Thursday, February 09, 2006

The National Situation

The National Situation
7 Feb. 2006, Manila Polo Club

By: Randy David
University of the Philippines

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to
speak at this very interesting gathering. I am
happy to share this podium with former Sen. Gregorio Honasan.

I am quite certain that we were all brought
here tonight by more or less the same
circumstances and the same concerns. We have the
money to buy newspapers and watch the evening
news, and we have the time to reflect on the
information they report. It is almost natural
for us to worry about the direction our country
is taking. We worry for our families, and we
worry especially for the future of our children.

Unfortunately, the rest of our people, trapped
in the rigors of daily survival, are usually
unable to think beyond the next meal. They are
the thousands that line up every day, rain or
shine, outside TV stations, for the rare chance
to be chosen as contestants for the "Pera o
Bayong" portion of noontime game shows. They
were the faces of the hungry and the desperate at
the Ultra stampede last Saturday morning. They
too often gripe about the callousness of the
leadership of our country. But they do not have
the luxury of worrying about politics. And even
when they do, they feel powerless to influence
the course of events. They wait for elections,
and for the largesse it brings, and that about
sums up their political involvement.

Those who have the time to worry about politics
-- like many of us here tonight -- are basically
of two types: (a) those who ask in exasperation
when all this political bickering would end; and
(b) those who ask in exasperation when this presidency would end.

All over the country, forums like this are
being organized by thoughtful citizens. They ask
more or less the same questions: How will this
stalemate end? Whom can we trust? If she goes,
who will replace her? How do we solve our most
basic problems? How much time do we need to
reform our political system? Is there hope for
the country? These are important questions: they
belong to the realm of politics. But I will also
hasten to say that politics is not the only
attitude we can take towards the world.

Be that as it may, the forum tonight deals
with politics. I want to begin by defining the
function of politics in society. Politics is
society's way of producing collectively-binding
decisions. The important phrase here is
"collectively-binding decisions" ­ decisions made
in the name of all of us, and therefore bind all
of us. Such decisions can be as innocuous as
changing the name of a provincial hospital or as
momentous as declaring war against another
country. They can be as high-profile as signing
a peace accord with local insurgents, or as
low-profile as floating new dollar-denominated
bonds in the international bond market to cover
maturing obligations and budget deficits. They
are of different levels of importance, but, when
made by government, they all equally bind us.

Politics is, in the first instance, the process
by which a nation or a community determines who
shall be entrusted with the making of such
decisions. There are at least two ways of
ensuring that decisions made in the name of the
whole nation are honored by every citizen of a country.

The first is by making sure that such decisions
are made only by persons or agencies that have a
clear mandate or the authority to make them. The
second is by making sure that such decisions are made in accordance with law.

Authority means legitimate power. Obviously,
not all power is legitimate. Usurpers may
exercise power, but their power is not
legitimate, and so it is resisted. Tyrants
assume power on the basis of force, and while
they may, for a while, coerce people into
submission, their power will always remain
unstable. Public officials elected fraudulently
may exercise power, but their power will
eventually be challenged. Legitimacy is crucial
to the operation of a system because it is
precisely what assures compliance with collective decisions.

Systems, of course, operate on the basis of a
presumption of legitimacy and regularity. That is
why, when there is a challenge to legitimacy and
regularity, the system has to act to dispel all
doubts. Illegitimate power has a corrosive
effect on the system, and no matter how much it
may try to buy support, or fortify the throne of
bayonets on which it sits, it will always be opposed.

The point I want to stress is that whatever the
form of politics may be in a society, its main
objective is the same ­ how to ensure that
decisions made by the rulers are collectively-binding.

When rulers are perceived to have mandates
enveloped in doubt, the political system heats
up. Time that should be spent in governance --
in defining collective goals, in implementing
these goals and mobilizing public participation
towards their attainment ­ is instead squandered
in endless political communication. Unable to
legitimize their rule by established means,
tyrants find themselves resorting to other means
to secure their hold on power. They may do this
by acts of selective remuneration, or by acts of
calibrated coercion. They may survive in the
short-term but only at great cost to the existing institutional order.

