At the turn of the millennium, I joined thousands in the streets of Metro Manila to demand the ouster of President Joseph Estrada. His allies in the legislature had been gleefully scuppering his deserved impeachment. In response, Filipinos flooded Edsa, the highway where 15 years earlier the People Power Revolution had peacefully toppled our dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
That protest was my first. A politician’s son, I’d remained rebelliously apolitical well into my 20s, but Estrada’s impunity was unacceptable. His corruption was legendary, and months earlier his son’s bodyguards had pulled me from my car and beaten me when I refused to make way for their convoy. That’s how I learned that politics is always ultimately personal.
The Philippines is Asia’s oldest democracy but dynasties have made a sham of it, divvying up a vast majority of public positions. That partly explains why we Filipinos distrust constitutional procedures and turn to our so-called parliament of the streets to remove malignant leaders. But last month, on the 45th anniversary of Marcos’s declaration of military rule, it became clear that populism is now confused with democracy, with the former used by the powerful to the detriment of the latter.
On 21 September, facing anger at the violence that recently included teenagers killed allegedly by police, President Rodrigo Duterte suspended work and school and invited Filipinos to participate in what he co-opted as a National Day of Protest. Across the country rallies were organised, either for or against the decisions and actions of Duterte’s 16-month rule. Once again I was among thousands in the streets, this time in a tacit battle for legitimacy of incumbency and ideas.
The Duterte administration has been characterised by contentious strategies: an allegiance with the Marcos family, a hero’s reinterment for the dictator, threats of martial law, attacks on opposition figures, empowerment of a new passel of oligarchs, a collaborationist stance with a bellicose China, and thousands killed in the infamous drug war that has set aside due process and human rights. Many Filipinos disagree on whether these are necessary or unacceptable, laudable or condemnable.
At separate rallies on the National Day of Protest, supporters for Duterte emphasised the democratic validation for his disciplinarian style, warned of destabilisation plots, and explained that those killed deserved their comeuppance as criminals. Those who oppose Duterte demanded justice and due process, criticised his family’s alleged links to corruption and drug smuggling, and stood against authoritarian efforts to remove the heads of constitutional bodies mandated to keep all presidents in check.
It is estimated that the protests brought roughly 20,000 people into the streets of the capital. In the days following, the war of public opinion returned predictably online – where it’s been waged constantly in the interims between rallies and polls. On social media, much was made of each side’s turnout on the day, because in our notoriously machismo Philippine politics, size matters – especially when it comes to crowds. Accusations of paid protestors proliferated, conduct of protesters was criticised, and each side mocked the other for failing to bring out as many as they had predicted.
What’s important, if unsurprising, is how social media activity has mirrored, and even replaced, such real-life activism. Indeed, social media popularity is now touted as imprimatur.
Those who back Duterte, and his allies such as the Marcos family, take great pride in the numbers of followers, likes, and shares received by the more vociferous supporters – a reflection, it’s implied, of the president’s own popularity, particularly among grassroots citizens said to be outsiders from the mainstream media.
Those who oppose Duterte and his allies, however, claim that troll farms and algorithmic bots swell the numbers artificially. Indeed, a study by Oxford university found that Duterte spent a sizeable amount of campaign funds on hundreds of cyber troops who spread propaganda, created fake news sites and false articles, and focused attacks on dissenters. (To these allegations, Duterte called Oxford “a school for stupid people.”)
Amid such polarised discourse – if it can be called discourse – rises an alarming fact. Mustering the crowd that is perceived to be larger, whether in the streets or online, is no longer simply a show of support for those whom we elect to lead us. It’s become an effort to control legitimacy, the factuality of history, the morality of extralegal actions, and the very definition of right and wrong.
Democracy in the Philippines has always been tenuous – troubled by questionable elections, intoxicated by the parliament of the streets, spun by the carousel of a powerful few. Having lost our faith, we citizens no longer look to democracy as a system of checks and balances that prevents abuse and protects the minority. Our rulers have turned it into a rubber stamp to validate their reign.
And while we citizens now take politics personally, it’s not in the way we should. Pitted against each other churlishly, we are less participants in civic society than a mob divided and roused to socialise without civility. The system stymies us, so we seek salvation from political personalities rather than each other.
At my first protest, those many years ago, I believed our democracy had failed and we were doing good by working outside the law to buttress a better leader. Populism always believes its righteousness, blind to its wrongfulness. But hindsight, with its infinite pathos, proves that it was not our democracy that failed us, it is we who failed our democracy.
And we may yet again, if we again let ourselves be used.