20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power
Edsa 20/20

Jose Luis Martin ‘Chito’ Gascon

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Photos by Lilen Uy

HE IS a practicing lawyer, but Jose Luis Martin ‘Chito’ Gascon also wants it known that among his professions are as “democracy activist” and “social reform advocate.” After all, he has been no mere spectator in watershed events in contemporary Philippine politics.

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During the first people power, Gascon, then chairman of the University of the Philippines Student Council, and other student activists were among the first to heed the call of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin and opposition leader Agapito ‘Butz’ Aquino to go to Edsa. Gascon shuttled between Edsa and Diliman on those four days to, in his words, “refresh the troops.”

Gascon still distinctly remembers the roaring military choppers hovering above Camps Crame and Aguinaldo and the fear that swept the crowd that thought these would attack. “Instead of doing that, (the pilots) landed and said that they were joining the people. The fear changed to joy quite quickly,” he recalls.

Just as quickly, he confesses, “Not until the actual departure of Marcos did I understand what we were doing. We just knew that we had to be there as it was part of the political developments that were unfolding. I did not think that being at Edsa would, in fact, topple the dictator.”

And usher in much more changes. Now 41, Gascon will always be known as the youngest member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 charter. He was named four years later to the Eighth Congress as youth sector representative, which gave him a direct hand in crafting the country’s laws.

At the time, he was one of the faces of the supposedly new politics. But then the system itself got old all too soon, or else reverted to the way things were.

Gascon himself says it was a matter of retaining the wrong things. “The mistake (of those in EDSA 1) was thinking it was sufficient to remove a dictator…and everything would fall into place,” he says. “We have seen that that does not happen. We removed the dictator, but we retained the political system.”

“Our failure is in the consolidation of that democracy,” he laments. “Twenty years hence, we see that our democracy continues to face major challenges.” Gascon’s frustrations mirror those of many in his generation, college students in the mid-1980s whose defining experience was Edsa 1. As they inch toward middle age, this generation is realizing that that the country is in a quagmire. Many have joined the system rather than fight it, and those who continue the struggle are beginning to realize that there is no easy way out of the bog.

Not that Filipinos haven’t tried mending the political system to harness the gains of People Power 1. The constitution Gascon helped craft provides for, among other bold initiatives, a multiparty system, term limits on elective officials, a representative Congress through the party-list system, an end to political dynasties, and electoral reforms.

But today a wiser Gascon acknowledges: “There’s a big difference between aspirations in a fundamental document and putting it in practice through systems and institutions. We have not really done enough in terms of our governance to make sure that those aspirations are made a reality.”

IN JULY 2005, at the height of the political crisis triggered by the disclosure of wiretapped conversations between elections commissioner Garcillano and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Gascon resigned as undersecretary of education, sharing the belief of the “Hyatt 10” that Arroyo had lost her capacity to govern. He does not conceal his disillusionment with Arroyo, who first came to power as a result of Edsa 2 where Gascon was also an active participant. Then the executive director of the political-think tank National Institute for Policy Studies, he had helped organize demonstrations against President Joseph Estrada.

Before he becoming undersecretary, Gascon served as a member of the Arroyo government’s peace panel that negotiated with the communist-led National Democratic Front. Now he says, “There were many promises of Edsa 2 that remained unfulfilled. None of the things she promised she actually pursued vigorously.”

He points out that proposals for electoral and political reforms made by a summit convened weeks after Arroyo’s ascension to power in 2001 have remained unacted upon. He adds, “Most of the appointments in the post-Aquino period to the Comelec (Commission on Elections) were made not on the basis of integrity and competence but on the basis of political considerations.”

For Gascon, the appointment of Garcillano to the Comelec, despite objections by members of Congress and civil society to his “dagdag-bawas” (vote-padding and shaving) reputation, is by far the worst example of a how president has undermined political institutions.

While he is not against constitutional reform, Gascon says the current move to amend the charter is spurred purely by personal political interests, especially by the leadership of the House of Representatives. “Imagine,” he says, “we have a president who faces major questions of credibility and legitimacy and then tells the entire nation that it’s not her fault and it’s the fault of the system. And you have the leader of the House just applauding it because it falls into his agenda.”

