EDSA II, the Arroyo government and the 'democratic left' in the Philippines

By Ben Reid


From social democracy to civil society

Alliance building: from civil society to civil servants

Outcomes: KALAHI, CSOs and poverty alleviation

From class alliances to state cooption



The Philippines has long been widely recognised as a location of important mass struggles and correspondingly a relatively robust revolutionary movement. Less well known, however, are the various permutations of the self-described "democratic left" that have achieved some prominence in recent years. In some senses these political groups—which are perhaps better identified as social democratic—have become modest rivals to the influence of the various sections of the revolutionary left. Some groups within these milieus have even gone so far as to derive theoretical justifications for their social democratic strategies from revolutionary theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci.

Recently some measure of the relative "success" of social democracy in the Philippines has been the way that many groups and individuals have been able to secure government posts within the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Of course, in general, the social democrats are seldom referred to as such. Instead, they have increasingly been equated with and identified as the political leadership of the "civil society organisations" (CSOs). Arroyo, coming to power after a civilian uprising led to the collapse of the government of Joseph Estrada in early 2001, and despite being more or less aligned with the opposition Lakas—National Union of Christian Muslim Democrats—received considerable support from the CSOs. The main "democratic left" CSO confederation Code-NGO (the Caucus of Non-Government Development Organisations) constituted itself as the secretariat of the Kompril 2 coalition that underpinned much of the mass movement. Upon assuming office, after the January 2001 EDSA II uprising, Arroyo moved quickly to incorporate select personnel from this layer into posts in the government concerned with social reform.1

The case of the social democratic CSOs and the Arroyo government serves as an interesting vantage point to observe recent trends towards the cooption of social movements in the global capitalist periphery. During the mid to late 1990s, there was a relative weakening in the strictures of neo-liberal adjustment—hitherto referred to as the "Washington consensus"—being demanded by the multilateral "development" agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. On the one hand, a rhetoric of the need for "good governance", "poverty reduction", "participation" and "sustainability" emerged. On the other hand, the basic premises of neo-liberal macro-economic strategy—debt repayment, privatisation and liberalisation—have never been questioned. Immediately the gap between rhetoric and reality became apparent. But international social democracy came forward to bridge this gap. Social democrats, equipped with reformist and class-collaborationist nostrums of "co-determination" and the "social market economy", have increasingly stepped in to manage the contradictions of the new development rhetoric. Militant social movements became non-government organisations and CSOs. Praises were sung for the new emphasis on "poverty alleviation" and "popular participation".

Yet the actual impact of these polices has been negligible. The Arroyo faction of the Philippine political and economic elite, far from representing some "progressive bourgeoisie", has continued all of the fundamental neo-liberal and anti-national policies of "maldevelopment" that have plagued the Philippines since at least the 1960s. The social democratic CSOs and their leaders have been largely coopted into marginal programs that will do little to redress oNGOing poverty and inequality in the Philippines.

From social democracy to civil society

Social democracy has a long history of influence in the Philippines. Its growth among the social movements, however, has been relatively recent and has been accompanied by an increasing use of terms like civil society to describe the political outlook of certain groups.

By the 1990s, a series of rival social democratic groups were vying for influence. They also compete for influence with the revolutionary left. The largest and probably the oldest is the Philippine Democratic Socialist Party (PDSP). Established in 1973 during the Marcos dictatorship, it still presents a form of clerical social democracy and is affiliated with the Socialist International. Its founding and long-term leader and general secretary is Alberto Gonzales. The PDSP claims to be the Philippines' fourth largest political party, and Gonzales was appointed a "special adviser" in the Arroyo government's cabinet in 2001.

Factional struggles in the PDSP in the mid-1990s culminated in a split of many younger cadres in 1997. They established a rival Social Democratic Caucus (SDC), which has pushed for a more left policy of the "social democratic-democratic socialist line". This seems to consist of establishing local community organisations as a basis for "Integrated Area Development Communities". Based on dubious interpretations of Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci, these forms of alternative development are regarded as creating a "war of position" against and hegemony over the state.

