Fwd (Links): LESSONS AND PROSPECTS FOR THE PHILIPPINE LEFT (Part 1 of 2)
abradley1 at bigpond.com
Thu Apr 11 02:19:32 MDT 2002
The following article appears in issue Number 20 of Links
The second part may take a day or two to arrive, as I am still tidying up
LESSONS AND PROSPECTS FOR THE PHILIPPINE LEFT
Sonny Melencio and Reihana Mohideen
Sonny Melencio is the chairperson of Sosyalistang Partido ng Paggawa
(Socialist Party of Labour). Reihana Mohideen is a member of its executive
>From January 17 to 20, 2001, the Philippines again filled international
headlines with another "Edsa" uprising that culminated in the ouster of
President Joseph "Erap" Estrada. The four-day people's uprising was called
"Edsa II" in reference to the first revolt that took place at the same site
February 21-25, 1986, when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown.
In less than four months, another upheaval erupted at the same historic Edsa
site, from April 25 to May 1. Its organisers called it "Edsa III" or the
"poor power uprising" to denote the overwhelmingly urban poor composition of
its participants. The latest eruption was capped by an "assault" on the
gates of Malacanang, the presidential palace, by around 50,000 unarmed
demonstrators marched all the way from the Edsa site to the palace in the
early morning of May 1.
Many observed that while it took fifteen years for the second edition of the
Edsa people's power uprising to unfold, it took less than four months for
the third to follow. Could it be that a fourth Edsa uprising is lurking
around the corner?
Edsa I and Edsa II
Before we probe into the phenomenon of Edsa III, let us clarify first the
similarities and differences between Edsa I and Edsa II.
Edsa I and Edsa II were undoubtedly people's uprisings. Both were
characterised by huge mobilisations of the masses, who trooped to Edsa and
stayed for days, determined to press for the ouster of the regime.
The social significance of Edsa I was far greater than that of Edsa II. Edsa
I was the crest of a powerful anti-dictatorship struggle. In 1986, during
the first Edsa, a dictatorship was overthrown, leading to a scenario which
created distinct advantages and greater political possibilities for the
progressive and revolutionary forces. The fall of the dictatorship led to
the opening up of democratic space and the expansion of the political arena
for the left.
Edsa II was mainly focused on a demand to replace a corrupt regime. It did
not result in any substantial gains in terms of expansion of democratic
space and improved possibilities for the broad working class movement. Right
at the start, the Edsa II "winner", the current president, Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), was clearly a more consistent and reliable ally of
imperialist interests in the country. Earlier on she had emerged as a dry
economic technocrat whom the IMF-World Bank and other imperialist
institutions relied on to implement efficiently their neo-liberal program in
Since Edsa II was not as "politically substantive" as Edsa I -and since,
according to some left groups, the struggle was a mere "showdown between the
pro-Erap and the anti-Erap factions of the ruling class" - some forces did
not even bother to intervene in the upheaval. Those of us who argued for a
strong political intervention, including joining the march to the
presidential palace on the morning of January 20, did so for the following
Firstly, the masses were there and were intervening in their millions to
show their resistance to the corrupt regime of Estrada. They were demanding
the instant resignation or ouster of Erap. The peak mobilisation at Edsa II
was estimated to be around 1.4 million on the night of January 19.
Secondly, building the mass mobilisation at Edsa was (and it proved to be) a
perfect counterfoil to plans for a coup d'etat coming from the anti-Estrada
forces in the military. We know that there was a coup d'etat being organised
by forces in the army close to former president Fidel Ramos. After Edsa II,
a government report admitted to a coup plot from at least three groups
within the military.
Thirdly, the left's intervention was (and is) needed to further enhance the
self-confidence and raise the political consciousness of the masses. This
specifically means bolstering the mobilisation with organised forces from
the left, clarifying the nature of the crisis and winning support for the
left's alternatives to the Estrada regime.
It also means exposing at every turn the vacillation of the anti-Estrada
factions of the ruling class, especially when confronted with the militancy
of the masses. The anti-Estrada reactionaries, including the church
hierarchy headed by Cardinal Sin, wanted a mere prayer rally that would
appeal to the remaining forces in government to desert Estrada and support
the next constitutional successor (GMA).
This became very clear early On the morning of January 20, when the Edsa
forces were gearing up for a march to lay siege to the Malacanang palace.