Keeping these thoughts in mind, I want to
examine the roots of the present political
crisis. I will argue that at the center of the
current crisis is the whole question of
presidential legitimacy that our institutional
order has failed to resolve up to this time.

Let's go back a bit and review what happened.

The doubts began to surface as early as May or
June 2004, as the legislators from the
administration and the opposition parties went
through the rituals of a national canvassing
process. The opposition repeatedly questioned
the authenticity of the certificates of canvass
or CoCs from some disputed provinces. In at
least 15 provinces they demanded that the boxes
containing the supporting statements of votes or
SoVs be opened to determine if the figures
matched those on the CoCs. The objections were
duly "noted", but not one ballot box was allowed
to be opened. The administration side argued
that canvassing was a ministerial task, and that
the proper venue for electoral protests involving
the presidency and the vice presidency was the
Supreme Court acting as Presidential Electoral Tribunal.

If this scene has a déjà vu ring to it, it is
because the use of a controlled majority to
override objections is very much reminiscent of
the railroaded canvassing process at the Batasang
Pambansa in the 1986 snap election. Like Cory's
supporters in 1986, FPJ's followers in 2004 saw
the futility of getting a reasonable hearing
inside Congress and demanded that the protest be
brought before the parliament of the
streets. The tide of mass protests led directly
to Edsa. That was how Cory Aquino became
president 20 years ago. To his credit, the late
FPJ dissuaded his followers from protesting in
the streets. He brought his complaint to the
Supreme Court, and paid the amount needed to
re-open the ballot boxes. Unfortunately he died
before even the first election return could be
counted. The justices promptly dismissed the
protest upon his death. There was only a
symbolic legal closure, but the political
question of who really won in the 2004 election remained unanswered.

By nature, political issues have a shelf life
of only a few months. After the Supreme Court
denied Susan Roces's petition to continue FPJ's
protest, the issue was buried and almost
forgotten. But five months later, in June 2005,
the issue of legitimacy returned with vengeance
following the public circulation of the Hello
Garci conversations ­ if only as cell phone
ringbones at first. Malacanang was caught
totally unprepared. This showed in Press
Secretary and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio
Bunye's initial attempt at a cover-up that was so
clumsy and full of contradictions it was instantly disowned by the Palace.

The Garci Tapes contained more than a hundred
conversations between a Comelec official who
sounded very much like Commissioner Virgilio
Garcillano and an assortment of politicians and
political brokers. About 10 of these
conversations were between Garcillano and someone
with the inimitable voice of Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo. These conversations are
revealing and damning. They indicate the
existence of a conspiracy to manipulate the
results of the election in the vote-rich
provinces of Southern Mindanao. They strongly
suggest that Mrs. Arroyo herself seemed to have
full knowledge of the elaborate scheme to pad her
votes and shave those of her closest rival,
Fernando Poe Jr. Resourceful journalists have
scrutinized the content of these conversations,
marking out the names, places, and events
mentioned in the tapes, and establishing their
factual basis. The conclusion, as one Newsbreak
article so cogently put it, was: The shoe fits.

The first reaction from Malacanang was to
dismiss these conversations as clever
fabrications. Various agencies of government
tried to stop the spread of the tapes by
threatening people with charges for violation of
the Anti-Wiretapping Law. Yet on June 27, 2005,
bowing to public pressure, Mrs. Arroyo came out
on national television to apologize for what she
called a "lapse in judgment" ­ for calling a
Comelec official while the canvassing was going
on. Her intention, she claimed, was not to cheat
but only to protect her votes. She said nothing
more about the tapes. In subsequent interviews
she evaded all questions about these wiretapped,
saying she was ready to face any impeachment
charge that would be filed against her.

The story of these tapes remains open. The man
who initially confessed to having taken them out
of the ISAFP, T. Sgt Vidal Doble, returned to the
custody of his unit in the ISAFP, and has since
denied having anything to do with the
tapes. While ISAFP is widely believed to have
performed the wiretap, no one has come out to
tell the full story. To this day, the ISAFP
insists it has no capability to wiretap cell phone conversations.