“I’ve always said that (charter change) should be at the proper time, using the proper process and for proper reasons,” he says. “And that’s not the case that we find ourselves in the present.”

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IN GASCON’S book, Congress embodies the failure of political reform. He notes that those elected into Congress 1987 were the same people or clans that had been of the old system. “The system,” he says, “(just) adapted itself in the democratic context.” The consequence: a well-entrenched political elite holds sway, perpetuating itself in power through money and patronage, with the chief goal of protecting and preserving its political and business interests rather than pursuing much-needed social reforms.

Term limits did not break the stranglehold of traditional politics. As Gascon now sees it, the limits are an “artificial mechanism to bring about some form of regular transition of power from one political force to another.”

What has happened is that politicians stay in power by getting their relatives to warm their seats until they can run again. “In fact,” Gascon observes, “dynasties have consolidated. You have one congressman, another relative is the mayor or the senator, and they reinforce each other.” The legislators belonging to Gascon’s own generation are not exempt — many are part of political families and have inherited their seats from their older kin, who in turn have gone on occupy other posts in the clan’s bailiwick.

“People are not elected to positions primarily on the basis of their legislative or political agenda,” he says. “The reasons for their being elected to office are often defined by the strength of political clans in the different districts of the country.”

While clans are strong, parties are weak. Political parties, says the Liberal Party member, remain “alliances of conveniences.” The party-list system has not been successful in transforming the congressional landscape as shrewd politicians have also exploited this initiative to cling to power, Gascon notes.

“There are no real political parties (in Congress) that articulate the agenda of reforms. It is defined or determined by leaders whose political positions change based on convenience. That’s why there’s no sustainability of reforms,” he concludes.

Perpetually garbed in a polo barong, the bespectacled Basque mestizo looks more like an accountant than a determined political reformist. Yet not even marriage has weakened the ex-student leader’s political convictions, and it is clear he is now capable of something beyond shouting slogans. He worries, though, “There’s that old adage that for evil to triumph, it’s enough for good men and women to do nothing. And I think that’s what’s happening now.”

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TO GASCON’S mind, the apathy that has Filipinos in a near-fatal grip can be traced to the lack of alternative leaders and the sheer difficulties of modern-day living. He also talks of a generational shift that has caused Filipinos to embrace the status quo–however ugly that may have become.

“Those of us who were politically active in the ’80s, which created the core for what happened in EDSA 1, were children or students of those who were politically active in the ’60s. So there was in a sense an appropriate passing of the baton and education for liberation,” Gascon says. “I think we became a little too complacent when democracy was established in the mid-’80s and forgot to continue the work of political education, civic education, voter education that will create a polity of citizens.”

In an attempt to fill the slack in civic education, Gascon became one of the convenors of the Black and White Movement and the Citizens for TRUTH (Transparency, Responsibility, Unity, Transformation, and Hope). Both seek to ferret out the truth behind the wiretapping controversy and are pushing a package of political, social, and economic reforms. He also heads INCITE Gov (International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance), a new policy think tank established by the “Hyatt 10” to advance governance reform.

Gascon is just as busy as executive director of Libertas (Lawyers’ League for Liberty), a voluntary network of lawyers pursuing reforms in the justice system. Gascon’s recent experience at the education department had made him realize how ordinary people like public school teachers need legal aid but have been unable to find it.

Ultimately, the trigger for political reforms is people empowerment. His goal, he says, is to help build what he describes as an “army of reforms and reformers.”

“Perhaps,” muses Gascon, “we presumed too much on the part of our leaders and didn’t do enough in terms of building the institutions of democracy, political accountability, and citizens’ participation. What we need to focus on now is building up a constituency for change that will demand accountability now and that constituency for change will pursue reforms in politics and economics in the period of transition that is ahead.”

Gascon is staying for the long haul. He says, “As my former boss in the Department of Education used to say, (the struggle for reforms) is not a hundred-meter dash, it’s a marathon. We have to pace ourselves. You don’t win a marathon unless you train for it, you prepare ahead of time.” — Yvonne T. Chua