The Road to Crisis

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Road to Crisis


The road to the paralysing economic and political crisis in the last quarter of 2000 has been a long and complex one --- although on hindsight, probably inevitable.

Filipino politics has long been burdened by weak political party systems, strong personal affiliations and, after many years of dictatorship, a stagnant political class. Political identification shifted according to which leader wielded power at the moment. So it was that when Ferdinand Marcos ruled, nearly all elected officials identified with his Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) party. When Corazon Aquino was President, the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) enjoyed vast majorities in Congress and among local governments. Fidel Ramos, when he rose to the presidency, reassembled political allegiances around the Lakas-NUCD party. Political parties were inconstant; charisma defined constituencies more effectively.

In the wake of the 1986 uprising, however, some semblance of a political consensus predominated Filipino politics. It was a consensus woven around the ideal of a responsive democracy, effective and honest government, professional management of the public sector, and strong mechanisms of accountability. This may be described, for want of a better term, as the "middle-class consensus" emerging from an uprising led and participated by the urban middle class in the Philippines.

The "middle-class consensus" was expressed in the 1992 elections in the rejection of candidates identified as "traditional politicians", such as Ramon Mitra and Eduardo Cojuangco. It translated into strong support for two candidates with backgrounds in the civil service and perceived to be non-politicians: Fidel Ramos and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who were placed first and second respectively.

In the 1998 elections, however, the post-EDSA political consensus was shaken by a convergence of factors. The 1997 Asian financial crisis had weakened public faith in the paradigm of liberalization and deregulation. The multi-party system had divided and dispersed the middle class vote such that Joseph Estrada, pitted against eight other candidates more or less representing the post-EDSA middle-class consensus, won the elections with 39 per cent of the vote. The weakening of public confidence in the viability of the liberalization model reawakened strong populist sentiments among Filipino voters. Greater access to information and the almost complete erosion of the system of "command votes" centred on major land-owning families encouraged lower-class voters to make independent electoral choices --- with a great number casting their votes to favour a movie idol who had played memorable roles as a defender of the poor and the powerless.

Estrada's campaign handlers smartly exploited the screen popularity of their candidate, his attractiveness among the newly independent lower class voters, and growing disenchantment with the liberalization paradigm advanced by the technocracies of the two previous presidencies. They packaged Estrada as the champion of the masses and promised a government that would finally bring relief to the poor.

Their concentration on the lower income constituencies proved accurate. Only a few from the A, B and C income sectors voted for Estrada. The candidate won overwhelmingly among the more numerous D and E income brackets, paving the way to the presidency whose main constituencies were among the poorest, most backward, and marginalized sectors of Philippine society. …

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