The central character in the wiretapped
conversations ­ Commissioner Garcillano ­ went
missing shortly after the scandal broke
out. Five months later, he reappeared,
accompanied by armed men who later turned out to
be local policemen. The police offered him
sanctuary while he waited to face the House
committees that were investigating him. The
account he gave in the House was one of studied
evasiveness. He admitted talking to GMA
once. This was not unusual, he said, because
other politicians, including those from the
opposition, also talked to him. But he could not
recall if the conversations caught in the Garci
tapes actually took place. He wasn't even sure
if that was his voice. He emphatically
maintained that he did not cheat for anyone,
least of all for the president. He went into
hiding, he said, because he felt that his life
was in danger. The investigation could squeeze
nothing from this foxy operator, who seemed to
feel at home in the company of the nation's politicians.

This is the first issue. It was so powerful it
brought out the first massive demonstrations
against Mrs. Arroyo. It triggered the
resignation of key members of her Cabinet, as
well as the withdrawal of support from key allies
like former president Aquino and Senate President
Franklin Drilon, as well as a section of the
influential Makati Business Club.

The start of the impeachment proceedings in
September brought the issue back to the legal
arena, where Mrs. Arroyo maintained a firm grip
on the loyalty of her congressional allies. The
impeachment complaints, as we all know, were
killed at the committee level, using
technicalities and parliamentary maneuvers that
relied on the power of the majority vote. The
substantive charges against Mrs. Arroyo were
never taken up. Again, only a symbolic closure
was achieved, and so the issue remains politically alive.

The second issue revolves around the partisan
involvement of key officials of the military in
the 2004 election. This is being investigated by
the committee of Sen. Rodolfo Biazon. The
purpose is clear-cut: To get to the bottom of the
wiretapping and the involvement of some generals
in the election in Mindanao. The investigation
opened with the revealing testimonies of Gen.
Gudane and Col. Balutan, both of whom were
sanctioned by the AFP for appearing before the
Senate without authority from their
superiors. The committee has hit a blank
wall. Military officials, citing EO 464 which
bars top government officials from appearing in
any congressional investigation without prior
permission from the president, have declined to
appear before any legislative hearing.

The third issue is the use of public funds to
finance the presidential campaign of Mrs.
Arroyo. Even during the campaign, the funding
for the PhilHealth cards that Mrs. Arroyo was
distributing in the course of her provincial
sorties had come under question. So too the
improper utilization of the Road Users Tax for
the emergency employment of street sweepers in
every barangay of the country just before the
2004 election. But the one investigation that
has yielded the most scandalous findings on the
misuse of public money for the presidential
campaign of Mrs. Arroyo is the hearing on the
so-called Fertilizer Fund being conducted by the
committee of Senator Jun Magsaysay. The P728
million fund is part of the almost P3 billion
fund of the so-called GMA ­ Ginintuang Masaganang
Ani -- program. A significant portion of this
money appears to have been sourced from the
confiscated Marcos Swiss bank deposits. The
seized Marcos assets had been previously
earmarked by law for the agrarian reform
program. Except for the portion of 8 billion
pesos set aside for victims of human rights
violations, the rest of the Marcos money
amounting to about P27 billion appears to have
vanished into thin air sometime between 2004 and
2005. The admission made by Budget Secretary Neri
and officials from the Commission on Audit so
angered former Senator Jovito Salonga that last
January 30, he felt compelled to write Mrs.
Arroyo a letter. In that letter, Sen. Salonga
told Mrs. Arroyo: "We who do not seek any favor
from you are constrained to conclude that to
remain in power, you (1) prejudiced the welfare
of our poor, landless farmers and (2) ignored the
sacrifices of many persons who devoted all their
God-given resources in terms of time, energy,
effort and the little knowledge and talent so
they might help recover the more than 680 million
dollars from the Swiss Marcos deposits."

The one person who is expected to shed light on
the nature of the Fertilizer Fund, its sources
and its mode of disbursement, is former
Agriculture Usec. Jocelyn "Joc-joc" Bolante, a
known friend and associate of First Gentleman
Mike Arroyo. But, taking his cue from
Commissioner Garcillano, Bolante has also made himself scarce.

These three issues lie at the center of the current political crisis.

