Philippines' Post-Haiyan Revolution: What Lessons Can Aquino Learn From Lula?

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, one of the world's leading progressive thinkers, explains how catastrophic moments, from wars, to natural calamities, and economic depression, can serve as a perfect opportunity for the political and corporate elite to impose a new social order, exploiting the fears and anxieties of the greater population to serve their own narrow interests.

Sometimes, brutal instruments -- from electroshocks during interrogation, and economic 'shock therapy' in the post-Soviet space, to the 'shock and awe' of military intervention in Iraq -- are used to institute a new orthodoxy, to reconfigure the status quo, and sideline forces of democracy and moderation. From the post-Katrina fallout in the U.S, to the Iraq War and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Klein narrates how some well-organized, powerful, and opportunistic forces have been able to circumvent democratic procedures and thrive in a post-crisis "securitized" environment.

And yet, history tells us how crises can also preface an era of reform and/or revolutionary change. For instance, while the Great Depression paved the way for the establishment of welfare states -- thanks to the New Deal and Keynesian economics -- across the industrialized world, giving birth to an era of egalitarian policies and middle-class empowerment, the 2004 tsunami in turn facilitated the resolution of the Banda Aceh conflict in Indonesia. For some analysts, the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which wreaked havoc across Myanmar, may have played a role in the eventual democratization of the country, forcing the ruling junta to, albeit reluctantly, welcome political reform and economic opening.

In many ways, the Philippines, now reeling from the Haiyan disaster and a spate of corruption scandals implicating top leaders, could also be heading for a period of revolutionary reform. And yet, there is an equal possibility that in a period of shock and despair, people will instead opt for -- or inadvertently facilitate the emergence of -- a more heavy-handed, though decisive style of leadership, thus spelling the end of the Aquino administration and its reformist agenda.

Japan's post-Fukushima drift away from center-left politics under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) towards a far-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government under Shinzo Abe should serve as a cautionary tale for the Philippines. Benigno Aquino, who is suffering from declining popularity due to his perceived ineptitude during the Haiyan crisis, is already facing impeachment charges -- and opposition forces are exploiting this opening to extinguish his political capital.

The Next Brazil?

The Philippines' historic struggle for reconciling democracy with economic prosperity echoes the experiences of major emerging economics such as Brazil. More than sharing an Iberian background and a tropical climate, the Philippines and Brazil have suffered similar traumas of democratic reversal, military coups, and economic roller coaster.

With the Philippines, under the Aquino administration, enjoying a promising period of political reform and economic dynamism in recent years, many have come to see the country as the next Brazil in Asia. In the same breadth, people are wondering whether there is a connection between the recent eruption of middle class discontent in Brazil, on one hand, and those that shortly followed in places such as the Philippines, on the other. In this sense, comparisons between Brazil and the Philippines have carried both positive and negative implications.

However, a closer look at Brazil, especially under the administration of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva (2002-2011), may help us to capture the significance of the Philippines' current political predicament. For sure, any comparison between Lula and Aquino is inherently fraught with controversy, especially given their tremendously divergent socio-political background and ideological orientation.

Nonetheless, up until mid-2013 Aquino enjoyed comparably high levels of popularity in his country, combining 'good governance' initiatives with a semblance of economic take-off. Inspired by Brazil's Bolsa Família program, Aquino stepped up the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) scheme, which provided limited financial assistance to poorest sectors of the society in exchange for improvements in education and health standards.

Both Lula and Aquino sought to find spaces for political reform (and social justice) within an essentially neo-liberal economic order, which prioritized the protection of private property, foreign investments, and tight fiscal spending. Both also oversaw a period of impressive economic growth, largely brought about by fortuitous external factors, a commodity boom in the case of Brazil and steady remittance inflow in the case of the Philippines. Armed with economic progress and political capital, they envisioned "neo-liberalism with a human face" in the developing world.

The Valley of Tears

Defying universal laws of politics, Lula left the helm in 2011 enjoying higher satisfaction ratings (80%) than when he started in office, becoming one of Brazil's -- and the world's -- most popular leaders. Yet, his administration suffered several setbacks before claiming victory over political cynicism and economic instability. One of the biggest shocks to the Lula administration was a series of scandals, which implicated key members of his government.

In 2005, Lula's presidential campaign manager Duda Mendonça, his key confident and former labor union leader Luiz Gushiken, and Partido dos Trabalhadores' (PT) Treasurer Delúbio Soares were implicated in a corruption scandal. Next was Finance Minister Antonio Palocci, who was forced out of office over a prostitution scandal. Later, Lula's Chief of Staff José Dirceu was prosecuted over the mensalão corruption scandal. The main opposition, the PDSB, even flirted with the idea of impeaching Lula for any possible complicty. Lula's closest associated were either wiped out of office and/or faced prosecutions -- undercutting his popularity and demoralizing the base of his party, PT.

But a combination of booming commodity exports, a determined push for the empowerment of the least privileged sectors of the society, a heterodox approach to macroeconomics, a global charm-offensive transforming Brazil into a new force on the international stage, and a personal charisma of no parallel helped Lula to overcome powerful setbacks during his earlier years in office. And few years after his departure, Brazil has made a major step towards stamping out corruption, with the country's highest court taking the initiative to ensure culprits are brought to justice. Meanwhile, the teeming youth and middle class sectors are relentlessly pushing for accountable governance, better public services, and the fair distribution of newfound wealth.

Brazil's transition from post-authoritarian economic fragility and political polarization towards economic dynamism and middle class resurgence is an ongoing process. The Lula administration, however, played an important role in this process by overcoming many difficult challenges to reforming a corrupt system from within. One could argue that the Philippines is approaching a similar historical juncture, where the status quo is being increasingly challenged from multiple directions. The Haiyan tragedy has revealed the paucity of the Philippine state, and the moral and political bankruptcy of its institutions, both in periods of crisis and peace.

Philippines' Reform Peak

Aquino is now under pressure, not only for his supposed mishandling of the post-Haiyan humanitarian relief efforts, but also for his alleged involvement in using executive discretionary funds to secure legislative support for anti-corruption initiatives. And similar to Lula, Aquino's major allies (as well as himself) are grappling with impeachment complaints and prosecution.

Consequently, many are worried about the political fallout of ongoing accusations against Aquino and his coterie, fearing the resurgence of disreputable opposition leaders, who could use any interim crisis to reverse recent reforms, derail the Philippines' growth trajectory, and institute a more viciously corrupt order. Yet such anxieties tend to overlook the democratic spirit of the Filipino citizenry, as exemplified by their constant mobilizations against corruption, political dynasties, and unaccountable governance in recent months.

And it is largely due to this increased bottom-up pressure that all branches of the state, including the Supreme Court, have advocated the elimination of corrupt practices such as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), with the Aquino administration officials preemptively ditching other discretionary funds such as the DAP, which could easily be misused by corrupt leaders in the future.

In many ways, what we are seeing is not a revolution in its more classic sense, namely the radical transformation of the status quo by the (often violent) downfall of the Ancien Régime, which paves the way for a new political and constitutional order. Instead, what we are witnessing is more like (what I call) "refolution": the gradual-procedural transformation of a political order, through deepening democratic engagement and consequential reforms within the boundaries of the existing constitutional order.

For Aquino, his best chance at following in Lula's footsteps lies in how (a) he handles the post-Haiyan reconstruction and rehabilitation phase, (b) ensures the prosecution of corrupt officials regardless of their party affiliations, and (c) hears the voice of an energized citizenry, calling for, among other things, the end of all lump sum funds breeding corruption, the abolition of political dynasties, and the engendering of freedom of information and accountability into the fabric of state institutions.