People Power 2
Parangal ng Ateneo, Tanglaw ng Bayan, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City
February 20, 2001
Once more, those on whom I rely so much for unerring guidance and unstinting support present His Eminence, Jaime Cardinal Sin and me with great unprecedented honors.
The Cardinal and I accept with gratitude and humility the “Tanglaw ng Bayan” award from the community of the Society of Jesus. We accept the award o behalf of the Filipino people to whom for the most part, these honors belong. Yes, because you, the Filipino people did it again.
It was we who called, that’s true; but you, the Filipino people answered so that our cry was not lost in the wilderness.
Fifteen years after the bloodlessly booting out a president, who turned into a dictator, the Filipino people ousted a popularly elected president who succumbed to insatiable greed.
We call this people power, and see it as the activation of the sovereign clause of a democratic constitution, which says that sovereignty resides in the people and all power comes from them.
Once in a while, in compelling circumstances, the people feel like taking back this power. It happens when the institutions of democracy fail to deliver democratic government or when the law defeats rather than achieves its proper aim justice.
There has been criticism abroad of people power. The reason may be that we regard democratic constitutions differently from the West. For example, we take them seriously.
Take the constitutional preamble that famously begins: “We, the people…”
As far as we are concerned these words are a sovereign affirmation of power by the people, rather than as an act of abdication by them of any further responsibility for their own political fate.
For us, those words, “We, the people…” are constant reminder to our public officials as to where in politics things begin, and where they might end up again if they don’t watch out: in the hands of the people.
Joseph Ejercito Estrada came into the presidency with the largest electoral mandate ever. Yet it was the very same people power which ousted him that allowed him to take power in the fist place.
In 1997, the year before the presidential election, there were attempts to change the constitution so that President Ramos could run for re-election. Remember the anti Cha-cha rally at the Luneta on September 21, 1997? The Cardinal and I and you, the Filipino people were there to deliver a single message: No one is indispensable and there will be no exception to the single term rule.
Joining us in that protest action was then Vice-President Joseph Estrada, the strongest contender for the presidency, and the person most likely to benefit from people power in defense of the Constitution. As you can see, and as he has learned, people power is a two-edged sword.
When Mr. Estrada won, we wished him well and prayed that he would use his vast popularity to implement much needed social reforms. Unfortunately, his brand of governance saddened me and most of us.
In October last year, Governor Chavit Singson, one of his closest friends exposed his connections to illegal gambling. I called for President Estrada to resign or take a leave of absence pending investigation. He said he preferred to be impeached instead. And so he was.
The process of removing a bad president before his time went surprisingly fast. Yet, the cards were stacked in the President’s favor by a Senate largely in his pocket. It took three years after Ninoy’s assassination to oust a tyrant. We wondered how long it would take to remove a popular, but dishonest president.
But knowledge indeed empowers. The impeachment trial of President Estrada was covered live by television and radio and avidly followed by the people for five to six hours a day, five days a week.
It was like taking a course in political science, with a major in political responsibility. Let me say that the people graduated with top honors. They threw out the President when his allies in the Senate voted to suppress the evidence.
As if on a given signal, an outraged citizenry in the middle of the night converged at the Shrine of Our Lady of EDSA. They went to show their anger at the treachery of the eleven senators. They went to show their conviction of the President’s guilt. Above all, they came to pray together for a just resolution of the crisis of government.
What they wanted to do was bring the matter up to God, even as they were already resolved to take action if they did not get a clear answer from Him. In their grim determination and iron resolve, God had already spoken: action by people power again.
To be sure, the allies of the President also helped. One of them, taunted the people by saying that they would tire of it all and go home in five days. He was right. On the fifth day, the people started going home after witnessing the swearing in of the new President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Critics of the event called it “mob rule”, a “ virtual coup d’etat”, “undemocratic” and “unconstitutional”.
Was it mob rule? Did we preempt the Constitution? We gave the Constitution every chance to work; we gave the President every chance to defend himself.
In a constitution providing for ways to remove him before the end of his term: by resignation, by leave of absence, and by impeachment. The first two depend on his sense of propriety and do not work when he has none. The third depends on the integrity of the legislature.
Not surprisingly, the President himself recommended his own impeachment. But when he was impeached he did everything to undermine the impeachment process by blocking the evidence.
What then were to the people to do?
To sit back and wait for the next elections made nonsense of the constitutional provision for the removal of a president guilty of impeachable offenses. The only recourse was to enforce the impeachment in the streets after its failure in the Senate. That is what the people did.
Critics in the West say we would have waited. But time is too precious to waste, and no one should mock a constitution by using an impeachment to hide his guilt rather than show his innocence.
Some critics have called it Rich People’s Power because it ousted a man who pretended to care for the poor. I think there were more rich people with the President than showed up against him at EDSA. And there were more poor people at EDSA than the president could hire to rally in his defense.
One advocate of people power described it as “a mysterious and unpredictable outpouring of collective energy” that manifest itself when we most need it. This is too much mysticism for my taste.
I have more common place view of people power. It is just the voice of decency in the mouths of the brave. It is the predictable manifestation of simple moral indignation when brazen injustice takes place right before its face. It happened when the dictatorship assassinated my husband, Ninoy Aquino, in broad daylight, under the noses of the international press, and inside a circle of more than a thousand soldiers.
National indignation broke anew when the President’s allies in the Senate assassinated the truth inside the second envelope before millions of Filipinos watching the impeachment trial on TV.
Our neighbors ask this question:
With two political revolutions in just 15 years, is the Philippine democracy sustainable?
My answer is: more than ever because we had those two revolutions in just 15 years. The first of those revolutions restored democracy and banished dictatorship for good; the second restored good government. For how long will determine whether there will be a third.
This question is more interesting: How much of the success of People Power 2 is owed to the new information technologies, like cell phones, the Internet and text messaging?
These things definitely helped. But I prefer to attribute our high rate of success in direct popular political action to three factors: a genuine if imperfect democracy allowing a free exchange of information, a vibrant civil society, and — but this is just as opinion shared by millions — God.
In the last people, like in the first, we worked like everything depended entirely on us, and prayed like everything depended solely on God.
As usual our people and the good Lord came across as though everything depended entirely on just one of them. Now, how can something like that be stopped?
However, I cannot stop there.
For if the Filipino people are like a powder keg, whence comes the spark that sets them off? It comes from God. And it is made up of two parts.
The first is a lightly worn but very deep-rooted sense of Christian morality.
The second is the purest example of a Christian man in the person of the great Cardinal.
He is and has been God’s precious gift to our nation. Our Joshua, our Commander-in-chief, in the unending war for the soul of a Christian nation.
I pray to God to keep him with us for much, much longer, tired though he be; for we have so far yet to go in the uncharted territory of the future.
Many, many thanks, your Eminence!
God bless Your Eminence and God bless us all!