The Philippines: Power Outage

Manila, The Philippines -- For a man who might be jailed at any moment, Harry Roque Jr., appeared very relaxed when I met him in Manila in early March. Dressed in a white barong tagalog -- the long, delicately embroidered shirt worn untucked by Philippine men -- he welcomed me into his law office, crowded with stacks of books on Philippine constitutional law. “Three days ago, it was broadcast that I had been arrested,” he said. “Everyone was calling me, but I was still here.” A laugh boomed out of his jiggling stomach.

Still, Roque was on a list of some 200 people who could be arrested at any time. In late February, Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared a state of national emergency, citing an alleged coup plot against her. In coordination with the emergency, she created lists of people, including many of her political enemies, supposedly involved in the plot; these targets could be arrested for rebellion and sedition at any time. The Philippine police also raided the offices of Manila's Daily Tribune, a newspaper normally opposed to the government, and also attempted to arrest five opposition congresspeople, who took refuge in the Philippines' legislative building. For his part, Roque, a longtime activist, was leading a constitutional challenge to the president's emergency law; hence the threat of arrest.

Macapagal-Arroyo's actions were an unfortunate anniversary present to her country -- and a sign that the nation's efforts to promote democracy have largely backfired. Twenty years ago, in February 1986, millions of unarmed demonstrators launched the Philippines' “People Power” revolution and toppled authoritarian ruler Ferdinand Marcos. People Power would become a model for democratic revolutions around the world: It relied upon groups of activists uniting into a broader movement and then convincing military leaders to abandon the dictator. The movement even pioneered the use of color, with People Power demonstrators clothing themselves in yellow, a precursor of Rose and Orange revolutions in the former Soviet states.

After deposing Marcos, the Philippines seemed poised to take off. It boasted a literacy rate of more than 90 percent, including many fluent English-speakers, which is why American companies now use the country for outsourced call centers. It also had a highly educated elite, a core of activists committed to democratic rule, and one of the freest presses in Asia.

But since 1986, the Philippines' political system and economy have disintegrated, with the emergency law only the latest meltdown -- a warning to other nations, like Thailand, that seem enthralled by protests. Today, the country is so politically vibrant that it's constantly distracted by wild democracy, street protests, and Hollywood-style political campaigns, with little focus on development. President Corazon Aquino, who led the 1986 movement, survived numerous coup attempts. In 2001, Macapagal-Arroyo became president when street protests nicknamed People Power 2, combined with the military, toppled elected president Joseph Estrada. Three years later, similar demonstrations and military unrest almost brought Macapagal-Arroyo down.

What's more, the Philippine economy has stagnated. Economic growth barely keeps pace with population growth, and a debt and fiscal crisis looms; in 2004, the speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives undertook a charity drive for the national treasury, asking people to donate to the state budget like it was a Salvation Army fund. Forty percent of the country lives below the poverty line, and in Manila I watched tens of thousands of the poor climbing a garbage dump, scavenging through the trash to survive. Manila residents have grown so desperate that 30,000 of them recently stampeded the gate of a reality TV show giving away cash prizes, crushing 70 people to death. At the same time, the Philippine ombudsman's office reports that the country lost $48 billion in revenue in graft over the past 20 years, and companies needing contracts roam the halls of Congress there with envelopes full of cash to stuff into congresspeople's desks.

Saddest of all, many Filipinos I met on a recent visit longed for the Marcos era. “We have too much democracy here,” Jose V. Romero Jr., a former Philippine diplomat with weary, deep-set eyes, told me. “There were two good things about the [Marcos] era -- they got rid of Congress and they got rid of the media.”

Part of the problem is that in the wake of 1986, many Philippine activists wanted the most direct democracy possible, and associated democratic rule with political systems the United States first brought to the country, a former colony, long before Marcos. The post-Marcos Philippines implemented a presidential system like the United States', thinking that an executive would be most accountable to the people, and then limited Philippine presidents to one term. As longtime Philippines watcher Anthony Spaeth notes, consequently the Philippine electorate is never able to vote presidents out of office, prompting the public to look to street protests like the 2001 demonstrations against Estrada, or to hopes of military intervention, to change their government.

