Philippines – People Power III?

DAYS OF angry street demonstrations in the Philippines capital Manila culminated in an attack on the presidential palace in the early hours of 1 May.

Clare Doyle

After seven hours of battles with the police using teargas, water cannon and live ammunition, four people were dead, over 100 injured and hundreds more arrested.

A state of rebellion – “two steps away from martial law” – was declared by the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. A little over three months earlier, on 20 January, she had been sworn in to her post in a highly ‘unconstitutional’ ceremony on the streets of the capital after days of mass demonstrations called ‘People Power ll’. (See CWI pamphlet, January 2001).

It was the arrest of former President Joseph Estrada on April 25 that had angered his supporters and brought them onto the streets. Millions still see ‘Erap’, as they call him, as the legitimate leader of the country.

Estrada has claimed he will return to the presidency and continues to challenge the legitimacy of the transfer of power. Although, under his presidency, which lasted for just 31 months, nothing improved for the mass of his poverty-stricken supporters; he manages to maintain the myth that, because he comes from their ranks, he is their champion.

By Sunday 29 April, the crowds on the streets demanding his release from prison numbered over 100,000. Many began talking about ‘People Power lll’. Much of the media tried to present the confrontation as a revolt of workers and poor against the middle class and business leaders around Arroyo. But the situation is more complicated.

Many workers actually supported the ousting of Estrada, which laid the basis for Arroyo’s accession to power. But Arroyo is no friend of their class. She comes from an aristocratic background and is trained in the policies of neo-liberal capitalism. Her policies cannot solve the massive economic ills that beset the Philippines.


One-third of the 75 million population lives on less than a dollar a day and 60% define themselves as poor. Basic trade union rights are denied to the millions of workers who labour in atrocious conditions. Many workers are involved in bitter strike struggles over jobs and pay as well as basic union rights.

It is clear that by no means all workers and radical youth support Estrada. Although he was the candidate of the ‘Left’ for president in May 1997 and got the biggest ever majority for the post, many workers and their organisations see him as yet another politician out for himself and his cronies, but locked in a power struggle with the Arroyo clan.

Akbayan, a party coming from the “communist” stable, has made the mistake of continuing to actively support the incumbent president’s camp against Estrada.

The BMP – Filipino Workers’ Solidarity organisation – with over 100,000 members in many important factories, issued an “Appeal to the toiling masses” on April 27 saying: “While Gloria is a true-blue elitist, Estrada is more so a demagogue and a bogus champion of the working man and the down-trodden”. Quite correctly they declare that: “The hope of the working class and poor rests on our own movement, in the independent movement of the toiling masses”.

Arroyo appears at present to have the full support of the army, which was instrumental in bringing her to power but is now involved in a fight for her political survival.

A general election is due on 14 May and Arroyo needs to win a majority to carry through her tough ‘reform’ programme of privatisation and deregulation, dictated by the IMF and her big business backers. The latter are said to be happy with her handling of the situation, but the Philippines currency and share prices have taken a battering.

In the present climate, investment – local and foreign – will be sparse. On the basis of capitalism, there is every prospect of one unstable regime succeeding another in quite rapid succession – a series of governments of crisis.

If powerful political trade union organisations like the BMP and the ‘Left’ parties of the Philippines linked their struggle against both wings of Philippine capitalism with a programme of socialist demands, they would make enormous headway. They could give heart to the youth, to the workers and poor of the country that at last they would be the ones making the decisions about their future.