule. Many, especially the very poor, preferred his rude populism and even his rough band of cronies, to the more sophisticated, but cruel and arrogant, moneyed and landed aristocracy. But it now looks as if Estrada is fighting a losing battle to avoid criminal proceedings against him. The infamous envelope full of evidence about multi-million dollar embezzlement has now been opened.


His claims to be immune from prosecution because he never actually resigned as president are not taken seriously. However, it is not ruled out that, as Arroyo fails to fulfil the promise of her 100-day programme for the poor, Estrada or his party at least, could become the beneficiary of their dissatisfaction.

The first test could be as early as May 14, when congressional, regional and local elections take place. Estrada's wife has already declared as a candidate for the senate. A lot is at stake for Arroyo in the election. To be able to get any legislation adopted she needs her party to win a majority in the 24-member senate. Elections in the Philippines are notoriously dirty, with big money, electricity power-cuts and shoot-outs playing a key role in the final result. Some organisations on the left - especially those from a Maoist background - have not themselves been averse to the use of fire-arms, and of kidnapping and assassination in the pursuit of their 'cause'.

The Philippines is described by the Financial Times as "one of Asia's most unequal societies" (February 4). Life itself is cheap. In a shanty town in Quezon City, "in a symbol of the nation's social and economic decay" as a journalist for the New York Times put it, "a mountain of garbage collapsed last July, burying more than 200 scavengers".

No politician, Arroyo included, can avoid trying to appear as the 'friend of the poor' and promising radical change. But her regime, full of representatives of the richest and most powerful, will not serve two masters. It was clear, even in the hour of her victory, what it is that the new president and the elite around her are most afraid of - the possibility of the working class and poor people organising independent action and challenging their rule.


It was this fear that lay behind the swift 'coming over' of the army chief, Angelo Reyes, to Arroyo's side on January 19. Even as the out-door inauguration ceremony was being hastily put together, a contingent of 75,000 workers, young people and activists proceeded towards the presidential (Malacanang) palace. Arroyo and the Church leaders had pleaded for the demonstrations to halt before then but, waving red flags, singing songs and shouting 'Resign All', this defiant demonstration reached the gates of the Malacanang Palace. The Far Eastern Economic Review reported "radical leaders (saying that) the march achieved two things. First, all segments of society see it as the crucial push that toppled Estrada... Second, ...(it) underlined that the left wants more radical change".

Unfortunately, the leading forces on that break-away march, around Bayan (the Communist Party) and others, put forward nothing more radical than "continue the struggle until genuine democracy, national freedom and progress are achieved"! History has already demonstrated, in the period since the overthrow of the dictator Marcos in the 'People Power' movement of 1986, the barrenness of such slogans. Unless there is a concerted struggle to rid the country of private ownership in land, finance and productive capacity, democracy will remain an empty dream along with that of social and economic equality.

Nevertheless, the ruling elite still fears the anger and opposition of the masses exploding beyond the limitations set by these movements. The same Far Eastern Economic Review article continued, "Filipinos of all stripes are sceptical about Arroyo's so-called new administration - dominated by faces from the past, politicians who had a chance to govern and, in the eyes of many, failed to prove themselves". Amongst those familiar faces is an economics minister, Alberto Romulo, who has already announced a package of cuts along the lines demanded by the IMF.


Arroyo has announced she is in 'peace mode', offering talks with two guerrilla armies still fighting the Filipino Army in the countryside. She has also called, via the Federation of Philippine Industries, for employers to hold fire on redundancies for the moment, hoping the move would 'make it harder for militants to get labourers on the streets', as the Far Eastern Economic Review puts it. On the burning issue of land reform, the new president is hoping to reach some form of compromise by appointing a well-known trade union leader to the job of agriculture minister.

The Philippine economy, one of the worst hit by the late-1990s regional economic crisis, has also been affected by the months-long political crisis. The initial euphoria at Arroyo's victory, shown on the Manila stock market by a record leap in share values and by a sharp recovery of the value of the peso, will quickly dissipate. The budget deficit is swelling towards 200 billion pesos (nearly $4bn) and the new government, which has made promises to the poor, will be unlikely to reduce that, at least in the early days.

The recession starting in the USA will have a devastating effect on the country's industrial base. The US is the major market for Philippines exports. The money to cover the country's public debt and much of the private debt comes from the USA. A large part of the country's industry is US-owned or under contract to US firms. All this means the Philippines economy is one of the first to flounder as the US goes into a down-turn.


While hoping for the best, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo must be preparing for the worst. Attempting to resolve the huge economic problems facing the country in the interests of the property-owning classes she represents, cannot be postponed indefinitely. Her chances of surviving the full, double term as president, especially in the turmoil that will hit the country along with world recession, are slim.

The probability of the people of the Philippines having to come onto the streets once more, and in the not too distant future, are strong. Unless the movements of workers and youth can produce a revolutionary socialist leadership prepared to fight the class war to a conclusion, they will find themselves fighting a 'People Power' lll, lV, V, and so on!

Time and again, movements of revolutionary proportions will see the oppressed masses robbed of the political and economic power they need in order to transform their lives. Nothing short of a socialist alternative will bring the working and poor people the full fruits of all their struggles - in the Philippines, in the neighbouring Asian states or anywhere in the world.

Elizabeth Clarke

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