Unsurprisingly, the constant possibility of protests slows normal policy-making. Politicians must always worry about being toppled, and sometimes overreact to the pressure, as Macapagal-Arroyo has done. Worse, because Filipinos constantly rely on people power to change governments, they've invested little in building democratic institutions (businessmen told me the judiciary is so backlogged it can take years to complete a decision) or in promoting equitable development. “We had political democracy but no economic democracy, and now we're in a mess here,” said Leticia Ramos-Shahani, a former Philippine senator. The national land reform program has been dogged by scandal, and a handful of powerful families still dominate the highly unequal economy. Everyone else essentially scavenges.

Focused on creating the most direct democracy, the post-Marcos Philippines also built a winner-take-all system for most congressional seats. This has led to astronomical spending on congressional campaigns -- reportedly, some $500,000 per campaign in the Manila area, in a country with a per capita GDP less than one-eighth of that of the United States. Since only the rich can afford such campaigns, and the country has not built a large middle class, Congress is dominated by two groups. One consists of scions of the country's traditionally powerful clans: According to a study by one of the country's leading investigative journalists, in the Congress elected in 2001, 61 percent of representatives came from this handful of clans. The other consists of entertainers like Estrada, who can mount glamorous campaign spectacles or films about themselves to promote their campaigns. European observers following the 2004 Philippines election told local reporters, “It's like watching a carnival or a festival.” Since the February crackdown, Macapagal-Arroyo produced a documentary to explain to the public why she declared emergency law -- as if George W. Bush produced a jazzy film to explain Guantanamo detentions and then aired it on HBO.

Once in office, Philippine legislators, like U.S. congressional appropriators, can rely upon government funds to cement their positions in power. To spread state funds more broadly, a reaction to Marcos' personal kleptocracy -- and to spread the wealth among legislators -- the post-Marcos Congress gave each legislator control of portions of the national infrastructure budget. The legislators then distribute to associates and favored companies, sometimes even holding dance parties where they toss wads of cash to the crowd.

The U.S. system of pork may not be so blatant, but there is a certain resemblance between the two countries, including the nightly “Crossfire”-style scream shows on Manila television and the country's media-centered politics. But grafting American-style politics and media coverage, without the institutions underpinning hundreds of years of U.S. democracy, is dangerous. It's why smart new democracies in Europe and Africa increasingly prefer the tamer parliamentary model. “We got the American style but nothing else,” said Romero.

All the turmoil not only undermines politics and development. It also creates apathy and cynicism among young Filipinos, who talk about “people power fatigue.” In one poll, one-third of Filipinos said they want to leave the country. “If there was a People Power 3, I think I just wouldn't pay attention,” one young Filipino journalist admitted.

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On my only day off in Manila, I visited the Ayala Museum, a swank, glass-and-steel building with a floor of high-tech exhibits on Philippine history. I wandered into an elaborate multimedia presentation about the country's resistance to authoritarian rule. Though I'd seen old coverage of the People Power movement, the video footage of 1986 moved me more than I'd expected. Crowds so large the sweep of the camera cannot capture them fill the main park in Manila. When Marcos brings Philippine troops into the capital, students and nuns and average workers overwhelm the troops, pleading with them to unite with their fellow Filipinos until the soldiers hand over their weapons and step into the crowd.

In front of me in the screening room, a middle-aged Filipino woman leading a school group of teenagers with spiky hair and midriff-baring shirts could not control her emotions. As the height of the presentation, she started singing the Philippines anthem.

I glance around the room. Most of her students were not even looking at the screen. Instead, they stare down, looking intently at objects in their hands. When I peer over the shoulder of one student, I see they are furiously sending mobile phone text messages.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Special Correspondent for The New Republic and a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.