Column: The Iglesia’s show of weakness

Written on the afternoon of Monday, August 31, 2015, an hour or so after the Iglesia Ni Cristo protesters left Edsa, and published the following day. The lucky timing led to over 60,000 page views of the original column (my 360th, as it happens), and about 17,500 shares on Facebook. Plus hundreds of very interesting comments.

Wow. What just happened?

As I write this, the smoke has cleared from the Iglesia Ni Cristo protest action on Edsa. The protesters have gone home; the intersection of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue and Shaw Boulevard, the main site of the mass action, has been tidied up; the major satellite rallies in Cebu and Davao have been called off.

Protest organizers eagerly declared “victory” when they announced the end of the protest, saying the thousands of church faithful who had taken to the streets can now go home because the Iglesia ni Cristo had reached an “agreement” with the government. What that agreement stipulates they did not say. Neither (as of the time of writing) has the government.

I am skeptical that any agreement has in fact been reached—aside from the strictly logistical understanding needed to allow the protesters to leave Edsa in orderly fashion. Of course I could be wrong, but it does not seem likely to me that a famously stubborn president like Mr. Aquino, buoyed by renewed popularity and unfailingly loyal to his friends, would abandon Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on the altar of political expediency.

It would be naive to expect that the Iglesia ni Cristo, the only church with a proven record of voting discipline, would pledge its bloc vote to the President’s preferred successor, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, in exchange for De Lima’s head—and nine months before election day! Tradition, and now even apostate voices within the church’s community, will attest that the Iglesia vote is determined largely by the candidates’ popularity in the home stretch of the campaign. (In this way, the INC is exactly like Brother Mike Velarde and his El Shaddai Catholic charismatic movement—except that the surveys have repeatedly proven that only a small proportion of El Shaddai devotees vote the way their spiritual leader tells them to.)

If the Iglesia bloc vote was not up for negotiation, then what kind of agreement was even in play? Assume the worst, that the Aquino administration had been willing to dismiss the charges filed by the Samson family against eight church officials, what could the Iglesia negotiators have offered in return? An unrealistic pledge is no pledge at all.

The lawyers of the Samsons who filed the serious illegal detention charges against eight members of the Iglesia’s ruling council are right to demand the details of any supposed agreement. I cannot see how their presence during the negotiations with the protest organizers could have been possible; the mere participation of the lawyers would have ended the talks. But if there is an agreement that will impact on the case the Samsons filed, now is the time to ask for specifics.

But was there in fact such an agreement? Until it is proven otherwise, I would have to discount the organizers’ pronouncements of victory and agreement as face-saving rhetoric.

Let’s go back to Thursday, Aug. 27, when the mass action began with a picket of De Lima’s office. Did the people behind the protest begin with this outcome in mind: That it will force the government to strike a deal, an agreement, that would be unspecified, unpublicized, unacknowledged?

When the organizers decided to escalate their protests, by proceeding to the Edsa Shrine and on Sunday effectively barricading Edsa, did they have that ambiguous, amorphous agreement in mind?

When they literally demonized De Lima (in a raucous presentation during what was officially called a vigil), did they expect her to resign? Did they expect her to dismiss the Samson case outright, a day after it was filed? Did they expect her to apologize?

When they fielded their members in a bold attempt at a show of force, did they intend to put the fear of God in the Aquino administration? On purely religious or church occasions, the Iglesia faithful have come out in their millions. This past weekend, however, the protesters were a small minority of the church membership: a few thousands at the Edsa Shaw intersection, near Boni Avenue, at the Edsa Shrine. The total number never reached 20,000.

Some of the protesters, interviewed by reporters, confessed to a feeling of frustration.One of the most-read stories on Inquirer.net was about a devout member who said the protest had achieved nothing; that story was shared on Facebook almost 110,000 times.

Did the organizers plan to impress the general public with a display of their clout? The millions of people in Metro Manila who had been inconvenienced during the four-day protests were underwhelmed and over-angry. Did the organizers assume that politicians seeking their bloc vote would come rushing in to defend their position, that the Samson matter was a purely internal affair? The example of Vice President Jojo Binay and Senators Grace Poe and Chiz Escudero, who received an unprecedented backlash on online and social media for their statements, stopped other politicians from making the same mistake.

A show of force? The protest was in fact the exact opposite. On Thursday, the Iglesia ni Cristo took to the streets of Manila as a political force to be reckoned with. On Monday, they left Mandaluyong much diminished. The organizers had miscalculated.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion

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