Academic journal article Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal

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

Academic journal article Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal

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

Article excerpt

Abstract: Massive peaceful demonstrations ended the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines twenty years ago. The "people power" uprising was called a democratic revolution and inspired hopes that it would lead to the consolidation of democracy in the Philippines. When popular uprisings were later used to remove or threaten other leaders, people power was criticized as an assault on democratic institutions and was interpreted as a sign of the political immaturity of Filipinos. The literature on people power is presently marked by disagreement as to whether all popular uprisings should be considered part of the people power tradition. The debate is grounded on the belief that people power was a democratic revolution; other uprisings are judged on how closely they resemble events surrounding Marcos' ouster from office. This disagreement has become unproductive and has prevented Filipinos from asking questions about the causes of these uprisings or the failure of democratic consolidation. This Article departs from conventional thought and develops two alternative theories of people power in the Philippines. The first holds that people power is an expression of outrage against a particular public official. The second holds that it is a withdrawal of allegiance from the official in favor of another. Neither view insists that people power is or aspires to democratic revolution. These alternative theories hope to resuscitate the study of Philippine democracy.


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. …

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