On the third decade after the EDSA People Power Revolution drove out dictator Ferdinand Marcos on February 25, 1986, articles commemorating and commenting upon the four-day largely bloodless resotration of Philippine democracy invariably ask: Why is the country still a mess?
The question is wrong-headed, of course. There is no way a single event can fix everything wrong with a nation, especially since EDSA was never intended to address all major problems afflicting the Philippines. Rather, it was supposed to fix just one: the lack of a president with popular support and democratic legitimacy.
That EDSA did with the installation of Corazon Aquino, whom most Filipinos then accepted as the true winner of the 1986 snap presidential elections called by Marcos to put to rest widespread discontent and questions of legitimacy over his rule. She then proceeded to restore democratic institutions and processes under the 1987 Constitution. And that was the main achievement of EDSA and the Corazon Aquino presidency.
What about corruption, poverty, injustice, insurgency, crime, and economic stagnation? Most thinking people will agree that these problems require far more than a change in the system of government and similar reforms under the new dispensation and constitution ushered in by EDSA.
Solving these bigger problems of development and governance demand changes both in major policies and in the behavior of key sectors, especially the families controlling political and economic power. Sadly, this elite simply adjusted to the new dispensation, and even exploited the return of democracy to amass more power, privilege and wealth.
Corruption and economic woes persisted
Thus, while EDSA drove out Marcos and his cronies, it also allowed friends and relatives of the first Aquino administration to flourish. Kamag-anak Inc. was how media and public called the coterie of Corazon Aquino’s fellow Cojuangco clan members said to have enjoyed privileges under her.
And the biggest break that critics say Aquino gave her family and other hacienderos is the provision in her land reform law allowing plantations to transfer ownership not to landless cultivators, but to a corporation, which can then issue shares of stock to farmers. That preserved Cojuangco control over the clan’s Hacienda Luisita.
The economy rebounded after EDSA, but some major Aquino decisions hobbled it. In hindsight, some senior officials then thought she could have asked for cuts in Philippine debt, especially in her much-applauded speech to the US Congress, instead of simply restructuring loans.
As a result, the full debt burden inherited from the Marcos decades continued to weigh on the economy until tax reforms in the Ramos and Arroyo administrations set the stage for the past decade of fiscal strengthening.
But Aquino’s biggest boondoggle was her mothballing of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, over corruption allegations, with no replacement facilities built to generate the BNPP’s 600 megawatts capacity.
That was perhaps the single most growth-sapping act by any Philippine president. It led to nearly day-long brownouts shutting down industry and commerce all over Luzon in the early 1990s.
Plus: electricity shortages prompted Aquino’s successor Fidel Ramos to contract private generation firms by agreeing to pay for a minimum amount of power, even if it is not consumed — jacking up electricity rates to Asia’s highest outside Japan.
Besides the BNPP scrapping, the other obstacle to addressing infrastructure needs was the Constitution’s limits on foreign ownership of public utilities. Thus, much needed transport, energy, water, and other facilities could avail of foreign capital only up to a certain minority ownership level. Thus, when local capital could not come up with the rest of the funding, and the government didn’t have funds, infrastructure didn’t get built.
Hijacking Philippine democracy
For all these problems, however, EDSA admirers argue that the uprising was justified and positive overall because it restored democracy and ended a corrupt dictatorship. Yet even that singular achievement must be more closely looked at.
For Philippine democracy since 1986, like the pre-martial law edition, has fallen into the clutches of patronage politicians and their business backers. That has enabled the moneyed family and corporate interests to get their way in commerce and government, to the detriment of poor communities, workers and consumers.
Perhaps the best illustration of how elites still rule is the business and political empire of Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, whose interests include the San Miguel beer, power, tollways, and telecoms conglomerate, plus Petron.
Maligned as one of Marcos’s top cronies, Danding Cojuangco is accused of using levies on millions of poor coconut farmers to take over San Mig, yet his lawyers have succeeded in preventing the case from even being formally tried.
In 1992, just six years after People Power, Cojuangco ran for president under his Nationalist People’s Coalition. He came in third, and NPC became a leading national party, and even instigating impeachment complaints against Supreme Court justices in 2003, while they deliberated the coconut levy case.
Under his nephew Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino 3rd, Corazon’s son, San Miguel group has demonstrated clout not unlike his Marcos-era influence. This despite Danding Cojuangco once being rumored of involvement in the 1983 assassination of the current President’s father.
For instance, when San Miguel was disqualified in the Calamba-Laguna expressway bidding last year due to erroneous documents, President Aquino himself ordered a rebidding based on its bid price (another bidder, Metro Pacific, eventually won).
And to the detriment of motorists and commuters, the government did not act on a 2010 Metro Pacific proposal to build an elevated highway linking the North and South Luzon Expressways. Rumored reason: San Miguel also wanted to pitch. To date, this crucial project, like the Metro Manila traffic it can alleviate, isn’t moving.
Now, Cojuangco’s billions and his NPC machinery are reportedly backing Senator Grace Poe, while he also supports other presidentiables. If she is allowed to run and wins in May, Cojuangco may well have more Palace influence than even under Marcos.
Plainly, three decades after People Power, our democracy is still government off the people, floor the people, and buy the people.