As well as the PDSP and the SDC, there is a range of smaller and rival organisations. Varying levels of acrimony exist among them and most especially, it seems, towards Gonzales. These include formations such as KASAPI and Pandayan, which date back to the 1980s mass movement against the Marcos dictatorship. The status of the other main group, BISIG (Union of Socialist Ideas and Action), is more problematic; it encompasses a range of ideological positions from revolutionary Marxism to postmodernism. BISIG Youth, however, is an affiliate of the social-democratic International Federation of Socialist Youth. Some observers suggest that Akbayan—a left of centre "party list" alliance of BISIG and other leftists—is attempting to secure recognition from the Socialist International.2

The ideological predispositions of these diverse groups vary considerably. The agreements centre on three points. First and in general, there is a consensus that the democratic struggle remains primarily defending and consolidating the gains of the EDSA revolution against the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. This contrasts with the revolutionary left, which while defending the openings created by EDSA still seeks the replacement of the existing state with revolutionary organs of popular power. Second, most groups made considerable effort to organise among popular sectors. In 1992 a series of networks of social democratic grassroots organisations joined together to form a major new confederation Code-NGO. Third, most engaged in various forms of alliance-building for "progressive" candidates of the traditional Laban, Lakas and Nationalist People's Congress electoral parties that dominate formal politics and the state.

Pursuing these objectives has resulted in various rhetorical changes and incarnations. One recent major change was the adoption of the language of "civil society". Originally the term was popularised in the Philippines by another political current—the Movement for Popular Democracy—that broke away from the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1987-88. The "popdems" themselves originally shared most of the values of these social democratic groups and established a myriad of quite powerful NGOs in the late 1980s and 1990s. Much of the rest of the social democratic left, in keeping with international trends, adopted the same language during the 1990s."Cause-oriented organisations" became CSOs. With neo-liberal development states increasingly being forced during the late 1990s to engage in limited forms of consultation, adopting the label "civil society" (which is defined vaguely, at best, as the sphere of private voluntary organisations) obligated the state to consult with them and involve them in policy-making processes.3

Alliance building: from civil society to civil servants

Once the social democratic CSOs succeeded in establishing credibility and legitimacy, they faced the question of how to adapt to or even merge with the agendas of the main political elites and factions within the Philippine state. To date there have been two main attempts to do this: the experience of the Estrada administration and the alliances that were formed by the new administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2001.

The first period in which these dilemmas presented themselves was during the Estrada government between 1998 and 2001. Estrada cultivated a set of select allies from within the CSOs, during his election campaign and in the early part of his administration. Estrada, a former movie star, supporter of the Marcos government and former President Fidel Ramos' vice-president, adopted rhetoric of forming a "rainbow" cabinet to implement "pro-poor" policies. Accordingly, ministries were distributed to individuals with diverse ideological and political backgrounds. Horacio "Boy" Morales, in particular, a leading CSO figure from the popular democrats, played a critical role in gaining support from various individuals in the CSOs. Estrada appointed him secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform in 1998, where he deepened the involvement of the NGOs closest to him in policy-making and attempted to find ways of integrating an appreciation of the need for land reform and poverty alleviation within broader economic and development strategy. More generally, there was quite a surge in thinking and writing about CSO and state interaction after 1998. The enthusiasm did not last long.