Cardinal Sin appealed on radio for "sobriety" and a stop to the march. But
the left speakers addressed the crowd, arguing that people should march to
Malacanang, surround it and force Estrada to resign. Left leaders started
the chant, "Mendiola, Mendiola" (to the palace site), and the chant was
taken up by the crowd. The left forces then decided to march. The
intervention by right-wing church leaders such as Sin greatly affected the
number of marchers, because a substantial number stayed at Edsa. At noon on
that day, while the progressive and left forces were battling it out with
the pro-Erap "loyalists" at Mendiola, GMA was sworn in to office at the Edsa
shrine before Cardinal Sin and the remaining masses.
The newly installed Arroyo regime was not alone in being shocked by the Edsa
III upheaval. Even the revolutionary political blocs were bewildered by the
sight of an increasing mass of poor people trooping to the Edsa shrine for
several days (April 25-30), and launching an unarmed "assault" on Malacanang
palace from early morning until the late afternoon of May 1.
Why is it that a large number of the poor still believe in Estrada despite
indisputable proofs of his regime's high-handed corruption? Was it really a
"poor power uprising" or was it just a "poorer version" of the earlier
Edsas? Was it a revolt of some segments of the poor, or mere "hakot power"
(i.e., paid hacks transported to the shrine by pro-Estrada politicians)?
The Philippine left needs to assess its attitude to the Edsa III uprising
along the following lines.
Firstly, tens of thousands of people trooped to and stayed at the Edsa
shrine for five days belying, the claim that they were merely a "hakot
force". Even in the base communities of the Sosyalistang Partido ng Paggawa
(Socialist Party of Labour-SPP), we monitored large numbers of poor people
spontaneously joining the rally at the shrine. Some pro-Estrada politicians
did provide transport to urban poor participants. But the progressive forces
also follow this practice when mobilising people for rallies. The fact that
the Edsa III "rebels" were not mercenaries was again proven during the
"assault" on Malacanang. These people would not have risked their lives if
they were there only for money.
Secondly, the scale of the Edsa III mobilisation was almost on a par with
that of Edsa II. The multitudes at Edsa III were reported to have peaked at
more than a million. The mainstays at Edsa III (those who stayed at the
shrine for successive days) were also more numerous than those at Edsa II.
This was attributed to the composition of the participants, who were
overwhelmingly poor and not as mobile as the middle classes. While Edsa II
forces did not come entirely from the middle class, they were more
noticeable than at the Edsa III uprising. The bulk of the Edsa II
participants were students (many from working class families), while the
bulk of the Edsa III participants were from the urban poor, the unemployed
and the marginalised sectors of society-the poorest of the poor, or the
"basement poor" according to some quarters.
A progressive columnist in a major daily remarked that he always refers to
Edsa III in quotation marks to differentiate it from the other Edsas.
According to him, this is because the goal of Edsa III (restoring Erap to
the presidency) was not as ennobling as those of the earlier two.
But it's hard to dismiss Edsa III as a fluke among a series of Edsa risings.
It was as legitimate an uprising as the other two. A continuous stream of
poor people trooped to the shrine from April 25 to May 1 for a myriad of
reasons. But these were ultimately the result of the exasperation of the
poor with a regime perceived as highly elitist and which has done nothing to
relieve them of their increasing misery. The overwhelming number of Edsa III
forces tended to be more anti-Gloria than pro-Erap. Edsa III should be read
as a signal of the gathering disenchantment and disgust of the poor over
their miserable situation rather than a mere demand for the reinstatement of
an ousted president.
In hindsight, what should have been the response of the left to Edsa III?
It is worth noting that some sections of the so-called progressive forces
(calling themselves "civil society") adopted a hostile attitude towards the
Edsa III forces and mobilised in support of the beleaguered GMA regime.
While it is politically expedient to isolate the anti-GMA trapos
(traditional politicians) who were instigating the crowd to demand the
return of Erap and inciting them to "assault" Malacanang, we should not
dismiss the crowd as mere riff-raff totally beholden to these trapos. We
have enough proof that a large number of the participants in Edsa III had a
genuine and healthy hatred for the elitist GMA regime.
The SPP proposed to other left groups that we attempt to reach out to the
Edsa III forces. Since we could not do that by joining their mobilisation at
the shrine(they regarded the left as pro-GMA),the best way to do this was
for some of our forces to attend the rally at the shrine and circulate our
propaganda. We also proposed that a statement clarifying our "Neither Erap
nor Gloria, establish a government of the poor" line be circulated in urban
poor communities. We found these activities and mass meetings in slum areas
effective ways explaining our position and winning people over.
There are numerous ways to bridge the gap between the revolutionary forces
and the insurgent masses who are being led astray by the trapo forces. But
the revolutionary forces need to examine first whether they have a correct
understanding of the underlying nature of the Edsa III events.
Assessing Edsa I, II, and III
We should take into consideration a number of striking similarities among
Edsa I, II, and III.
