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Popular power in the Philippines

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The fate of the president of the Philippines has been hanging in the balance for weeks. Herbert Docena from Focus on the Global South reports on the latest struggle
Issue 1964
Students taking to the streets against Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on 13 July (Pic: Jong Pairez/
Students taking to the streets against Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on 13 July (Pic: Jong Pairez/Manila Indymedia)

In 1986 tens of thousands of Filipinos demonstrated on a busy thoroughfare in the Philippine capital of Manila, in an event that soon became known as the “people power revolution”. The mass protests ended over 20 years of corrupt and brutal dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, restoring liberal democracy to the country.

In 2001 thousands of Filipinos again massed on the streets to remove the constitutionally elected president, Joseph Estrada, who was facing accusations of corruption.

Since June this year the current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been teetering on the brink of being ousted from office — long before her term officially ends in 2010. Arroyo succeeded Estrada and won last year’s presidential election by a hairline.

The worst political crisis to hit her presidency began when wiretapped recordings of a conspiracy to tamper with election results surfaced. The president, who has admitted to being the voice in the wiretapped conversations, was recorded instructing an election commissioner to pad her votes.

A succession of witnesses have since come out to implicate the president — some of them also accusing her of using kickbacks from illegal gambling to finance the electoral fraud.

Broad sectors of society, including the elite political opposition, the left, academics and various social movements, have since called for Arroyo to resign. Opinion polls indicate that up to 85 percent of respondents want her impeached, and her approval ratings are the lowest of any Philippine president since polling began.


A third of Arroyo’s cabinet has resigned and has called on her to do likewise. A key party has left her political coalition. Sections of the business community have withdrawn their support. But these groups are each pushing rival solutions to the crisis — a fact that has worked to the president’s advantage.

The conservatives are calling for a constitutional succession, in which the vice-president takes over the reins of government. The left and segments of the centre favour more far reaching extra-constitutional political change.

While the left groups are united in demanding the president’s removal, their tactics diverge. The Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its front organisations have publicly linked arms with the Marcoses, Estradas and other members of the elite opposition — even as they’ve sought to sideline other left groups outside their fold.

The fragmented sections of the non-CPP left, on the other hand, have achieved their highest level of political unity since the many post Marcos splits. They have formed the Laban ng Masa (Fight of the Masses) coalition, which calls for a “transitional revolutionary government” to replace Arroyo and end elite rule.

Though various religious groups have demanded the president’s resignation, the influential Roman Catholic church hierarchy has decided not to play politics this time, effectively strengthening Arroyo’s hand. It appears that the middle class — the decisive factor in previous uprisings — has yet to move decisively.

Meanwhile there is a beeline to the US embassy these days, as various sections of the elite opposition jockey to obtain Washington’s blessings. While the backing of the US may not be decisive, it could prove to be pivotal.

Ever since the US annexed the Philippines in 1899 and subsequently installed a clique of “hacienderos” (big landlords) in the colonial government, it has intervened in Philippine politics every step of the way.

In 1986 the US withdrew its support from Marcos and proceeded instead to ensure that “people power” demonstrations were contained and that moderate pro-US politicians would eventually take the helm.

The US had a major falling out with Arroyo over the latter’s decision to withdraw Philippine troops from Iraq last year. Nevertheless it is not clear that the US has abandoned her.

More than any president since the Philippine senate voted to close down US bases in the country in 1991, Arroyo has been the US’s most pliant ally in the country in recent years. She has consented to US military operations in the country and has been one of the most vocal and loyal supporters of George Bush’s “war on terror”.

US officials have repeatedly warned that they will not tolerate extra-constitutional solutions to the crisis. This means they will move to prevent a “transitional revolutionary government” or anything that cannot guarantee the protection of their interests in the country.


While there have been a series of big mobilisations against the president, massive popular demonstrations on the scale that previously ousted Marcos and Estrada have not yet materialised. Some observers attribute this to “people power fatigue”.

However it is more likely that Filipinos are still smarting from the disillusionment that set in after the “people power” uprisings. And they are still learning their lessons.

In 1986 traditional ruling elite factions marginalised by Marcos succeeded — with some help from the US — in subverting “people power” to restore themselves to privileged positions in Philippine society.

The various elite factions proceeded to install a brand of liberal democracy that allowed them to compete for power through elections. The aspirations and grievances of the masses were contained and channelled through electoral contests in which the odds weighed heavily in favour of the rich, landed and powerful.

In 2001 rival elite factions stoked up popular indignation against Estrada’s corrupt rule — and again they succeeded in becoming the main beneficiaries of the people power mobilisations.

But 20 years after the first people power uprising, the ruling political class’s success in subverting the clamour for change has resulted in widespread poverty and inequality.

In 1985 the top ten percent of the population took 37 percent of the total income in the country, while the lowest fifth only received 5 percent.

In 2000 this distribution was virtually identical. Land remains in the hands of a few, unemployment is at 20 percent and more than a third of the population live below the poverty line. The streets of Manila are a living canvas of the spectacular contrast between the ultra-rich and the destitute.

Rather than suffering from “people power fatigue”, Filipinos may actually be raring for people power. But they are probably more cautious about marching out on the streets again, only to see one elite faction push out another elite faction, while the masses remain outside the gates of power.

It may not be that Filipinos are weary of taking to the streets. Perhaps they have become — after defeat and disillusionment — just a bit more streetwise.

Herbert Docena works as a research associate for Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based campaign group. Go to

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