Five hundred years of Christianity has produced a vibrant Catholic Church in the Philippines, making it (in 2021) the third largest Catholic nation in the world. Yet seventy-five years of self-styled “democracy” has produced (in the same year) a highly erratic democratic state. Most Filipinos believe in democracy, but they are likely not to act in its defense, even if the Constitution and the rule of law are debased—-unless and until the tipping point has been reached.

This is what we have seen from 1986 at least. In February 1986, a holiday crowd lined along EDSA, in jubilant support of the military who had withdrawn their allegiance from their president and commander-in-chief. They succeeded in driving President Ferdinand Marcos out of Malacañang to his exile in Hawaii, after being in power for twenty long years. Not a single drop of blood was shed.

No reputable scholar has ever speculated what would have happened had Marcos ordered the massacre of the crowd, exactly as the Chinese political leaders did at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in April 1989. Would Marcos have survived?

This is now water under the bridge. But there are more important questions to be asked.

What would have happened to Philippine democracy, had Cory Aquino, whom the military had installed as revolutionary president after losing the February 7, 1986 snap elections, taken her job seriously and instituted all the socio-political, economic and constitutional reforms that Marcos’s extended rule had made absolutely necessary?

What would have happened had Cory asked the Filipino people to write their own Constitution through an elected constitutional convention, instead of simply asking forty-eight individuals to write the document?

What would have happened had Cory called for elections to choose a new set of local officials, instead of just replacing all the incumbents with officers-in-charge (OICs), and then presiding over a senatorial election where some of her candidates got more votes than the number of registered voters in some places?

What would have happened had Cory negotiated a peace agreement with the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front (CPP/NPA/NDF), and required them to disarm, disband and renounce armed struggle before allowing their leaders to reside in Utrecht?

What would have happened had Cory implemented Marcos’s land reform program and given the tenant-farmers of Hacienda Luisita their due, instead of using her power to exempt her 6,453-hectare family estate from coverage of the law, until the Supreme Court awarded it to the farmers in July 2011?

What would have happened had Cory allowed the corporations that her family had sold to Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez during martial law, to be “sequestered” by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), like all other Marcos-controlled corporations, instead of being returned directly to the Cojuangco family?

What would have happened had Cory insisted on finding out the real mastermind/s of her husband Ninoy’s murder in 1983?

What would have happened had Cory decided, at the end of her “revolutionary government“ in 1987, that the constitutional provision which says, “The six-year term of the incumbent President and Vice-President elected in the February 7, 1986 election is, for purposes of synchronization of elections, hereby extended to noon of June 30, 1992” referred to Marcos and Arturo Tolentino, who were “elected” in that election, and not to herself and Doy Laurel, who were simply installed in power after rejecting the results of that election?

We shall never know. What we know is, from 1986 to 1989 there were nine coup attempts against Cory, including one in which her son and future president, Benigno Simeon Aquino 3rd, was wounded. Many said she “restored” Philippine democracy; the more indisputable truth is, the Filipino people restored it, and she benefited from it.

From 1992 onwards, Fidel V. Ramos had better luck in stabilizing the government. But he attempted no meaningful reforms, and chaos followed after six years.

In 1998, Joseph Ejercito Estrada became the13th president, but he was out in just two years. The House impeached him on several charges, and when the prosecutors could not get what they wanted from the senator-judges, they walked out of the trial and took their case to the street. At EDSA, Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. swore in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as “president,” without Estrada having been convicted of any crime and without Estrada having vacated his office. It was a judicially managed coup.

Arroyo spent the balance of Estrada’s term and another six years after the controversial 2004 election, menaced by questions of her legitimacy and political stability. She was also hounded by corruption issues related to contracts with China. As survival dominated her agenda, she had no time for higher things. It was a low point in the presidency.

A much lower point occurred during Benigno S. Aquino 3rd’s term from 2010 to 2016. PNoy became president after his mother died from a lingering illness on Aug. 1, 2009. Kris Aquino and her celebrity-friends promoted his candidacy intensively on TV, and by the time Cory breathed her last, he was already looking like the next president. He claimed he was going to lead his closest rival by five million votes, but that Arroyo would cheat him in the count, so he would have to use “people power” to crush the alleged plot.

This led Arroyo to consider clandestinely supporting PNoy on the condition that he would do her no harm once he became the president. PNoy, however, warned that he would go after Chief Justice Renato Corona, whose appointment on May 10, 2010 he had denounced as a “midnight appointment.” So when PNoy took his oath as president, he bypassed the Chief Justice who traditionally administered such oath, and asked Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales to administer it instead. PNoy did not even acknowledge Corona’s presence at the rite.

On Dec. 6, 2011, at the National Criminal Justice summit hosted by the Supreme Court at the Manila Hotel, PNoy attacked Corona to his face. Then on Dec. 12, 2011, PNoy met with 286 congressmen and asked them to sign a 56-page impeachment complaint against Corona in exchange for pork barrel funds.

The Senate impeachment court tried Corona from Jan. 16, 2012 to May 29, 2012. Of the original eight charges, all except one were either withdrawn or left undiscussed. But PNoy moved to convict the respondent by disbursing P50 million to P100 million to each of the nineteen senator-judges. Twenty senators voted to convict: Panfilo Lacson alone did not receive any monetary inducement. Only three senators—-Miriam Defensor Santiago, Joker Arroyo, and Bong Bong Marcos—- voted to acquit.