Firstly, they were all people's power uprisings. They constituted direct
action by a sizeable and growing number of masses who mobilised for days on
end to press for the overthrow of an incumbent regime perceived as
oppressive and unjust.
Edsa I in February 1986 was a direct action of the masses aimed at
overthrowing the much hated Marcos dictatorship. Edsa II in January 2001 was
aimed at ousting the unabashedly corrupt Estrada regime. Edsa III in
April-May 2001 was also a direct-action mobilisation of mostly poor people
aimed at ousting the elitist regime of GMA (but favouring the return to
power of the ousted Estrada).
Secondly, these uprisings were all led by factions of the Philippine ruling
class. Edsa I installed the Cory Aquino faction in power. Edsa II
inaugurated the GMA faction, and Edsa III was led by the pro-Estrada faction
conspiring to bring Erap back to power. Therefore, it should not be
surprising that after these new leaders had been installed in power (at
least in Edsa I and II), they immediately demobilised and dispersed
"people's power". For them, "people's power" had served its purpose (i.e.,
to put them in power) and the new regime had no more need for it.
This is why the term "people's power revolution" or "Edsa Revolution" is a
misnomer. None of the Edsa risings led to a genuine revolution in which the
old ruling system and the old ruling class were overthrown by another class
representing a new socioeconomic order. On the contrary, the Edsa risings
were merely a changing of the guard in the main institutions of the
capitalist state (which remained intact). As they say. new dogs, old
This is not "people's power" in the sense that power had passed into the
hands of the people. The term "people's power" here is merely an adjective
denoting the mass character of the Edsa uprisings (as in "people's power
uprising"). While a great mass of people have mobilised and have risen up
against the old government, at the end of the day, these masses remain
nameless and are excluded from even any superficial power-sharing
arrangement in the new government.
On the other hand, there is a major difference between Edsa III and the
first two Edsas. While Edsa I and II were "successful", Edsa III failed to
reinstall the Estrada regime in power. It failed to split or even neutralise
the military, which rallied behind GMA, although a bit dispiritedly.
Nonetheless, Edsa III could not be written off. It was similar to the
previous Edsa uprisings in that it was also based on the direct action and
mobilisation of the masses, and led by a faction of the ruling elite in
order to implement its own agenda.
The call to assault the presidential palace was a putschist undertaking. It
was doomed from the start due to the lack of overwhelming support from the
masses and the absence of the necessary conditions for the neutralisation of
the military - two factors deemed crucial for a successful uprising. It was
clear that the pro-Estrada trapos, who were absent from the Malacanang
"assault" despite having instigated it, only used the masses as cannon
fodder in their vain attempt to drive a wedge into the military.
Edsa III ended up with scores of demonstrators killed and hundreds arrested.
Some fought fiercely with the police, using stones, clubs and anything else
they could lay their hands on. This provided the excuse for the GMA regime
to unleash a terror scare against the insurgent masses that lasted for
several weeks even after the palace "assault" was quelled. The so-called
liberal regime declared a state of rebellion that allowed it to undertake
warrantless arrests, set up checkpoints all over the city and stage police
raids in slums and depressed communities.
One effect of the Edsa ill failure was to send a negative signal to the
masses on the viability of mass mobilisation and mass struggle. The success
of Edsa I and II had instilled among the masses a very positive and healthy
attitude towards mass mobilisation and struggle. More than that, the Edsa I
and II experiences raised the self-confidence of two generations of Filipino
people, i.e., confidence emanating from the revolutionary idea that people
can unite to overthrow any tyrant who oppresses and shames them. The failure
of Edsa III tended to undermine this self-confidence and optimism among the
What if Edsa III had succeeded in replacing the GMA regime with an Erap
regime? Would this have been detrimental to the left and the mass movement?
In other words, was the GMA regime a lesser evil that the left had the
responsibility to support in the face of the threat by the Erap camp?
The SPP's view is that, in this instance, the question of the lesser evil
does not apply. It is not the same as in the case of Edsa 1, where an Aquino
administration was clearly a lesser evil in comparison to the dictatorship
of Marcos. This is why we adopted the position of "Neither Erap nor
Gloria" - a line calling for the independent positioning of the progressive
and revolutionary forces.
Limitations and weaknesses of Edsa uprisings
Each of the three Edsa uprisings constitutes an unfinished revolution that
could not be concluded due to a number of objective and subjective factors.
An objective limitation of all the Edsa uprisings was that their aims were
limited to the overthrow of individuals in power. They did not pose any
comprehensive alternative to the rotten capitalist regime. All the Edsa
uprisings were led by factions of the bourgeoisie who wanted to grab power
from the incumbent faction mainly by directly mobilising the masses.
