Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narratives in the Philippines

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narratives in the Philippines

Article excerpt

The announcement by actor-politician Joseph Ejercito Estrada in October 2009 that he would run again for the presidency in the May 2010 election (dubbed his "take two" candidacy) sent a collective shiver through the Philippine political elite and business oligarchy. Estrada had been deposed as President by an elite-led "people power" coup in 2001. Accused of massive malfeasance in office, Estrada was placed under house arrest, convicted and sentenced to a long-term jail term for plunder in 2007. Following the granting of an amnesty by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a month later, he quickly let it be known that he had no intention of abiding by his promise not to seek the country's highest office again. (2) Yet with Estrada trailing far behind the front runners at the time of this writing, it appears his "movie star populism" does not have the same electoral appeal it once did.

Instead, another presidential candidate, Senator Manuel "Manny" Bamba Villar Jr., has adapted populism to a changing political environment. Drawing on his own staggering wealth to finance what is probably the campaign's most extensive political machinery, he has developed what can be termed "applied populism" which employs his "rags-to-riches" story as a metaphor for his vision of a wealthy Philippines. Instead of appealing to voters based primarily on his screen personality like Estrada, he offers immediate financial assistance to poor contestants on televisions shows hosted by his actor allies. (3)

As a political narrative, "populism" had long proved so powerful in the Philippine context that it could only be defeated by hook or by crook. With his direct appeals to the poor (known in the Philippines as the masa), Estrada was only one of two opposition Senators elected in 1987. In 1992, he easily won the Vice-Presidency (elected separately in the Philippines). He was elected President in 1998 by the widest margin of any candidate since the fall of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986. Estrada's fellow actor and close friend, Fernando Poe Jr. (Ronald Alien Kelley Poe, best known as "FPJ" or simply as "Da King") took up the populist fight after Estrada was ousted by contesting the presidential election of 2004. Although outspent, out-organized and out-muscled (Arroyo has proved to be a consummate master at "guns, goons, and gold") as well as maligned by the mainstream media and loathed by the middle and upper classes, Poe nearly won the election. The "Hello Garci" scandal of 2005 revealed that Arroyo had been directly involved in manipulation of the presidential polls a year earlier. This suggested Poe had been cheated as had earlier challengers to the entrenched elite order, such as the elected congressional representatives of the Democratic Alliance--closely linked to the communist-influenced Hukbalahap rebels--who were unseated in a powerplay by the allies of President Manuel Roxas in 1946. (4) Philippine populism was so strong that it could only be stopped, like the Huks, by administration crooks.

By 2009, there were signs that the dominant political narrative was shifting, however. The respected columnist and political scientist Amando Doronila has recently suggested that:

   there is no sign that masa [poor masses] politics is going to
   figure decisively in the next few months before the election ...
   This is 2009, not 1998, and the dynamics of the 2010 election are
   vastly different from those of 1998. Masa politics, or the
   rich-versus-poor theme, is not the name of the game in 2010. (5)

The sudden entry of the "reformist" Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Cojuangco-Aquino III into the presidential race after the (politically fortuitous) death of his mother Corazon C. Aquino in August 2009 seemed to confirm this prediction. With his mother's mourners becoming his supporters, Aquino took a clear lead in the presidential opinion surveys when he entered the race in late 2009. His candidacy--which stressed the restoration of good governance in the country--was characterized as a political "game changer". …

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