Asia’s oldest democracy is starkly divided, as Filipinos’ disappointment in post-EDSA democracy leads to disillusionment and, for some, a rise in authoritarian nostalgia, Cleve Arguelles writes.

Fifteen kilometres south of Manila, two 12-foot-high black stone walls bearing the words General Douglas MacArthur spoke upon his return to the Philippines in 1961, stand guard over a 103-hectare cemetery complex named Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery). All visitors passing through this wall read the words it carries: “I do not know the dignity of his birth, but I do know the glory of his death.”

The sprawling cemetery complex, mostly covered by grasses dotted by coldly plain white crosses, reveals infrequent proof of life. It is also home to the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,’ an imposing structure at the centre of the cemetery, where government officials and military officers come together for occasional wreath-laying ceremonies in honour of the nameless fallen Filipino soldiers.

Principally, however, this is a residence for the dead. It currently houses the bodies of more than 49,000 Filipino soldiers, politicians and martyrs. With one striking exception, all of them were buried by a nation grateful for their service. The new and markedly different resident, interred earlier this month, is the man responsible for unleashing a terror that resulted in almost 4,000 killings, and who emerged from it with loot from the national coffers totalling some $10 billion.  His new grave can be found in the dignitaries section, topped with an unassuming black granite slab, decorated with flowers, and adorned with the simplest of inscriptions: ‘Ferdinand E. Marcos 1917-1989 Filipino’.

It has been 27 years since the dictator died but his final resting place, like the legacy of his reign, is still an unsettled question. A national consensus on what the Marcos dictatorship meant for the country is far from being formed. Social media has become a battleground for both those who are nostalgic for the Marcos regime and those who want Marcos’ remains exhumed and interred somewhere other than the Heroes’ Cemetery. These polarised conversations reflect the national pulse on the issue. While polls are few and far between, typically surveys reveal that there is an equal national split between a favourable or otherwise frank reassessment of Marcos’ rule.

It is striking how the nation remains divided on the issue despite an official public memory that considers the triumph of democracy over dictatorship as the founding narrative of the current Republic. How could a nation that has inspired the world with its “people power” revolution to restore democracy now honour the man behind the state-sanctioned murders of the martial-law era? What has left the national imagination of Asia’s oldest democracy open to this display of disputed legacy, of contested memories?

In 1986, millions of Filipinos decisively ended the dark years of President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship through sustained civil resistance against government violence and electoral fraud. Their efforts culminated in a world-historic, massive, nonviolent protest in the capital’s major avenue (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or EDSA), popularly known as the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution.

But, to the disappointment of many, Marcos’ authoritarian rule was only replaced by an elite-dominated democracy. From 1987, a small number of families started to successfully restore their control over the government and rotate the seats of power among them. They included the Marcos family, who returned from exile in 1991 and were welcomed by their allies who have strongly rooted themselves in post-EDSA politics.

In the public imagination, the promises of the 1986 revolution went beyond the formal restoration of democratic institutions. The narrative was articulated like this: a return to democracy would secure prosperity and security for everyone.

The overall framework and the various social justice provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution clearly reflect this. But three decades after that promise was made, the post-EDSA pact is clearly far from being fulfilled.

The post-EDSA leadership has presided over a government that has failed to solve many of the problems that concern the majority of people. Despite promising improved growth rates in the past years, the gains appear to have largely benefitted the rich. Various efforts at poverty reduction are still ineffective, and more than 26 million Filipinos remain poor, with unemployment rates said to be the worst in the Asian region.

This widening gap between the rich and the poor, recurrent domestic economic crises, epidemic levels of corruption and failed attempts to significantly reduce criminality, have resulted in a deepening sense of frustration among the public. Surveys in past decades have consistently shown these issues are the most urgent national concerns for many Filipinos.

EDSA, which used to symbolise the promise of democracy and prosperity is now synonymous with the dysfunctional transportation system in Metro Manila. Commemorations of the EDSA consensus have become officially important across the nation, but in the public imagination, they tell the tale of how promises are meant to be broken.

When democracy doesn’t deliver, its legitimacy becomes difficult to defend. And when successive elite-dominated governments have utilised democracy for their own ends, the balance tilts towards authoritarian nostalgia. Is the legacy of EDSA democracy defensible in the face of attacks against the memory of Marcos authoritarian rule?

Post-EDSA democracy saw the richest families amassing more wealth than ever while poverty, hunger, homelessness and crime continued to afflict ordinary Filipinos. It is not difficult to imagine why some are nostalgic for an imagined Philippines’ authoritarian past where, although statistics would show otherwise, people felt they lived in the country’s golden years.

When Rodrigo Duterte promised to bury Marcos in the Heroes’ Cemetery, the tomb had already been built. The post-EDSA elites that have presided over this nation in past decades built the hero’s tomb for Marcos; Duterte only dug the grave.

This is not to say that Duterte is not responsible for this. The series of protests that erupted since the clandestine burial of Ferdinand Marcos rightfully pointed out that when he ordered that burial, he also started to dig his own grave. But what needs to be pointed out is that the failure of the post-EDSA leadership made his orders politically possible. It is not a stretch to say that the crisis in our EDSA democracy was coming. Even without Duterte, sooner or later, the breaking point of the post-EDSA pact would have been reached, even if articulated in another way.

 Cleve Kevin Robert V Arguelles is Instructor and former Chair of the Political Science Program in the University of the Philippines Manila. His current research project includes the politics of mobilizing EDSA authoritarian counter-memories as a source of legitimacy for the Duterte presidency. He is presently a graduate student at the Department of Political Science at Central European University.