In stable societies, political questions like
these ­ that challenge the basic legitimacy of
the sitting president ­ are ultimately resolved
by election, or by acts of Congress or
Parliament, or they are referred back to the
legal and judicial system for further
investigation, prosecution, and
adjudication. But in young societies like ours ­
where the institutional spheres are not yet fully
differentiated ­ legal institutions and
government agencies tend to be heavily
contaminated by partisan politics. This
compromises their independence. Instead of being
able to put an orderly closure to unresolved
political questions, these institutions are
dragged into the political arena and lose their
credibility. Consequently, legal issues are
re-politicized, and the whole process repeats
itself, leaving in its wake the debris of institutional wreckage.

Take a look at some of the major institutional
casualties in this unending political crisis
since Mrs. Arroyo succeeded to the presidency in 2001:

1. First there is the Supreme Court. Members
of the Court came to the Edsa Shrine at noontime
of Jan. 20, 2001 to administer the oath of office
to GMA, even before there was any clear
determination that a vacancy had occurred in the
office of the president. Without signing a
formal letter of resignation, Erap left
Malacanang at around 2:30 p.m. He later claimed
that he had not resigned but only taken a leave
of absence. A few weeks later, the same SC had
to adjudicate a case challenging the legality of
Mrs. Arroyo's assumption of the presidency. The
justices unanimously upheld the legality of Mrs.
Arroyo's accession to the presidency, but they
could not agree on the reasons. Many of the
justices were severely skeptical and critical of
the use of people power to effect a change in
government. The majority decision ruled that
Erap had resigned "constructively" ­ a novel
concept that could not be easily explained to a perplexed public.

If it was quick to state its position on what
was clearly a very dynamic situation in January
2001, the Supreme Court seemed extremely hesitant
to intervene in 2005 when members of the House
committee investigating the impeachment charges
could not agree on the correct interpretation of
the phrase "impeachment proceeding" as found in
the 1987 Constitution. What constitutes an
impeachment proceeding? When is it deemed
initiated? If three impeachment complaints are
filed against the same public official for more
or less the same reasons within hours of one
another, would taking them up on the same day be
construed as initiating three separate
impeachment proceedings, and is therefore
prohibited? Twice, a lawyer asked the Supreme
Court to disallow the ruling coalition's absurd
interpretation of the constitutional provision
barring the initiation of impeachment proceedings
against the same public official more than once a
year. The Court said the question was
premature. Then it said nothing more on the
issue after the defective Lozano impeachment complaint was thrown out.

By the same token, the SC has so far failed to
rule on the constitutionality of the so-called
Calibrated Preventive Response policy (CPR) of
dealing with protest demonstrations, and of the
gag order contained in Executive Order 464.

2. Second, there is, of course, the Comelec
itself ­ the one legal institution that the Cory
Aquino government in the post-Marcos years tried
very hard to rebuild so that its neutral and
professional character may be preserved. A
credible Comelec is the linchpin of a
representative democracy. Mrs. Arroyo has done
much to erode the Comelec's credibility by
appointing to it individuals of unsavory
reputation, not the least of whom is Atty
Virgilio Garcillano himself. The man had worked
his way up the Comelec bureaucracy, and gained a
reputation as somebody who has mastered the
electoral terrain of Mindanao. But another image
consistently stuck to him ­ that of architect of
"dagdag-bawas." Thus, when he was appointed to
the Comelec as one of the commissioners barely 3
months before the 2004 election, no less than
former Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod appealed
to the president to withdraw his
appointment. The same plea was made by a victim
of dagdag-bawas ­ Senator Nene Pimentel. But
Mrs. Arroyo would not be dissuaded. She was such
a firm believer in Garcillano's capabilities.

3. The third is the Armed Forces of the
Philippines. Outside of Marcos, no other
president perhaps has so brazenly enlisted the
services of key officials of the AFP for partisan
purposes than Mrs. Arroyo. Again, the Garci
Tapes are very incriminating. In one
conversation, Garci was complaining that the
cheating operations in some towns were very
crudely done because the ones who were assigned
to perform these tasks were inexperienced
soldiers. Several names of high-ranking officers
were mentioned in the tapes. By a strange
coincidence, except for Gudane who retired,
almost all of them were subsequently appointed to cushy positions in the AFP.