This limitation emanates from the low level of political or
class-consciousness of the masses who participated in the uprisings. It
cannot be denied that in all the Edsa uprisings, the masses were cheering as
heroes many representatives of the ruling class and trapos.
In Edsa I, for instance, the people cheered the likes of Cory (Aquino),
Enrile (then the head of Marcos' department of national defence) and Ramos
(Marcos' army chief as heroes. In Edsa II, the loudest cheers were reserved
for the confessed gambling lord Chavit Singson (a close friend of Estrada's
who first blew the whistle against the former president) and the senators
who resisted Estrada. In Edsa III, the mostly urban poor crowd applauded as
their leaders and heroes a number of pro-Erap cronies and trapos - belying
the organisers' claim that the participants were more "class conscious" in
their "poor power" slogan.
Another objective factor-which is related to the low level of political
consciousness of the Edsa masses - is the level of working-class struggle in
the country. While the broad working class (industrial workers, urban poor,
rural workers and the rural poor) participated in the Edsa uprisings, the
dominant and overwhelming force was from the so-called urban middle classes
(except at Edsa III). Their dominating presence, coupled with a leadership
coming from factions of the ruling elite or the big bourgeoisie, swayed the
direction of the uprising towards a compromising middle ground. The
prayer-rally style of the mobilisation itself was a compromise with the
church hierarchy and the calculating trapos.
Organised working-class participation was always lacking, such as a
successful general strike in conjunction with the mass mobilisation and
rallies. During Edsa I and II, workers' unions threatened to stage a general
strike but it did not materialise due to the unpreparedness of the workers'
The Edsa uprisings also did not occasion the eruption of peasant uprisings,
such as land occupations in the countryside. Like a general strike, a
peasant uprising coinciding with an urban-based uprising is usually a potent
explosive force that can raise the upheaval to revolutionary proportions.
The Edsa uprisings, which were largely urban-based eruptions, failed to
kindle even an urban poor revolt in any part of the metropolis (which in the
past has the form of street barricades). The attack on the Edsa III marchers
by the military forces did lead to rioting in the Mendiola area that lasted
till late afternoon of May 1. It was reminiscent of the First Quarter
Storm's (the student uprising against Marcos in 1970s) battle of Mendiola.
However, while that battle led to widespread rallies and skirmishes in the
urban areas that gradually up into a powerful revolutionary movement, Edsa
III collapsed and puffed out of existence in an instant.
All if the above points to the low level of political consciousness and
preparedness of the working-class masses to seize the opportunity and embark
on a heightened struggle against their class oppressors. No wonder, then,
that all the Edsa uprisings easily fell under the leadership of various
factions of the ruling elite.
To paraphrase a revolutionary theorist (Leon Trotsky in The History of the
Russian Revolution), the bourgeoisie may win political power not because it
is revolutionary but because it is bourgeois. It has in its possession
property, education, the press, a network of strategic positions and a
hierarchy of institutions. Quite otherwise with the working class. Deprived
in the nature of things of all social advantages, the insurrectionary poor
can count only on their numbers, their solidarity, their cadres and their
This brings us to the central and crucial subjective, factor that was
missing during the successive Edsa risings - the absence, of revolutionary
In 1986, the biggest left formation - the Communist Party of the Philippines
(CPP) with its mass organisations - was completely marginalised in the
people's power uprising due to its militarist Maoist schema of protracted
people's war and its sectarian approach towards the anti-dictatorship
struggle. From their ultra-left stance, in Edsa I, they swung to an
opportunist line during Edsa II. During Edsa II, the CPP organisations were
part of the "civil society" (a term now used by Philippine NG0s and social
democratic groups to denote the participants of Edsa II) that initiated the
mobilisation, but there was nothing revolutionary in their uncritical
endorsement of GMA as a replacement for the Estrada regime. In Edsa III, the
socialist and progressive blocs as a whole were nowhere to be found.
All these major limitations and weaknesses account for the defects of the
Edsa uprisings. The Edsa struggles constitute unfinished revolutions that
could not be concluded due to the low level of political and class
consciousness of their participants, the low level of working-class
struggles, and the absence of a revolutionary leadership.
Until we are able to solve these inherent limitations and weaknesses, until
we are able to raise the level of political and class consciousness of the
masses, raise the preparedness and capacity of the working class to deal
crippling blows against their oppressors, and overcome the continuing
divisions among the ranks of the progressive movement that restrict its
capacity to lead the struggle these people's power uprisings will remain
confined to the more changing of the guard rather than the changing of the
whole unjust and rotten system.
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