The Philippine Star : Inaugural

By Alex Magno | The Philippine Star

The inauguration of a new president is the closest thing to state pageantry we have. The one to be held at the steps of the National Museum casts the event in an emphatic historical frame.

BBM’s transition team is now busy preparing the venue. They say it was the incoming president’s own choice to hold the inaugural ceremonies there.

Younger Filipinos have no memory of the place except for its current function as repository of the nation’s artistic treasures. The building used to house both chambers of the Philippine Congress. As such, this was the place where previous presidents addressed the nation. This was where Manuel Quezon, Jose Laurel and Manuel Roxas assumed the mantle of the presidency before the Quirino Grandstand was built on reclaimed land.

There is no other podium in the country that matches the grandeur of this building. There is no other podium that summons the weight of our history like this one.

The area used to be the very center of our national life. The Post Office building nearby was built in the same neoclassical style favored by the American colonial government. Right beside is the Manila City Hall with its iconic clock that for many years, before it was restored, gave us the correct time only twice a day.

The building, when it still housed both chambers of the Philippine Congress, was where Ferdinand Marcos Sr. delivered his state of the nation address in 1970. Stepping out of the building, the president who broke precedent by winning reelection was met by a crowd of angry student demonstrators. Someone shoved a cardboard coffin towards him and a riot ensured.

The violent dispersal of the protesters led to a series of demonstrations at the heart of Manila that was subsequently dubbed The First Quarter Storm. In one of these demonstrations, leftist activists managed to commandeer a fire truck and rammed the gates of the presidential palace. The guards opened fire on demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails and pillbox bombs.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), we now know, orchestrated the street violence. The strategic goal was to bring forth a revolutionary surge that would sweep the radicals to power.

In 1971, the grand rally of the opposition Liberal Party at Plaza Miranda was attacked with two hand grenades. The party’s entire senatorial slate, sitting onstage, was nearly wiped out. Senatorial candidate Benigno Aquino Jr. was suspiciously absent from the event.

In response to the bombing attack, Marcos Sr. suspended the writ of habeas corpus to contain the surge in terrorism. The armed communist movement, however, continued building up their guerrilla forces and escalated attacks on the armed forces. On Sept. 21, 1972, Marcos Sr. imposed martial law, suspended the 1935 Constitution, padlocked the Congress and set the stage for a long period of intense polarization.

For five decades, the country was deeply divided between those who lionized Marcos Sr. and those who blamed him for all the evil that beset our society.

In February 1986, a coup attempt supplemented by large civilian mobilization ousted the Marcos family from the Palace. That event flung the pendulum the other way, although it never resolved the polarization. An unremitting anti-Marcos orthodoxy was installed as some sort of state religion.

The compelling outcome of the May 2022 elections may have shattered the post-Edsa orthodoxy, founded as it was on perpetual hatred for anything Marcos. We have yet to find out if it breaks the long cycle of polarization.

Marcos Jr. anchored his campaign for the presidency on the promise of unity. That core message clearly resonated with our voters. The numbers show that.

Breaking the long cycle of political polarization, fueled by the hate campaign of the communists and the Liberal Party, requires building a new public consensus about where the nation should go.

Holding the inaugural on the steps of the old Congress building is a good start. It takes our collective memory back to the scene where intense polarization began.

We can expect the inaugural to be a revival of sorts, with attendees coming in their finest Filipiniana garb. It brings us back to what many might imagine to be a happy time for the nation, when politics was genteel and contestation was polite.

A revival, however, is not transcendence. In order to transcend the cycle of polarization, we need to build a strong public consensus reaffirming the idea of a nation. Marcos Sr. wove a powerful state narrative on nationalist themes. Marcos Jr. will have to rebuild that narrative.

The inaugural speech will be important. It will be the first step towards constructing a new narrative for our politics, one that is anchored on love for country.

Nationalism, however, could be a slippery concept in this globalized world. Protectionists who want to set us all back through inward-looking policies will try to exploit the concept’s anti-colonial aspect. The communists, for decades, used some version of nationalism to resist modernization of the national economy.

Nationalism, however, is the only card in Marcos Jr.’s deck if the wants to construct a new consensus. It must be a version of nationalism anchored on competitiveness and adept economic policy-making during a time of global volatility.

Marcos Jr.’s resounding electoral victory must be understood not as a triumph of the Marcoses over their detractors. Rather, it must be understood as the triumph of the forces of national unity over half-a-century of destructive polarization.

The inaugural speech must give our people a sense we are moving forward, not back.