4. The fourth is the Ombudsman. This is a
constitutional office that is invested with the
power to initiate investigations and to prosecute
erring public officials. When the SC ruled that
the Comelec computerization project was illegal
and ordered Comelec to recover the money it had
paid, it also directed the Ombudsman to
investigate the culpability of the Commissioners
and to prosecute them. This has not happened, as
far as I know. The Ombudsman could also have
initiated the investigation of ISAFP's
(Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the
Philippines) involvement in wiretapping. It
could have looked as well into the use of public
funds like the Road Users Tax and the Fertilizer
Fund for the election campaign of the
president. We have not seen any such
initiative. One wonders if the people at the
center of all these controversies know something
we don't when they bravely challenge their
accusers to sue them in court and file the necessary charges.

Somebody ­ I think it is Sen. Kiko Pangilinan ­
recently filed a bill calling for the creation of
a powerful office of an American-style
Independent Counsel, that would have the
authority to mobilize agencies and offices of
government to put together a case against
accountable public officials. Maybe if we can
find enough Kenneth Starrs in our midst who would
not be deterred by the powerful, there might be a
reason for this bill. But I am not certain if
this is the right answer to the dysfunctionality of our institutions.

Let me re-state my basic thesis here. THE CRUX
OF THE PRESENT CRISIS consists in the fact that
the institutions in the political and the legal
systems of our society have failed to arrive at a
reasonable closure of the issues thrust upon
them. The crisis of legitimacy of Ms Arroyo has
led to a questioning of all her decisions and
actions. Her stonewalling on a number of
important questions ­ the use of gag orders and
of diversionary tactics like charter change ­ has
led to a generalized crisis of credibility. This
has spawned more issues than the political system
can handle at any given time without
overheating. It is interesting that the economy
seems to be faring well in comparison. The
crisis of the political system may remain
isolated for a time, but it may eventually engulf
the whole system. It is difficult to say how
long the system can bear the pressure from one of its parts.

What seems clear at this point is that:

- More and more people are demanding
either an end to all bickering or the outright removal of Mrs. Arroyo.

- More and more people are losing faith
in the system's capacity to resolve political
questions within the bounds of the Constitution.

- More and more people are disenchanted
not only with the present administration but also
with the political opposition. They are turning
to the Armed Forces and asking them to intervene.

Having gone through two people power upheavals,
our people are not unfamiliar with extra-legal
solutions involving both military and people
power interventions. They see people power as
the Filipino way of compensating for the
inadequacies of our institutions, even as they
are fully aware of the many problems it spawns.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

What is to be done or how we should respond to
the crisis is a function of how we look at the
situation. The Catholic Bishops Conference of
the Philippines (CBCP) explains the crisis as the
result of the erosion of our moral values. The
bishops are calling for a renewal of our public
life. This is a long-term process, and one can
understand why our religious leaders have couched
the problem in specifically moral terms, even as
they are conscious of not overstepping the bounds
of their authority. The bishops insist that the
solution can come from the relentless pursuit of
the truth by the community as a whole.

My own view is quite different from that of the
bishops. Like them, I believe that our public
values have changed. But, unlike them, I believe
that they have changed not necessarily for the
worse. On the contrary, I believe that the
crisis in our political life arises precisely
from the growing refusal of many ordinary
Filipinos from all classes to tolerate patronage,
fraud, political bossism, corruption, and
misgovernance of our public life. The ruling
classes of our country ­ the ones who are used to
cynical wheeling and dealing, to corruption, to
intimidation, and the exploitation of mass
ignorance and dependence ­ are beginning to
discover that they can no longer rule in the old
way. Every election year they find that they have
to cheat harder in order to get elected.

Politicians like Ms. Arroyo cannot seem to
understand why cheating in elections has become
so suddenly wrong, or why taking kickbacks from
government contracts and pork barrel projects is
suddenly frowned upon. They wake up one morning,
and they discover to their dismay that our people
are demanding better government. On more than
one occasion, Mrs. Arroyo candidly lamented the
degeneration of our political system. It has
become such, she said, that one cannot embark on
a political career and expect to emerge from it
with clean hands. "He who is without sin," she
says quoting from the Bible, "cast the first stone."

