Special on Pinoy Political Humor
Ate Glow in Hot Water
The Paradox of Freedom

People Power in the information age

When public space migrates to the airwaves and the news pages, politics risks degenerating into a spectator sport.

THE END OF PEOPLE POWER? Anti-Arroyo protests have not quite reached people-power scale, unlike the movements against Estrada (below, left) and Marcos (below, right).

IT WAS the perfect formula for another uprising. Factors and forces that conspired to oust a previous president surfaced again to threaten yet another one out of power: a familiar pattern of titillating scandal and media overkill; congressional investigation and official cover-up; street protests and digital demonstrations.

The opposition Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo faces today is fiercer and far more determined to oust her than that which forced Joseph Estrada out of the Palace in 2001. Led by former President Cory Aquino and actress Susan Roces, two of the country’s most popular widows and compelling political leaders, it is an opposition that includes one of the broadest, if not the most unlikely, spectrum of activists assembled in recent years.

Media coverage is likewise unprecedented. Twenty-four-hour news and live broadcasts have taken every whistleblower’s account (and private intrigues) to living rooms and offices everywhere. Anti-Arroyo blogging, until recently a fringe activity for political junkies with too much time on their hands, has now exploded into the mainstream. So have ring tones, jokes, and gossip circulating via text.

Like a virus contaminating everything from online chat rooms, office conversations, news broadcasts, showbiz talk shows, and text messages, there is no escaping “Gloriagate.” The damage to the president, as independent polling figures indicate, seems irreversible. If People Power had a script, then this would be it.

Pundits predicted it was just going to be a matter of time before Edsa 4 erupted. All that was left was for people to spill out into the streets. Many did, but not in numbers that sent previous presidents packing. In the week that followed Cory Aquino’s surprise televised appeal for President Arroyo to resign, about 30,000 to 40,000 protesters converged on Makati’s Ayala Avenue-the best effort so far since the crisis erupted. Organizers promised more, but the rallies on the days leading up to and immediately after the impeachment complaint was killed in Congress failed to meet expectations. Where was People Power, or at least the kind that showed up in past Edsa uprisings?

That’s what the opposition, the administration, and the media, who had already laid out its coverage plans for a fourth Edsa, were left asking. There was and continues to be no shortage of answers. Organizers within the anti-Arroyo opposition blame it on the lack of centralized leadership — and on mutual distrust. With a coalition as diverse in its representation as in its alternatives to President Arroyo, observers predicted that divisions within the movement would begin to affect the ability to communicate a coherent message and project a credible image to the public.

From the onset, the presence of personalities affiliated with Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada in the coalition, both of whom were ousted by previous Edsa uprisings, created discomfort among People Power veterans. Those who had experienced the various Edsa uprisings, if only vicariously through news coverage, were just as perplexed — even outraged — by the odd coalition of former-enemies-now-bedfellows in the campaign to oust GMA.

There were attempts to correct this public-relations confusion by giving the anti-Arroyo movement a more prominent middle-class, or put more accurately, a friendlier “middle-force” character. But repackaging the coalition proved difficult. In the age of information, hardly anything can still be concealed from the public. Whatever the camera lens cannot expose is left over for the commentariat to scrutinize. Few secrets survive when the media’s attention is on overdrive.

Previous Edsa revolts may have shared the same organizational limitations. But the lack of a central command, and a more defined, and therefore sustainable, organizational structure was less of a problem then since the uprisings unfolded so quickly. Ousting a president, unlike transforming society, requires less preparation. Organizational unity and ideological purity are not as critical-unless when waging protracted warfare. Nevertheless, the failure of organization remains a popular explanation for the absence of People Power in 2005. It is, however, far from being the only reason. Neither is it the most compelling.

Politics of scandal

Gauging the public mood is often very tricky. Get it wrong and you either underestimate or overestimate how far people will go to express their outrage, if any at all. Surveys do provide clues to the pulse of people, but they cannot predict the often- spontaneous reactions to unfolding political events. Polls, if they are to be of any scientific use, should also be analyzed in the context of historical data. The overwhelmingly negative opinion of the president after the Senate investigations on illegal gambling, the release of the “Hello Garci” tapes to the media, and Arroyo’s public apology, follows a downward trajectory in presidential popularity after the 2004 elections. A look at postelection surveys already showed a majority dissatisfied with the administration, most even concluding fraud in the polls. While “Gloriagate” has pushed the president’s ratings to historic lows, Arroyo’s slide cannot be compared with the dramatic plunge Joseph Estrada took after the series of scandals exposed his undeclared wealth. If Erap’s ratings took a free fall, Arroyo’s numbers are slipping from previously low expectations of her leadership and prior questions about her political legitimacy.

Not that the public isn’t outraged by the allegations of presidential malfeasance; only that they may have, after a previous term marked by investigations on her husband, already conditioned themselves to expect more scandals ahead.

No coincidence perhaps that Arroyo anchored her election campaign on the less-than-inspiring themes of pragmatism and continuity. Notably, though, Raul Roco, Eddie Villanueva, Panfilo Lacson and Fernando Poe, Jr. promised to bring moral leadership to Malacañang as a way to differentiate themselves from the incumbent.

Presidential allies like to argue that the oust-Arroyo campaign is only round two of last year’s elections. That may be a shallow and self-serving analogy, but a quick look at the warm bodies occupying the street protests shows a who’s who of political partisans who campaigned for the president’s opponents. And like last year’s elections, the administration is once again selling to its core constituency the continuity of an Arroyo presidency over the risky alternative of a transition government or military-civilian junta.

