State of the Nation: New Possibilities Amidst Crisis

The SMS messages on the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by “President” Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) said it all. “The SONA was full of sh..!”, blurted one angry message. “She is a sociopath”, echoed another. Another SMS message disagreed. “GMA’s SONA is full of hope”.

Division and Crisis

This brief flurry of messages captured, in essence, the current situation of the Philippines. It graphically portrayed the deep division in perception and attitude that is slowly but surely deconstructing all key institutions of Philippine society. TV images of the Speaker of the House, Jose de Venecia, applauding wildly, while, beside him, sat a taciturn and emotionless Senate President, Franklin Drilon, further reinforced the widening divide in the political leadership of the country.

This widespread division is creating a confused nation. Whom shall the people believe? Where does the truth lie? Unfortunately, the SONA of GMA did not bring clarity to the situation.

GMA’s Make-Believe World

GMA’s SONA was a mixture of motherhood statements, half truths, and outright fictitious claims. On the latter, for example, she claimed that kidnapping for ransom cases have been reduced by one-half. However, shortly thereafter, the Philippine National Police (PNP) reported in a radio interview that kidnapping for ransom cases were on the rise as compared with the same time period in 2004.

GMA also did not address the moral and legitimacy problems hounding her presidency. Instead she dangled the prospect of changing the Constitution to solve the ills of the nation. Thereby she showed very little respect for the intelligence of most Filipinos who knew that she was merely distracting national focus away from her central role in defrauding the national presidential elections of 2004.

In short, GMA’s SONA was irrelevant to the real state of the nation. It merely confirmed suspicions that GMA does not have the moral and emotional intelligence to carry through with the reforms she proposes (presuming such reforms are appropriate).

Nor did the enthusiastic response of her allies who control Congress help the confused. They clapped more than 33 times and gave GMA six standing ovations. In effect, they merely displayed the kind of collective political hallucination that is driving this country to bankruptcy. It shows how deeply alienated they are from the real state of the nation.

Cathartic Confusion

The confusion, however, does not mean that GMA has fooled Filipinos. The very opposite is true. The surveys are showing that around 80% of Filipinos want GMA out. Focused group discussions are revealing that those who want her out are also angry with the way GMA is governing the country. There is no confusion regarding the preferred fate for GMA. She must be removed from office.

What Filipinos are confused about is how to remove GMA from office and who or what system of governance will replace her. While they want GMA out, they do not want traditional politicians to replace her.

But, then who or what will replace GMA?

Such confusion is understandable. The formula of People Power 1 and 2 no longer applies for the current complex set of problems and the people’s perception of those problems. People Power 1 was useful in removing a dictatorship and re-installing a semblance of democracy, no matter how imperfect. People Power 2 removed a corrupt and immoral president from office only to be replaced by a moral pygmy and a more scheming corrupting force.

So people are saying:

“Change one face with another. Change one elite with another. Still nothing changes. It is all the same.”

So what is the point of People Power especially since those who are most visible in their protest are the very same traditional elite politicians who are salivating to take over the reigns of government? They will simply institute their own style of oppression and exploitation. And so the confusion is pervasive.

Confusion, however, need not be problematic. It can be cathartic. Confusion can help purify one’s inclinations and behavior, away from routine towards a more creative engagement with the future. Filipinos are starting to rely less on the past for guidance. They are also leaning less and less on formerly trusted institutions to hone their perception and judgment. They are coming to terms individually, on the strength of their own discernment, integrity and creativity, with the true state of the nation and its future potential.

Emerging Possibilities

This cathartic confusion is fueling the emergence of new exciting possibilities.

First, for the first time in decades, the vast majority of Filipinos are beginning to understand that the GMA scandal is a mere symptom of a deeper problem. Filipinos, in great numbers, across geographic regions, economic classes, and identities, now realize that the current failure of Philippine democracy is structural and systemic in nature. In addition, Filipinos now recognize that flawed aspects of Filipino culture play a central role in creating the dysfunctional institutions of democracy and society.

Second, based on this deeper understanding, Filipinos are no longer satisfied with conventional people power. They are asking: “People Power for whom and for what ends? They are re-inventing the rationale for and means of people power. It is no longer enough to be unified against something or somebody. It is now more important to unify around a common vision of the future that will truly address the deep crisis in democracy that is gripping the nation. It is no longer enough to be just out in the streets. It is equally important to build educational opportunities for the many and to undergo profound inner transformation as a necessary prelude for shaping the future Philippines.

Third, for the first time, a prominent kilusang kultura or spiritual-cultural movement has emerged in contrast to the traditional elite-driven political movements that are alienating many people. This is PAG-ASA, the Peoples Assembly for Genuine Alternatives to Social Apathy. PAG-ASA also means “hope” in Pilipino. PAG-ASA is explicitly non-political and non-partisan in nature. And when it speaks on political matters, it does so from the vantage point of culture and its key role in producing an authentic democracy.

Fourth, with the rise of PAG-ASA, and its prominent coverage in mainstream media, comes the possibility of establishing a new kind of balance of power in society. Old notions of democracy have relied on the balance of power within the political system of society. Concretely, this meant establishing a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government. In practice, however, in the Philippine context, these three branches of government are, for all practical purposes, fused into one. The appointive and patronage powers of the presidency corrupt this arrangement and convert it instead into an instrument of systemic control and exploitation.

With PAG-ASA and other organized formations in the cultural sphere, comes the possibility of a new balance of power required to make democracies function in the 21st century. This new concept of balance of power in society recognizes that, for true democracy to function, an autonomous and sustainable cultural force outside of politics and economy (both of which are often allied with each other) needs to exist. This autonomous power can either support government policies if they are truly for the poor and the common good or it can neutralize harmful tendencies in the exercise of both political and economic power.

In this way, among others, the current division and crisis in Philippine society can be turned from a depressing problem into an exciting possibility to re-invent Philippine politics and democracy. The current crisis may just be the trigger to make our democracy vibrant and dynamic enough to address the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century.

However, for this possibility to turn into reality, the question still remains. Will enough Filipinos wake up transformed and energized by their cathartic confusion? Will they come together in sufficient numbers and within the relatively short time period available to prevent the present crisis from exploding into a full blown civil war? Only the not-so-distant future will tell, a future that challenges Filipinos to give the best of themselves and show that they truly deserve to live in a vibrant and authentic democracy.