Mrs. Arroyo must have been so blinded by
ambition that she failed to read what the
placards of the young people who trooped to Edsa
in January 2001 were saying: Good
government. Accountable government. Competent
government. They did not go to Edsa because they
loved GMA; they went to Edsa because they thought
they deserved a president they could admire, one
who could properly discharge the responsibilities
of a young aspiring modern nation in a complex world.

In their attempt to appease the public, the old
dying class led by GMA, FVR, and Jose de Venecia
are offering to change the form of government,
little realizing that the people have moved one
notch higher. They now demand a replacement of
the whole political class itself. Only now, I
think, are the politicians beginning to realize
that the public is not just seeking to change the
form of government, or just to overthrow Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo and replace her with the
Opposition. Filipinos want a whole new set of
leaders, imbued with a whole new set of values
and capabilities. They want a new nation
equipped for survival in a globalized world they are just starting to discover.

Am I painting a fictional image of Filipino
consciousness? I do not think so. If our
political values had not improved, we would not
have this crisis. We would allow the politicians
to talk it over among themselves, to strike a
modus vivendi (what trapos call a "win-win"
solution) that would benefit every individual
politician in the country. The rest of us,
ordinary citizens, would all retreat into our
homes and perhaps amuse ourselves by their
antics. But no, more and more of us are
staunchly refusing to let our country to be run
by the same breed of cynical politicians.

Our people are better educated today. They are
more connected to the outside world. They know
how other societies work. They have seen more of
the world than the generation of their
parents. And, let us not forget, you cannot send
out more than 10% of your mature population to
live and work in other societies, and expect them
to remain unchanged in the way they think of the
responsibilities of government. What they bring
home from abroad are not just remittances; they
usually bring back with them a new consciousness
of what societies can be like when they are better run.

Politics is basically an arena of
communication. Our political system today is
more complex: it is no longer dominated by
traditional political parties. There are new
voices that are making themselves heard ­ from
the social movements, the non-government
organizations, people's organization, etc. Edsa
I and Edsa II are symptomatic of the emergence of
an educated population that no longer feels bound
by traditional political rules. If we look
closely, we may see Edsa I and II as
manifestations of a middle class political
impatience never seen before in our
country. These events are guided by a vision of
modernity that however needs to be enriched by social justice.

How to bring this vision about is the big
question. I believe that as a long-range vision,
it is not necessarily hitched to any political project.

All over the country, people are meeting and
talking in forums like this. The vision of a new
nation is taking shape in these meetings. We are
already living in a post-Gloria era. Gloria is
history. The reign of the trapos is coming to an end.

How Mrs. Arroyo will eventually go and when, is
probably only a small footnote now in these
discussions. Whether it is by a snap election,
or by people power in combination with a military
mutiny ­ is perhaps no longer the important
question. The question that people are asking
is: Who will replace her? But, I do not take
that to mean a simple search for alternative
faces. I take that to mean: What kind of agenda
for national renewal will bring us forward? What
are our basic and urgent tasks as a people? If
we take care of the agenda, I believe the right faces will come forward.

I would like to end by advancing four basic
tasks that I have heard repeatedly in various fora:

First, to end the scourge of absolute poverty
once and for all, no matter what it takes. The
stampede of the poor in Ultra is only a grim
reminder of this unjust reality we must all help to end.

Second, to educate everyone of our people,
especially the young, in order to equip them for
living in a highly competitive world.

Third, to rebuild the physical infrastructure
of our country, and to protect its environment from long-term damage.

And lastly, to create stable institutions
appropriate to a complex and modern society -- in
a climate of freedom, tolerance, and openness.

If we remain focused and committed to such an
agenda of necessary transformation, I have every
reason to believe that the search for new leaders
will take care of itself. The quest for change
will spawn new political formations and new political parties.

Having said that, I will hasten to add that it
would be a mistake to think that one needs to be
a politician to be able to contribute to the realization of these urgent tasks.

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