Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

It's All the Rage: Popular Uprisings and Philippine Democracy

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

It's All the Rage: Popular Uprisings and Philippine Democracy

Article excerpt


In February 1986, millions of Filipinos gathered at a major thoroughfare in Metro Manila to defy the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. After four days of protest they forced Marcos into exile as he relinquished his twenty-one-year hold on power. In February 2001, millions of Filipinos staged another four-day protest that shortened President Joseph Estrada's six-year term of office to a mere thirty-one months. A few months later, a third gathering attended by millions of Filipinos called for the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. After four days of protest, this demonstration ended with a violent clash with the police in front of the presidential palace.

This practice of removing Presidents by popular protest in the Philippines is known as "people power."1 It hovers over the political horizon as a reminder to incumbent public officials that election results in the Philippines are subject to a subsequent veto by the people and that public officials can be recalled through spontaneous popular uprisings.

People power is regarded as the epicenter of a democracy movement that spread outward from Manila, toppling authoritarian governments including the Suharto regime of Indonesia in 1998.2 This "democratic revolution" is credited with spawning other popular uprisings in South Korea, Pakistan, Burma and Eastern Europe,3 and supposedly "unleashed the pro-democracy tide that swept... the rest of the world."4

Over the years, however, people power has lost some of its luster. Hailed as a potential agent of Philippine democratization in 1986, it was by 2001 denounced as a disgrace to democracy. Once exalted, it is now criticized as "mob rule or anarchy or coup."5

The relative ease with which people now resort to people power and its impact on politics make it an important subject of inquiry for social scientists. Students of law should study its implications for many concepts including democratic constitutionalism, rule of law, and even regime change. Yet, the phenomenon seems scarcely noticed by academics in general and legal scholarship in particular.6

Instead, recent literature on people power has degenerated into a squabble over whether subsequent mass uprisings are genuine manifestations of the phenomenon. This unfortunate turn of events is the product of a tendency in the literature to compare all uprisings to the events surrounding the removal of Marcos. The 1986 version of people power is touted as a "democratic revolution" and has become the standard against which subsequent uprisings are measured. Those that do not meet this standard are disparaged as poor facsimiles or perversions of people power.

This Article attempts to resuscitate the discussion on people power by examining recent developments in Philippine politics. I suggest that we disassociate people power from democratic revolutions because Filipinos never attempted a fundamental change in political organization or government. It was directed against Marcos alone. The anti-authoritarian theme of Marcos' removal was incidental to popular outrage over his attempt to nullify the results of the 1986 elections, which were believed to favor his rival Corazon C. Aquino.

In place of the "democratic revolution" view, this Article develops two alternative accounts of people power in the Philippines. The first holds that people power is an expression of outrage against a particular public official, triggered by government action. The second holds that it is a withdrawal of allegiance from the official in favor of another. Neither of these views is burdened by the insistence that people power is or aspires to democratic revolution.

Reorienting the discourse along the lines of these alternatives should prevent sterile debates about whether popular uprisings merit the title "people power." This approach examines the nature of people power distinctly from attempts to explain the failure of democratic consolidation in post-Marcos Philippines. …

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