Bongbong’s revolution

Twenty-nine years ago, nobody would have thought that anyone named Ferdinand Marcos could ever be considered for high office in the Philippines. Yet today, the dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., is a viable candidate for vice president, hinging his campaign on a call for a “revolution.” He is polling second based on latest surveys.

The return of the Marcos family to the national stage is a very interesting development, to say the least. There is no doubt that many observers, especially those that experienced the People Power euphoria that swept the world in the early years of the first Aquino presidency, find it bewildering. For me, I think Bongbong’s candidacy calls for some reflection on how things have gone since the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in 1986.

In December 2009, while reading a blog by Malacanang mandarin Manuel L. Quezon III, I came across a very interesting essay by Timothy Garton Ash on velvet revolutions, a label he applies to all modern, generally bloodless uprisings that democratized autocracies in the late 1980s, including, presumably, the Edsa Revolution of 1986. I find his central thesis instructive.

According to Ash, one fundamental difference between traditional revolutions– those class-oriented mass actions led by the republicans in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China– and the modern velvet revolutions is that the latter did not produce a winner-takes-all situation where the losers lost not just their influence and properties but also their lives. Instead, the members of the ruling elite got not the guillotine but a seat at the round table. Unlike in old-style revolutions where “the angry masses on the street are stirred up by extremist revolutionary leaders – Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Mao – to support radicalization, including violence and terror, in the name of utopia; in new-style revolution, the masses on the street are there to bring the powerholders to the negotiating table. The moment of maximum mass mobilization is the moment of turn to negotiation; that is, to compromise.”

The reason for this is that proponents of velvet movements generally adhere to two important values: non-violence, in the Gandhian style, and democracy. Hence, they adopt a non-confrontational, sometimes even embracing, attitude towards the old elite and their constituents in the name of stability and of respect for basic human rights. The result is that erstwhile members and supporters of the old regime are absorbed in the new political set-up.

In theory, this is good because it makes the national psyche forward-looking. Unity of the people is valued with the view of building new institutions that will make the nation stable, if not stronger. “Heal the wounds of Edsa,” as Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo liked to say. But in reality, according to Ash, this produces a “post-revolution pathology.” “As the years go by, there is a sense of a missing revolutionary catharsis; suspicious talk of tawdry deals concluded between old and new elites behind closed doors; and, among many, a feeling of profound historical injustice,” he wrote.

But in my view, the fact that apologists of the old regime are allowed by the post-revolutionary dispensation to participate in the national discourse in itself constitutes that “post-revolutionary pathology.”

Antonio Gramsci once postulated that the reason worldwide socialist revolutions that orthodox Marxists had once called inevitable did not occur is because capitalism has become a hegemonic culture; the values of the bourgeoisie have been adopted by the masses as common-sense values. Therefore, the challenge for Marxists is to come up with an alternative culture with alternative sets of values that would topple the prevailing cultural hegemony. Robert Cox applied this theoretical framework in international relations, arguing that the battle for hegemony is not between states but between ideologies and political perspectives. In a way, this paradigm can be stretched further to frame an analysis of the context of post-velvet political conditions. The relaxed attitude of the post-revolutionary dispensations towards the old elites enables the latter to present an alternative political narrative that challenges the ideologies, sometimes even the legitimacy, of the revolution and its post-revolutionary set-up.

And so we see two political narratives competing for hegemony in the post-Edsa arena: one that upholds the ideals of the Edsa Revolution and, corollary to that, the legacy of the Aquino family; and another that states that the Marcosian way of governance is good for the Philippines and that the Marcos era was in fact a golden age for the country.

While both local and foreign press have painted Marcos as the epitome of evil and Cory Aquino as the saint of democracy— and this narrative has been adopted officially by the state—the alternative political perspective offered by the loyalists of the Marcos regime continues to present a major ideological challenge. In 1992, Marcos votes would have handed the presidency to a Marcos loyalist had they not been split between Danding Coujangco and Imelda. In 1998, a Marcos loyalist was elected president. Joseph Estrada’s machine was, to some extent, manned by many old guards of the New Society and while he failed in his quest to give Marcos a state burial, the fact that the issue was not even taboo already indicated that the narrative of Marcos the villain and Aquino the hero has never been a hegemonic political narrative in the neo-Gramscian way.

Ironically, any attempt to hegemonize the anti-Marcos, Edsa narrative is constrained by the democratic framework which that narrative itself upholds. This framework allows, even encourages, all alternative narratives to compete, legally, in the political arena. Ash hinted that putting up a South Africa-style Truth Commission that would identify and assign blames might be the antidote to this. Perhaps he’s right. As things stand, however, the rule of law allows legalistic forces of the Marcos machine to prevent a satisfactory closure to the abuses of the dictatorship while simultaneously re-fashioning the Marcos family as victims of vindictive regimes. Little wonder then that Miriam Defensor-Santiago could get away with her assertion that the Marcos family does not owe the nation any apology.

Those who lament Bongbong’s emergence as a national figure, and now a viable candidate for vice president, should realize, therefore, that this has been a long time coming. There is more to it than being just a case of political amnesia or neglect by the educational system in teaching about the abuses of Martial Law. It’s the direct result of Edsa’s embracing attitude toward the old elite in the name of democracy and the rule of law. By giving Marcos apologists the opportunity to join the national discourse, the post-Edsa regime has given them the license to mount a counter-revolutionary come-back. The effort to rehabilitate Marcos, therefore, started even before the post-Edsa regime could consolidate its institutions. In a way, it’s the price we have to pay for having gained democracy with little bloodshed.

There are two things that are fueling this rising tide of pro-Marcos revisionism. First, the post-Edsa regime is not perfect. The initial chaos of the post-Marcos democracy that stagnated the economy, for instance, made many of those belonging to the generation that experienced Marcos look back in nostalgia to the stability that characterized much of the early years of the New Society. Meanwhile, many of those belonging to the generation that has not experienced Marcos are captivated by the Marcos narrative partly because of their cynicism of the post-Marcos conditions. In the process, they all tend to de-emphasize the dark aspects of the Marcos regime. Secondly, there is a natural constituency for any political narrative that emphasizes strongman rule. This constituency propelled the unsuccessful but nonetheless impressive presidential campaigns of Alfredo Lim in 1998, Panfilo Lacson in 2004, and now the mounting calls for the presidential candidacy of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao. It is clear that Bongbong has succeeded in harnessing these two factors.

Of course, there is no doubt that Bongbong has a solid record as Governor of Ilocos Norte. He also knows how to tap the pool of policy advisers and technical aides that his resources can afford, thereby enabling him to become one of most prolific of the country’s senators. A superb public speaker, he is able to package himself as an effective politician, which, really, is all that matters for many middle class voters. Obviously, however, his work is driven, more than anything, by his strong revisionist agenda. I think the total rehabilitation of Ferdinand Marcos and the de-legitimization of Edsa is what Bongbong’s revolution is all about. So far, he is succeeding.

How should defenders of Edsa counter Bongbong’s revolution? It should not be through condescendingly taking the moral high horse, but rather through a sophisticated messaging that would convincingly persuade voters that, at the end of the day, the Marcos way had been proven to be a failed experiment and that the post-Edsa regime, while not perfect, works.

Views expressed on this blog are strictly the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect official positions of organizations that the author is a part of.

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