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The Luneta Revolution: A Filipino Middle Class Anti-Corruption Movement

For decades, the Philippines has suffered from the unenviable position of ranking among the most corrupt countries in the world. And along such perennially high rates of corruption ran an equally toxic combination of extreme poverty, unemployment, and inequality -- among the worst in the region.

So, quite understandably, much of the country has come to the visceral conclusion that corruption is the root cause of the Philippines' demotion from a once-prosperous post-colonial nation into the "Sick man of Asia," specifically in the latter-half of the 20th century. Never mind that an equally corrupt country such as China has emerged as the history's most breathtaking case of capitalist economic expansion, lifting hundreds of millions of people out poverty in a span of few decades.

On August 26, as the Philippines celebrated its National Heroes Day, about 75,000 Filipinos braved mud, rain, and slumber to gather in the iconic Luneta Park in the old city of Manila. This was by no means a "Manila-centric" event, since there were thousands of fellow Filipino citizens joining similar, concurrent gatherings across the nation and beyond.

The diverse, large gathering, embellished by the presence of people from all walks of life, marked the strongest show of force by the Philippine civil society under the current administration of Benigno "Pinoy" Aquino III. The so-called "Million People March" was an unequivocal expression of outrage against politicians and officials implicated in the recently-revealed P10 billion ($220 million) "mother of all scams" corruption scandal.

After a long tradition of corruption with impunity, people simply had enough of it. They all shared a single battle cry, calling for the abolition of the perennially compromised pork barrel system and the swift and decisive prosecution of alleged perpetrators. Sensing the depth of public outrage, the government has promised to revise its fiscal allocation schemes and bring about justice. In the absence of a clear platform of reform, however, there are little indications of a much-needed systemic overhaul.

But one thing is clear: The Philippine society, especially the increasingly energized and prosperous middle class is re-engaging the political system like never before.

Completing the EDSA Revolution

Since the dark years of "Martial Law" in the 1970s, under the Marcos regime, the Philippines has experienced constant agitation for democratic reform and political opening -- culminating in the 1986 EDSA Revolution. Yet, despite the country's march towards democracy, systemic corruption has been largely left unchecked, even exploding under the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration (2001-2010).

Against this backdrop, President Aquino identified corruption as his primary target, with the "good governance" (Daan na Matuwid) initiative as the centerpiece of his administration. But his fight was largely against the remnants of the previous administration, having more to do with prosecuting individuals/personalities than instituting a pervasive overhaul of the country's state institutions.

In this sense, the "Million People March" was an attempt to resuscitate the spirit of the 1986 "People Power" Revolution by extending the scope of political change to eradicating systemic corruption. And on September 11, there were succeeding rallies by middle class citizens and students to encourage further reforms and decisive prosecution of corrupt officials.

Post-Modern Revolts

In today's world, hardly anything happens in complete isolation. More so, when one looks at how the second decade of the 21st century, characterized by the explosion in information technology and middle class mobilization, has seen a spate of popular uprisings, with a set of distinct characteristics.

Beginning with Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution in late-2010, peaking up momentum with Egypt's Tahrir Sqaure Revolt in early-2011, and spreading to center-economies through the "Occupy Movement", the world has come to experience a new breed of uprisings: they are fundamentally post-ideological, disparaging 20th century slogans (e.g., socialism, pan-Arabism, nationalism, etc.) in favor of generic expressions of discontent against the existing system; they tend to be led and filled by youthful, tech-savvy middle class citizens, and the relatively more educated and well-off sections of the society; they lack the kind of larger-than-life, indisputable leaders that steered earlier 20th century uprisings; they shun political parties and traditional, hierarchical methods of mobilization in favor of spontaneity and horizontal solidarity; and they set out to circumvent the tentacles of state by heavily relying on social networking platforms for exchanging views and planning.

The Luneta march was in fact largely organized online by middle-class netizens, with Facebook and Twitter sites doing much of the pep talks, solidarity-building, planning, and advertising. In the run up to the event, and throughout the gathering itself, there was a conscious effort to sideline political parties, tone down ideological slogans, and avoid political speeches by personalities and overenthusiastic figures. Progressives and radical groups were pushed to the margins, and much of the event felt like a rock festival, albeit for a cause.
By Filipino standard, it was a truly unique gathering, despite failing to reach its 1 million participants target. Unlike major past marches, it was no longer staged in the iconic Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) freeway. When placed in a global context, however, the whole affair felt like a sequel to earlier similar uprisings elsewhere.

Crisis in Paradise

While not many were surprised by how "post-modern" revolts among autocratic Arab regimes found disgruntled sympathizers among recession-stricken mature democracies, many were however shocked when Turkey and Brazil, the wunderkinds of the emerging markets, fell into a similar cycle of massive protests -- largely driven by the youthful and educated classes.
In the same vein, the large-scale gathering in the Luneta Park came amid a booming economy, under the gentle watch of a highly popular leader. Thanks to his sincere anti-corruption initiatives, Aquino's satisfaction rates hover above 70%, while the Philippine economy -- among the fastest in the world -- is expected to grow at an average rate of 6% for the foreseeable future. (This looks even more impressive, when one puts into consideration the amount of battering emerging markets have been taking in recent months, mainly due to revisions in the U.S.' monetary policy as well as declining interest in clustered emerging market assets in recent months.)

There are basically two schools of thought on such seemingly unlikely concurrence of economic boom and political agitation. On the one hand, scholars such as the American Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama see the rising frequency of political upheavals as the natural consequence of the inability of the existing political systems to catch up with rapid changes in the socio-economic sphere, especially among emerging economies, where the prospering middle class is exploding with rising expectations and impatient with age-old problems such as corruption.

For Fukuyama, the world is facing a new normal: "The new middle class is not just a challenge for authoritarian regimes or new democracies. No established democracy should believe it can rest on its laurels, simply because it holds elections and has leaders who do well in opinion polls. The technologically empowered middle class will be highly demanding of their politicians across the board."

In the case of the Philippines, the middle class is not only bothered by the depth of corruption, but also disappointed by how the recent boom has been largely exclusionary, with barely any major improvement in infrastructure, employment, and poverty rates. Equipped with Habermasian "communicative competency", state-of-the-art gadgets, and growing leisure for activism, the Filipino middle class has shown little patience for old excuses and business-as-usual politics.

On the other hand, neo-Marxist thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek see a more ominous force driving such outbursts of discontent. "The most remarkable thing about the eruptions is that they are taking place not only, or even primarily, at the weak points in the system, but in places which were until now perceived as success stories," Zizek wrote on recent protests in Brazil and Turkey, characterizing them as a response to the contradictions of a larger global economic system that breeds instability and dissatisfaction, especially among the middle classes.

But as Zizek and Fukuyama poignantly mention, the overarching characteristic/weakness of such post-modern uprisings is their inability to make systemic impact. Zizek looked at the absence of a "real" goal among the protesters, with only "a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustain[ing] and unit[ing] various specific demands." Fukyama, meanwhile, identified the inability of the youthful and educated to build sustained linkages with the masses to galvanize the larger public towards a defined end, stating how for instance students "are clueless about how to reach out to peasants and the working class to create a broad political coalition."

In many ways, Philippines' burgeoning anti-corruption movement, largely led by the educated middle class, faces a similar challenge of sustaining its fire and effecting lasting political change in the country. The next challenge is finding an inclusive, but systematic way of sketching out the road map to a less-corrupt, more vibrant and accountable Philippines.

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