It took very little time for the politically unstable coalition around Estrada to fragment and eventually collapse prior to the EDSA II mass uprising that ousted him in January and February 2001. The process of dissolution was accentuated by two main factors. First, there was Estrada's intensification of counter-insurgency warfare against Bangsa Moro independence groups in Mindanao, with an associated rise in human rights atrocities and social instability. Second, there was the substantial failure of the administration to implement any of the promised social reforms it had used to woo support from the CSOs. Social reform and land reform measures were widely regarded as failures, with the former degenerating into "pork barrel" spending and the latter largely stalling. When revelations of widespread corruption involving the "jueteng" gambling syndicates emerged, most CSOs were already taking an oppositional stance towards the government. With the exception of some of the popular democrats, the most crucial CSO bodies backed Arroyo. The largest national confederation of CSOs and the one most aligned with the "democratic left", Code-NGO, assumed the position of "secretariat" of the mass movement. Their support would be rewarded by the new administration.

It was, therefore, not unexpected when Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (who opted to support the congressional Lakas party opposition some six months earlier) was inaugurated president in February 2001 that she sought to include key individuals from this sector in her new cabinet and to consolidate alliances with and involvement of CSOs. There were two main forms to these alliances.

On the one hand, a process not unlike that which occurred under Estrada ensued whereby key personnel from the social democratic CSOs "crossed over" to the government sphere, where they were promoted to key "social reform" ministries within Arroyo's new executive. Chief among these appointments was Corazon Juliano-Soliman—former national secretary of Code-NGO and self-described "socialist feminist"—as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Within the office of the president, Teresita Quintos-Deles was appointed as secretary of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC). As mentioned above, Alberto Gonzales adopted a ubiquitous and reportedly rather sleazy role of "special adviser", using his contacts with the Socialist International—such as British Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair—to develop international support for Arroyo.

On the other hand, Arroyo made sure that emphasis on "poverty alleviation" continued to permeate the language of the new administration. Estrada, who was to face corruption charges, continued to use his base among poor and marginal sectors to mobilise opposition to the new administration. An EDSA IIi counter-uprising by Estrada supporters and other Arroyo opponents on May 1, 2001, eventually dissipated, but not before making the Arroyo government appear extremely vulnerable. Discontent from Estrada's supporters added to the pressure on Arroyo to implement poverty alleviation projects. The new administration was careful to include notions of targeted poverty alleviation programs, within an overall priority of "comprehensive human development and protecting the vulnerable" within its new Medium-Term Economic Development Plan. Such priorities were seen as commensurate with the primary aim of "macro-economic stability with equitable growth based on free enterprise". Other priorities included reducing corruption through emphasising "good governance and the rule of law".

The goals of targeted poverty alleviation were to be achieved principally through the NAPC. NAPC was not a government ministry, but an agency directly accountable to the office of the president. Established through the amalgamation of the Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor, the National Peace Commission and other bodies through the Ramos government's Social Reform Agenda Act, the NAPC provided for the representation of CSO organisations from fourteen sectors with a "sectoral council", which would in turn deliberate on and implement poverty alleviation projects. Once in power, Arroyo issued a new administrative order in 2001 reconstituting the NAPC. Arroyo herself assumed the role of sectoral council chair and reportedly attended every monthly meeting. As a result, substantial numbers of NGOs from the CSO sphere were drawn into formulating a new poverty alleviation program.

The Philippine social democratic CSOs, therefore, found themselves within a contradictory position prior to and during the first two years of the Arroyo government. Both the Estrada and Arroyo administrations had found ways of forming alliances with groups within the CSO sphere to head their social reform programs as a way of appealing to poorer constituencies, while the underlying patterns of neo-liberal development policy, overlaid with local features of corruption and incompetence, continued to predominate. The outcomes of these alliances were, therefore, not necessarily positive for the social base of the CSOs among poorer workers and farmers.

Outcomes: KALAHI, CSOs and poverty alleviation

The paltriness of the outcomes of this collaboration with Arroyo soon became apparent. The vaunted emphasis on "poverty reduction" ended up becoming a largely marginal program of targeted spending in a small number of villages.