Fear of the unknown might be keeping People Power locked safely at home, but so too is fatigue. You hear it all the time on radio and television call-in programs: people are tired of politics. Not too tired to watch their politicians outdo the soaps on television, mind you, but too overwhelmed nonetheless by the political mudslinging that threatens to get anyone involved dirtied in the process.

In this political free-for-all, take-no-prisoners brawl, no one is spared. Not the pious Cory, or the ever so proper Susan. Not even the Catholic bishops have managed to escape the public’s skepticism. Retired generals, civil-society leaders, even B-list actors-everyone is considered a plotter or a has-been mounting a comeback. Distrust for public figures has reached alarming levels so much that people now find it hard to make out the crusaders from the carpetbaggers, the journalists from the spin doctors, the well-meaning from the just plain mean.

When the citizens’ trust in institutions, in leaders, and ultimately in themselves erodes, a climate of political nihilism takes over and people begin to withdraw from civic life and give up on political action altogether. This is the end of innocence — the rude awakening to a world the way politicians see it: a politics without the illusions of greatness and heroics. It is shades of grey all over and murky definitions of the public good. This is the moral relativism abhorred by both idealists and conservatives everywhere. But after a history of revolutions with disappointing results, Filipinos have learned to adjust and adapt.

Redefining public space

Yet this does not seem to be the most crucial reason why, at a time when society enjoys unprecedented freedom of speech, movement, and expression, there is also a retreat in political activism. Therein in fact lies the paradox of freedom.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. Former rivals get together on the streets, from left, Ping Lacson, Eddie Villanueva, Cory Aquino, and Susan Roces.

Protesters occupy city streets and parks to get their message across to as many people as possible. Citizens are forced to do that when they do not have equal access to the state’s information apparatus. Public space then is where the battle for hearts and minds begins and where like-minded citizens come together to swap information, affirm their convictions, and challenge official positions — more so when government control of information is complete. The contested space is usually rich in symbolic meaning, but it may also just be a convenient location to converge. Edsa represents both. And in the 1986 revolt, more than a million considered it to be the most effective way to be heard and counted. Back then, no broadcast network or mainstream broadsheet would have ever given the opposition to Ferdinand Marcos any space, and so a frustrated people took to the streets.

A lot has changed since 1986. Freedoms like that of the press were restored, but these were never absolutely immune from presidential pressure. The relative timidity of the news media prior to and immediately after the Chavit Singson exposé forced anti-Estrada sentiments through new media channels such as SMS and the Internet. But the limited broadcast capabilities of these new technologies made reaching a wider public difficult. The crowds at Edsa provided the link between individual and society. Just as followers of deposed President Estrada would later use their own version of Edsa to communicate with a wider audience they couldn’t reach through the TV networks that had largely ignored them.

The media landscape has changed dramatically since 1986 and even since 2001. Today the media have taken their role as public watchdog to new extremes. Conscious that their power to influence political events — even make and break presidents — is only as potent as their ability to generate a vast share of the audience, the news media have been treading the line between crusading journalism and mass entertainment. (It is no accident that both are immensely popular with the market.)

GOODBYE, ERAP! The uprising against Estrada was inspired by moral outrage. Today things are murkier and no one seems to be taking the moral high ground.

The result has been an increasingly hysterical, albeit, massively entertaining politics. Call it the tabloidization of public life. When public space migrates to the airwaves and to the pages of broadsheets, the nation’s politics adapts to its new home. It’s as if all political behavior is transformed by and for the camera. Everyone, from the president to the street protester, is in on it. Legislation is out. Congressional inquiry is in. Proselytizing-out, agit-prop-definitely in. Political actors learn to master the medium and use the live press conference with skill. Mutineers take questions from the press and whistleblowers are assigned publicists to assist them. Had President Arroyo resigned on that Friday Cory Aquino and the “Hyatt 10″called on her to step down, the Philippines would have enjoyed the distinction of launching the first electronic uprising in history. It would have been dubbed the Presscon Revolution — if only it had succeeded. Clearly, revolutions that happen in the hyperreal world of television cannot replace those of real boots on the ground.

The stagecraft and spin-doctoring politicians try so hard to conceal is laid bare for all to see. Like wrestling matches we know to be scripted but cheer on nevertheless, our politics, after years of sensationalism, is degenerating into little more than a spectator sport. By jeering, or cheering, people feel that they’re actually getting involved. Without having to leave their homes, people can have the satisfaction of watching talk-show hosts articulate feelings of disgust and frustration for them. When you listen in to radio commentators beat up politicians on air, you can’t help but wonder if expressing your opinion — the least of your civic responsibilities — may actually still matter, when those guys seem to do a better job at it.

But those who predict the end of People Power are wrong. Apathy may be a symptom of the growing disconnection between citizens and their government, but indifference is also a form of protest against politics as usual in the country. Could it be that the steady diet of scandals have numbed the senses and the ability to express outrage? Or is People Power merely evolving, adapting to new forms of public space — physical and virtual?

Today’s young, the first generation of kids growing up in a digitally interconnected world will determine how dissent will be defined and expressed in the future, be it through podcasts, audio-video blogs, or new forms of social organization. History, after all, has taught us that people, when pushed hard enough, will eventually organize, fight back, and seek to overthrow the conditions that oppress them.