August 12, 2005

Impeachment trap

When the House of Representatives (HOR) Committee on Justice deliberates and decides the impeachment complaint versus President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, it is not only the merits of the complaint that will be measured and judged. In the final analysis it will be the fundamental system of checks and balances in a constitutional democracy that will itself be put to the test. Will the system be able transcend the current configuration of political alliances – the realpolitik as it were -- that overwhelmingly favors the Arroyo administration. Can it truly ferret out the truth and decide on the basis of public interest?

The experience of the Estrada impeachment trial more than four years ago is still fresh in the people’s minds especially the walk-out of the public and private prosecutors after the suppression by Estrada allies of what was perceived to be vital evidence that would pin down the accused. The denial of the opening of the “second envelope” served as the trigger setting into motion a train of events culminating in the “EDSA II” uprising that successfully ousted the Estrada regime.

Indeed there was a rupture in the prescribed constitutional process of removing and replacing a regime in power since the impeachment trial was aborted by the Prosecution walk-out. In fact it was the direct exercise of the people’s sovereign authority through “people power” that brought down the Estrada regime. The more than 50,000-strong march to Malacañang in the early morning of January 20, 2001 served to underscore the point that one of the most popularly-elected presidents in the nation’s history was being unceremoniously booted out of power.

Yes, Virginia, President Joseph Estrada didn’t resign no matter the convoluted legalese that the Supreme Court utilized to uphold the legitimacy of the Arroyo presidency (which, by the way, Chief Justice Hilarion Davide effectively pre-judged when he swore Vice President Arroyo into office at the EDSA shrine on the very same day Mr. Estrada hightailed it out of the Presidential Palace).

But Mrs. Arroyo chose not to anchor her assumption to power on the bedrock of the people’s sovereign will and action of ousting a previously popular president. In a highly calculated political move, she chose to foist the legal fiction that Mr. Estrada had “constructively resigned”. Therefore, purportedly by virtue of constitutional succession, Mrs. Arroyo as Vice President most prim and properly stepped into the vacancy.

The message was this: Mrs. Arroyo owes nothing to people power and she derived her mandate exclusively from having been elected as Vice President.

Such a stance comes as no surprise. Then and now the political and economic elite in this country have proven their abiding fear of the rising political awareness of the downtrodden masses and the growing strength of their organizations autonomously organized away from the shadow of patronage politics and the sway of corrupt and reactionary politicians.

Indeed these organizations constitute the core of people power: the force that can mobilize the critical mass needed to topple a tottering, corrupt and anti-people regime.

Thus the high-profile role in EDSA II of the People Power Triumvirate, Cardinal Sin-Cory Aquino-Fidel Ramos; the unabashed backing from the anti-Estrada section of big business such as the Ayalas and the Makati Business Club; and the withdrawal of support by the military and civilian bureaucracy -- these are all deliberately cited as the key factors to the successful removal of Mr. Estrada from power in order to eclipse the more crucial role of the mass movement of quite ordinary and lowly folk.

Even the presence of the so-called middle forces is highlighted to contravene the overwhelming numbers of common folk who trooped to EDSA during the four-day uprising and then marched to Malacañang to draw the exclamation point to the entire people power exercise. The scenes of ordinary people from all over the country calling for Mr. Estrada’s ouster and/or resignation and all through-out his two-and-a-half-year stint as president, protesting his regime’s anti-people, anti-Filipino policies are being airbrushed from the people’s collective consciousness.

With recent history as backdrop, it is then quite easy to see why impeachment is the preferred mode by the GMA regime to resolve the severe political crisis it has become mired in. Like Mr. Estrada, Mrs. Arroyo hopes to use her advantage of having the overwhelming majority of Congressmen as her allies in stopping the impeachment complaint dead on its tracks. Malacañang will not risk allowing the Opposition to elevate the impeachment complaint to the Senate for trial. Executive Secretary Ermita candidly admits that Malacañang will do everything to prevent history from repeating itself.

There should be no doubt about it. Mrs. Arroyo’s challenge to the Opposition that they channel calls for her removal from office away from the Parliament of the Streets into the halls of Congress as the only “constitutional” venue was meant to restrict the space for struggle to an arena that Mrs. Arroyo’s allies dominate and control. No matter the pious intonations about upholding the “rule of law.”

Justice Romeo T. Capulong of the Public Interest Law Center, a seasoned human rights lawyer who figured prominently as private prosecutor in the Estrada impeachment trial has this commentary on the current situation which I believe is worth sharing with readers.

“Understandably, the impeachment process now appears to be the common ground of the pros and the antis. It is also the process proposed or preferred by the power centers in the prevailing social structure, namely: the dominant churches, the business sector, the professionals and middle class and the senior leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police. I venture the view that fear of the power of the masses and threat to the status quo drove these forces to an informal though adversarial unity of action under the banner of constitutional processes.

“…Based on our experience in the ouster of Joseph Estrada, the impeachment of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, though a safety valve and sole arena of the political elites, is an important supportive process that could trigger and decisively arouse people in their millions to oust the Macapagal-Arroyo government, install a transition government with a concrete program and hold ‘snap elections’.

“The danger in the impeachment process, assuming that it will reach the Senate, or even if it’s bogged down by the legal antics and gobbledygook in the House of the Representatives, lies in the fact that it will be a tedious and protracted trial. And while such prolonged process will further weaken the political system and deepen the divisions of the ruling class, it will deepen tensions and restiveness in the ranks of the power centers I mentioned which may provide the much-awaited excuse for a US-backed military intervention or martial rule.”

Aug. 12-13, 2005


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