A great deal of emphasis was placed on engendering CSO participation in the design and implementation of the so-called KALAHI (Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kapirapan: Link Hands in the Struggle Against Poverty) / CIDSS (Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services) poverty alleviation program. There have been two dimensions to the CSO participation. On the one hand and as mentioned above, key personnel were recruited from within the social democratic CSOs to head both the main agencies that would implement KALAHI: the DSWD and NAPC. These former activists regarded this as an important opportunity to use the state to generalise the operation of the CSO-derived livelihood strategies that had previously tended to function on a localised and "pilot" basis. On the other hand, CSO participation was enacted through the representation of 14 sectoral organisations on the NAPC governing council. Each of the 14 sectors— youth, rural poor, people with disabilities etc—had input into the planning, design and monitoring of the program. CSOs were, therefore, given quite a degree of formal control of the process.

Yet this control was clearly circumscribed by the nature of the KALAHI/CIDSS program. First, the coverage and funds involved in KALAHI were minor in comparison to the depth of poverty in the Philippines. For instance, the program extended to only 261 of 91,940 villages in the Philippines and to at most 1.5 per cent of the population. In 2000 the government conservatively calculated that around thirty-two per cent of families subsisted below the "poverty threshold". The $200 million—half contributed by the World Bank—to be contributed over three years represented just 0.35 per cent of the total Philippine state's expenditure and just over seven per cent of the World Bank's overall country program dispersals. Total expenditure on social services actually declined from forty-four to forty-two per cent of budget outlays. KALAHI, far from representing a leap into a new era of poverty alleviation and participatory development, represented a reallocation of a minor proportion of a declining pool of funds.

Second, more fundamental problems are also apparent with KALAHI's rationale and strategy for poverty alleviation. To the extent that there is an analysis at the base of the program, it is premised on a notion of market and institutional failure. The causes of poverty are traced to certain "blockages" in communities, such as a lack of infrastructure, skills shortages or social exclusion, that prevent participation in market-based production. It followed that with the right forms of institutional help and change, these barriers could be overcome. The difficulty was that the causes of poverty in the Philippines are linked to far more deep-rooted structural issues of power. These include, among others, inequitable land ownership patterns, lack of employment opportunities in non-service and non-agricultural sectors, utility charges and taxation regimes that discriminate against the poor and international relationships of imperialism, unfavourable trade and debt. Added to these obstacles was the vulnerability of the Philippines to externally induced economic shocks that can destroy and have rapidly destroyed the benefits of years of modest economic growth. The likely outcomes of KALAHI will therefore be modest at best. The CSO leaders involved in the program regard it as an instance of "mutual gains" from a process of political change.

Perhaps the person who has gained the most is Arroyo, who has won support for a poverty alleviation program that will do little to improve social well-being. The compromised alliances with Arroyo were not restricted to KALAHI. Controversy arose over the relationship between social democratic CSOs and the Arroyo government. Allegations have emerged of corruption in the distribution of public funds to CSO-operated social programs and acquiescence in the government's militarist posture against the Bangsa Moro population's insurgency in Mindanao.

Discontent at the slow pace of reforms meant many CSO leaders were getting ready to "bail out" from supporting the regime in late 2002. However, Arroyo's announcement on December 30 that she would not seek another term as president reinvigorated some support among the CSOs. A number of prominent leaders formed a "December 30 movement" to push for reforms within the administration, such as the acceleration of land reform and modernisation of the corrupt electoral processes. The momentum around this stalled as Arroyo subsequently got ready to announce that she was running again, despite declining popularity and few achievements of social reforms.

The absurdity of much of the CSO support for Arroyo was recently highlighted by two episodes. First, in response to the July 2003 mutiny by armed forces in Makati, few people responded to calls from Catholic authority figure Cardinal Sin or the pro-Arroyo CSOs to mobilise in support of the government. Instead, several thousand marched in support of the mutineers. This prompted Corazon Soliman, bizarrely, to denounce the mutineers as "anarchists". The contrasting responses to the mutineers demonstrate that perhaps a substantial gap has emerged between the base and the leadership of the social democratic CSOs. Second, after Arroyo's posturing and claims not to be seeking re-election in order to accomplish reforms, she reversed her decision in October 2003.

