The rebirth of institutions

In a series of defining moments in 1986, the electoral system and the military establishment asserted their integrity against efforts to misuse them for arbitrary and illegal interests.  Today, it is the turn of Congress, the stock market, and the banking system to do the same. Let us hope they all rise to the occasion.  For in this manner alone can nations in the modern world profit from their recurrent crises to become better and stronger societies.

Our banking industry, long suspected as a possible refuge of global “hot” money, is finally redeeming itself.  Its defining moment began with the resignation of Equitable PCI Bank Chairman George L. Go, who quit his position when his close friendship with President Estrada became, overnight, the bank’s biggest liability.  Mr. Go’s name first surfaced when he was identified as a member of the board of the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation, which maintained a huge account with the bank. This foundation, according to Gov. Chavit Singson’s testimony, has been a repository of jueteng money.  Mr. Go’s name came up once more in connection with the “Jose Velarde” account, which has been exposed as belonging to President Estrada.

Chairman Go had to resign as the highest official of Equitable PCI Bank in order to protect the bank from the repercussions of the Estrada impeachment case.  His exit paved the way for the emergence of vital witnesses from the bank who could provide crucial evidence and testimonies about Estrada’s hidden wealth.  One of them is the brave woman Clarissa Ocampo, senior vice president of the bank, who testified under oath that President Joseph Estrada signed the fictitious name “Jose Velarde” in her presence.  This revelation supplies the missing link in the prosecution’s account of presidential corruption and represents a decisive turning point in the impeachment process.

Presidents come and go, but banks have no tenure.  They must be able to operate under any regime.  They can do this only if they conduct themselves according to the law, and apply their rules consistently and without regard for individual status and qualities not relevant to their formal functions.  In practice, however, banks, like all other institutions, sometimes find themselves having to accommodate requests of a personal nature from people in power, that may fall within the gray areas of the law.

Indeed, they may as often tap the same “personal connections” in order to advance corporate interests.  A good example of this might precisely be the manner in which Equitable Bank, under the leadership of Go, acquired the bigger PCIBank in May 1999 with the help of pension funds from the GSIS and SSS.  It would be naïve to think that Go’s friend, President Estrada, had no hand in making this possible. This is a common practice in transitional societies like ours, and although this is not necessarily illegal, it makes banks vulnerable precisely to such problematic personal requests as that of Jose Velarde/Joseph Estrada.  Hopefully, as we become more and more a part of the global economy, we will find little need and space, if any, for such connections.

Congress today finds itself at the same crossroads.  A mirror image of our deeply personalistic political culture, this institution is now under pressure to reinvent itself so that it can become a worthy pillar of the nation in the new century.  The impeachment of the president is its moment of truth.  The question before it is whether, given the political interests it represents, it can carry out its constitutional role as an effective check against presidential abuse.

Again, let us go back a bit.  In 1986, the Batasang Pambansa failed in this same task when it allowed itself to be controlled by Marcos by declaring him the winner of the fraudulent snap election.  The Supreme Court too was unable to rise to the occasion.  That is why People Power had to intervene.  But it shared that glorious moment with a reborn military institution.

Today the Senate, constituted as an impeachment tribunal presided over by the Chief Justice, is under public scrutiny.  Many doubt its ability to deliver justice because of the manner in which some of its members have compromised their impartiality as judges.  Two senators have admitted receiving gift money from the president.  One or two others have close relatives who were favored with presidential appointments.  To top it all, in the ongoing impeachment trial, some senator-judges have conducted themselves in a manner that leaves little doubt that they have already prejudged the case.

Yet in spite of all these, our people have opted to put their faith in the basic integrity of the Senate as an impeachment body.  The danger of political chaos terrifies them.  They cling to our institutions for a measure of security in these uncertain times.  With child-like innocence, they expect the senators, the holders of public trust, to remain true to their vows and not betray the long-term interests of the nation.

Nothing in political theory justifies this faith.  That is why political analysts like myself, subscribing to established models of human behavior, tend to proceed from “a willful closure to the surprises of politics.”  But in the last two weeks of this impeachment trial, I have been sufficiently impressed by the wisdom of Justice Davide, and I have seen enough of the surprises sprung by dauntless witnesses, mostly women, to restore my faith in our institutions.

Merry Christmas to everyone!


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