It’s hard to understate the sheer incompetence of the current leadership. President Duterte has simply thrown away all the hard-earned gains of his two immediate predecessors, Benigno Aquino III and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
During the 2013 Philippine Development Forum, then World Bank country director, Motoo Konishi, declared that “The Philippines is no longer the sick man of East Asia, but the rising tiger [of Asia],” thanks to a “sound and improving” fiscal situation, an anti-corruption campaign that is “paying off” after “being waged with determination,” and with “[t]ransparency… improving everywhere in the Philippines.”
Within a year from now, Mr. Duterte, in contrast, is set to relinquish power after overseeing not only the worst economic crisis in the region and modern Philippine history, but also among the most violent and mindless anti-drug campaigns outside Latin America.
And yet, the populist in Malacañang could still end up shaping the country’s future for generations to come, most likely through heavily-supported anointed successors in upcoming elections. Naturally, one wonders how so much incompetence can secure so much power.
Should duly-elected Vice President Leni Robredo run for the country’s highest office, she will have a unique opportunity to revive the true promise of the Edsa people power revolt, namely not only formal political freedoms but also social justice for ordinary Filipinos.
Dutertismo is an enduring force precisely because of the unfulfilled promises of the Edsa revolution, which toppled a bankrupt dictator in favor of the diffused tyranny of everyday corruption and the oligarchic co-optation of democratic institutions.
At the turn of the century, not only the rivals and partisans of the ancien régime but also even the Marcoses themselves were firmly planted at the heart of Philippine politics. Add to them countless celebrities who captured elected office for no reason than to remain relevant amid the changing fortunes of local show business.
The upshot was worse than irony—a living and breathing mockery of the spirit and goals of the Edsa revolt. For almost three decades, Philippine elections resembled what Karl Marx described as a political circus, whereby the “oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
Even a second Edsa revolt, once again led by progressive middle classes against another inept budding strongman, could not forestall a reversion to the mean of chronic corruption and incompetence. So when Mr. Duterte offered the promise of prosperity without democracy, a large plurality couldn’t hide their excitement at burning down the whole rotten system.
And for the few of us who dared to speak in favor of democracy and against the allure of populism, we profoundly struggled to cite truly inspirational stories of democratic leadership. At best, we could simply invoke the limited virtues of supine reformism, which provided temporary macroeconomic and political stability at the expense of the system’s vulnerability to authoritarian capture.
There is a reason the relatively sane terms of the Ramos and Aquino administrations were immediately followed by populist blunders.
When pondering the legacy of historic events such as the Edsa revolution, we should ask ourselves, using the words of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, “to what final aim these enormous [revolutionary] sacrifices have been offered.”
Last week, Robredo expressed her openness to run for the presidency, stating “if only I have sufficient resources, it would be easy for me to decide.” As in the 2016 elections, she is once again heading into fateful elections as the “dark horse,” thanks to four years of systematic denigration by Marcos and Duterte partisans.
But once again it’s likely to become a packed race, providing a unique opportunity for the perennial outsider to eke out another 11th-hour victory, as multiple pro-Duterte candidates may cancel out each other’s chances.
The ultimate key to Robredo’s success, however, will be her ability to communicate a new form of democratic leadership, one that, beyond mere reformism, truly captures the dreams and aspirations of the millions who joined the two Edsa revolts. The “Edsa dream” is still alive, yet it’s buried beneath the thick sediment of decades-old political despair, dejection, and deception. The 2022 elections will be an uphill yet worthy struggle to revive this golden, shimmering dream.