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What’s Best for Philippines

People power has produced spectacular results; none more so perhaps than when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu made his last public appearance and to his amazement, instead of receiving the normal stage-managed cheers of adulation, was booed and heckled, as his secret police lost control of the streets. He fled in a helicopter but was captured and executed. The million-strong people power demonstrations that drove Philippine’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos from office and into exile in 1986 was another epic demonstration of what a public fed up with a corrupt and inept regime can achieve. Indeed, what the Filipinos achieved may well have inspired the mass demonstrations in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and finally Romania that brought about the collapse of state communism. There is, however, a big difference between the experience of Eastern Europe and the Philippines. While the countries of the former Soviet bloc have settled down to democracy, the mass protest has become dangerously embedded in Philippine politics. It was used a second time in 2001 to bring half a million people onto the streets demanding the ouster of the blatantly corrupt and woefully disappointing President Joseph Estrada. Notable for the use of mobile phone text messages to spread news of the protests, this massive demonstration of people power did indeed force Estrada to go. Now public protest is being used a third time against his then deputy and successor President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who in the last seven years has survived four attempted coups and three motions to impeach her. Arroyo stands accused at the least of covering up a payola scandal involving her husband and senior aides and at worst of being involved herself. She has used her executive powers to try and stop officials from giving evidence to a commission of enquiry. Some who have challenged her have been subjected to harassment, for instance by the tax authorities. The aide who blew the whistle faces prosecution for violating state confidentiality rules. All in all, it is not an edifying spectacle nor unfortunately is it out of the ordinary for Philippine politics, so deeply stained with a tradition of graft, made worse by a consistent failure to drive through social and welfare reforms. Arroyo seems determined to face down the popular protest and complete her term. She doubtless takes comfort from the smaller numbers of people who have been bothered to take to the streets yet again to protest. Her attitude is, however, as wrong as is the idea that unpopular governments should be driven from power by mass demonstrations. The best response in the face of the current protest would be for the president to call a snap election — which if run cleanly and fairly — would give Filipinos a chance to consider who should best be leading them. For want of a better alternative, that person might still be Arroyo. The problem with crowds that topple governments is they leave a leadership vacuum that can be filled by rogues. If Filipinos value democracy, they must use the ballot box, not the streets to register their opinions.