It is clear that the social democratic CSOs traded their support for very limited outcomes. These were primarily a very limited anti-poverty program and limited input into some other policy areas.

From class alliances to state cooption

How can the cooption of the social democrats be explained, and what does it suggest about revolutionary strategy and tactics in the Philippines and elsewhere? Answering these questions requires a consideration of the limits of the social democratic strategy in both its classical form and in today's era of neo-liberalism and "postmodern civil society".

The classical social democratic program of reform in the Philippines and in other developing countries was premised on three main points. First, progressive social reform required stable class alliances between the working class and peasantry with nationalist and progressive bourgeois forces. The latter had an interest in national industrialisation, agrarian reform and democracy. In the Philippines often dressed in a Jesuit clerical rhetoric of "peace and harmony", social democracy implied strong notions of achieving economic development through class collaboration.

Second, in a situation where the proletariat was weak and a minority of the population, direct confrontation with imperialism, the state and capital as a whole was to be avoided at all cost (in today's parlance one would insert the dubious interpretation of Gramsci's notions of "war of position" and accumulating "hegemony" here). Instead, gradual social reform would pave the way for development and the social and numerical strengthening of the working class. Socialism was accordingly put off the agenda until some unspecified future time when its legislation was deemed possible.

Third, the existing bourgeois republican state machinery needed to be defended at all cost and provided the best framework for the gradual extension of democracy and a peaceful transition to socialism.

The limits of these positions have long been evident. National bourgeoisies have proved notoriously poor allies of the working class and peasantry. Concerned more often with defending private property than achieving development, they have acted as a break on social transformation. While revolutionary governments have from time to time been obligated to accept the participation of such forces (along with other heterogenous class allies), especially in the initial stages of revolutionary power, this has been allowed only on the basis that they are clearly subordinated to the hegemony of the proletariat. The social democratic approach was classically the inverse: working-class interests were subordinated to those of the bourgeoisie. Imperialism has overwhelmingly tended—with occasional exceptions—to block substantial economic development occurring to a degree that can allow a stable cross-class alliance in favour of social reform. The bourgeois state in the underdeveloped countries repeatedly returns to the use of repression as its principal form of governance. All of these problems can begin to be overcome only by the revolutionary seizure of power by a worker-peasant alliance and the establishment of new organs of popular power and democracy.

In the era of neo-liberalism, these contradictions and limits to the reformist approach reach absurd proportions. The progressive dismantling of even moderate import substitution industries, exchange controls and other facets of the development state in the Philippines and elsewhere has rapidly undermined the basis of the existence of any purported national bourgeoisie based in home market industries. Multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund demand specialisation in export production: low-cost commodities and low-skill manufacturing. The Philippines remains governed by an endemically corrupt class of rentier and landowning bourgeoisie with few interests that contradict the agenda of imperialism.

President Arroyo herself is a member of the landowning elite. She is the daughter of an ex-president who was famous for ending the regime of import controls that had allowed the partial industrialisation of the Philippines in the 1950s and institutionalising a model of export agricultural production based on large land holdings. Arroyo is an educated and committed neo-classical economist who fervently supported the measures of trade and investment liberalisation as a senator during the term of the Ramos administration from 1993 to 1998. The notion of class alliances has therefore been even further debased to include any political or social figure who mentions any vague rhetoric of social justice and poverty alleviation. Despite all the evidence of the nature of Arroyo's regime, important social democrats continue to hold out hope that Arroyo's camp will deliver on key social reforms for the working class and peasantry.