A privilege speech by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada on Sept. 25, 2013 and an official statement by then-Budget Secretary Florenio “Butch” Abad confirmed the alleged disbursements. None of those named ever denied or disputed the revelations. The bribery should have voided the impeachment trial, led to PNoy’s own impeachment or ouster, and to the dissolution of the Senate. But none of these was even discussed.

Still, this was not the last of PNoy’s most repugnant offenses. On PNoy’s visit to the US, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked to him about contraceptives. He promised to steamroll a Reproductive Health bill that Filipino Catholics had been opposing for the last fifteen years. Using the notorious pork barrel, he then pushed the RH bill in Congress and signed it into law before Christmas 2012.

The law provoked several challenges before the Supreme Court. By then PNoy had named Maria Lourdes Sereno as the new chief justice, who seemed disposed to defend his constitutional follies. The RH law was a clear offense to the the nation’s pro-life constitution, but in 2014 the Court declared the law “not unconstitutional,” and the magistrate who penned the ruling described it as nothing but “a population control measure,” which is precisely forbidden by the Consitution. So, the Filipinos got a constitutionally repulsive law at the behest of a foreign power, legislated by congressmen for pecuniary reasons, and confirmed by a high court that did not know what it was saying.

Before that, in 2013, the machine-elected PNoy got his own machine-elected senators after a private meeting with Lord Mark Malloch Brown, chairman of Smartmatic, the Venezuelan election provider, who used to work as Cory’s consultant when she fought Marcos before the EDSA revolution. PNoy’s senatorial candidates got 60 percent of all the votes, while the “authorized” non-PNoy candidates got 30 percent and the “independents” got 10 percent.

On Sept. 9, 2013, the “siege of Zamboanga” killed 87 Moro fighters, wounded 146 others, displaced 100,000 civilians and destroyed 10,000 homes without any official explanation of what was happening. On Nov. 3, the supertyphoon Yolanda reduced most of Tacloban city into a no-man’s land without any credible national response, prompting CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour to say, “there is no government”. A year later, the military would suffer its worst defeat in the hands of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) when 44 Special Action Force commandos were massacred by the rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Jan. 25, 2015.

By August 2014, the National Transformation Council, meeting in the Archdiocese of Lipa, felt the Aquino government had become both de facto and terminal, and should be replaced as quickly as possible by a multisectoral and non-partisan transitory council that would, at the very least, recast and overhaul the electoral system, as a prerequisite for the holding of the next general elections. However, there was no concrete mechanism to put this into effect; so the position was simply repeated from one assembly to another as a “cri de coeur.”

Finally, the 2016 elections intervened. Rodrigo Duterte was elected president and everybody else, including the NTC, conceded the new president’s mandate. But on that occasion, I asked the Council: What happens now if PNoy turns out to be not much different than his successor? We could not answer this question then, we must try to do so now.

Duterte tried to shock people with his crude behavior and foul language. He called Ban Ki-Moon and Barack Obama, among others, sons of bitches, and God himself, stupid. He ordered the killing of drug suspects in a drug war that covered back streets and alleys with dead bodies, but yielded no major drug busts or arrests. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, he failed to figure in the global fight against it, even as the nation’s poverty levels skyrocketed, unemployment ballooned, government corruption particularly in health care hit past the roof, and the economy severely contracted beyond all previous levels.

His failure to respond competently to specific problems does not frighten people as much as his perceived desire to claim more power than what the law allows. Although he has not, like Aquino, bribed members of Congress to railroad a constitutionally repugnant bill or to impeach and remove a Supreme Court Chief Justice, he has nevertheless removed Chief Justice Sereno without going through the constitutionally mandated impeachment process, but simply by asking the members of the Court to declare her appointment null and void ab initio.

Duterte did not have to declare martial law, as Marcos did in 1972, to suspend any part of the Constitution. But he has not allowed the principle of checks and balances and the separation of powers to disturb his hold on the three co-equal branches of government. After the government asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2013 to tell China to keep out of the Philippines’ territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and the Court responded positively in July 2016, Duterte tried to repair the breach by asking China to feel at home inside the Philippine territorial waters and EEZ.

By this act, Duterte made China an indispensable primary player in our internal affairs. China will now have a say on how long Duterte will stay in power, and who should replace him if he goes when his term ends next year. Duterte has his own short list of possible successors, all of them except one from his own inner group in Mindanao. But the elections, scheduled in May 2022, look uncertain because of Covid-19. If the lockdown is not lifted, Duterte could move to postpone the elections and extend his term, or he could make good his standing threat to proclaim a Revolutionary Government. He could perhaps count on Chinese president Xi Jinping, who has promised to protect his presidency, to support either option.

A great many people, lots of them in the military, can anticipate Duterte’s possible moves. But very few look forward to seeing Duterte and his associates stay one minute longer in power after the end of his term. In fact, the threat of a RevGov or an extended term could create a spontaneous patriotic movement to preempt an extended dictatorship sponsored or supported by Xi Jinping. If this analysis is correct, the nation could have a fresh start to correct many great wrongs, failed options and missed opportunities since it regained its independence from the United States in 1946.