Yet the working class, the peasantry or even classes in general have tended to disappear in the schemas of the democratic left. In the Philippines notions of class politics have been replaced by the amorphous masses of "civil society" and "the poor". Despite all the evidence of the deepening proletarianisation of the Philippines (employment, for instance, in non-agricultural sectors reached over fifty per cent in the late 1980s), the working class is not only considered not yet strong enough to hold power in its own right, but as having either ceased to exist or become just another "sector". In place of a clear strategic goal of creating a working-class-based party to conquer power, we have instead a myriad of sectoral groups. Together they articulate a vague alternative agenda for development from outside the state. The form of class alliance has, therefore, shifted from coalition government of parties to the "crossover" of key personnel from CSOs to strategic state ministries—as though having these "good people" in these positions will in itself counter the deeply entrenched relations of power that compose the state and class in the Philippines.

How are these deep—and obvious—interests of power that dominate the Philippine state to be overcome? Increasingly for the social democratic lefts, these forces not only are not to be overcome; they are to be accommodated. The key foci of KALAHI's funding distributions are a number of provinces in Mindanao. Poverty alleviation is accordingly subordinated to the Philippine state's militarist campaign of terror against the Bangsa Moro population and their legitimate demands for self-determination. Support for "good governance" and the "rule of law" that are supposedly inherent in democratic rule become their opposite. None of the key personnel of the social democrats speak up against the rhetoric of Arroyo's "strong republic" despite its clear agenda of accelerated militarisation of the Mindanao conflict. Support for the "EDSA republic" of democracy becomes support for repression and violence.

None of these criticisms, however, would substantially bother today's social democrats, who long ago abandoned any commitment to an ideology of challenging the framework of capitalism. According to the neo-liberal assumptions underpinning the Arroyo government's Medium-Term Economic Development Plan, the causes of poverty are certain "structural deficits" within select communities. It follows that what is needed are measures of additional "help", from both state and non-state agencies, for these communities to embrace the benefits of economic growth through market participation. In the period before the Estrada and Arroyo governments, social democratic CSO leaders progressively adopted the view that such action at the margins of policy was all that was either needed or possible. The so-called "mechanical ideological" criticism and analysis was increasingly rejected in favour of a technocratic consensus on the need for economic growth in the framework of a "social market economy". The result is that CSOs have become coopted into the interstices of the neo-liberal state, acting at the margins of poverty alleviation policy, while more fundamental decisions and strategy remain the territory of conventional elite players and institutions.

The cooption of the social democratic CSOs was therefore constricted within specific boundaries and was rationalised with an increasingly "de-politicised" conception of development and acceptable action. As noted above, the overall framework of development policy has been a neo-liberal model emphasising external linkages and market friendly policy. Current thinking about development—what has often been referred to as the "post-Washington consensus"—has increasingly emphasised issues beyond the functioning of markets. These include the need for "good governance" and anti-poverty and social safety net measures to compensate for market failure. This really provides the framework and boundaries for the forms of anti-poverty programs that CSOs in the Philippines have been able to implement in conjunction with the state. The social democracy therefore becomes a mere appendage to the neo-liberal state: a partner compensating for the limits of the market rather than being opposed to the entire operation of capitalism in the Philippines.


The measures taken by both the Estrada and Arroyo governments and their allies within the "democratic left" have been unable to generate sustained changes. The benefits that will emerge will most probably be temporary at best. Achieving serious poverty reduction in the Philippines requires far more sustained changes than those implied by the current ranges of CSO and state programs.

These would include measures that would begin to challenge the hold on the Philippine state of the current ruling classes and engender social revolution. This remains recognised by the minority of revolutionary organisations that remained outside the Arroyo government. What is clear is that the "democratic" opening created by the EDSA revolutions did create at least some illusions that substantial social changes could be implemented within the framework of neo-liberal capitalism in the Philippines. Perhaps the great service that Estrada and Arroyo have performed is to demonstrate just how limited is. the scope for change within those parameters.

[Ben Reid is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia and a lecturer in development studies at the University of Newcastle.]