This time last year

At about this time last year, Filipinos delayed their Christmas parties so they could watch television.  On the last day before the Senate impeachment court went on holiday recess, Clarissa Ocampo came on board as a surprise witness against President Joseph Estrada. Thus began the most politicized Christmas break we ever had in our nation’s history.

Family gatherings became instant venues for passionate debate and political analysis.  Lawyers became professors, and everyone became an expert on evidence and the fine points of courtroom procedure.  By calling on Ms. Ocampo to testify on the “Jose Velarde” account, the prosecution cleverly fired a heat-seeking missile that found its way into the living room of every Filipino home.  The trial, as it turned out, was suspended only at the Senate; everywhere else, it continued with dramatic intensity.

The Estrada forces began to worry.  They controlled the votes at the Senate, but not the sentiments of a public that was finding out for itself how presidents steal and lie.  Erap’s lawyers were certain that their client would eventually be acquitted.  They had the numbers, but now the political fallout from the entire exercise seriously bothered them.  It dawned on them that the whole trial could be overtaken by events.  Having dropped its bombs, the prosecution could walk out anytime, and leave an enraged public to deal with the wreckage of a severely discredited regime.

Both the defense and the prosecution were aware of the dual character of presidential impeachment – that the trial was as much about legality as it was about legitimacy.  That the case could be won or lost on evidence as well as on rhetoric.  That there were two juries hearing the case at the same time: the senator-judges and the general public.  In such a situation, you could score legal points and lose political capital, or win political points while sacrificing legal advantage.

Knowing they had the votes, the defense lawyers played the game as if it was a purely judicial exercise.  They questioned every statement and every piece of evidence, and demanded technical fidelity to procedure to the horror of an impatient public.  On the other hand, the prosecution knew they would not be able to muster enough votes among the senators to secure a conviction, and so they were not as mindful about legal correctness.  All they wanted was a chance to present as much derogatory evidence and as many devastating witnesses as they would be allowed to produce.  They knew that in the final analysis, the success of their effort was going to be measured not by what the senator-judges thought but by what an informed public would do in the light of its own appreciation of what was happening.

The Erap camp read the situation very badly.  They were too focused on the legal arguments and the legal weapons at their disposal to notice and to worry about the dramatic erosion in public trust that was threatening the presidency.  They had legal luminaries but, surprisingly, not political strategists.  In contrast, the prosecution team was, from day one, focused on political objectives.  Their goal was not so much to convict Estrada as to bury him politically.

One of the reasons for this tragic miscalculation by the Erap forces, I believe, is the smugness that tends to afflict people in power.  Having been voted with one of the largest electoral majorities in our history, Erap mistook this to be a mandate from heaven itself.  He began to think of the presidency as destiny and of himself as another Bonifacio or a Magsaysay who would lift the masses from destitution and despair.   The result of this is arrogance, the tendency to think that power is a gift from God rather than a covenant with the people.

This is the reason I get distressed when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo begins to think of the presidency as destiny.  It is not.  The presidency is contingency.  It reflects the shifting aspirations of a community that is constantly being shaped by the forces of time and circumstance even as it attempts to control its own future.  It behooves a president to read the historic opportunity being presented to him or her by virtue of the position.  The presidency is an assignment to do something crucial to the survival of the nation at a particular point in its life.

Gloria would not be president today if Edsa II had not happened.  And there would not have been an Edsa II if the prosecution had not been given a reason to walk out.  The trial would have proceeded to its logical conclusion, and the Senate would have voted to acquit Erap. The public would have felt swindled by such a decision and there would have been outrage.  But that outrage would have found a suitable channel in the May elections, and Erap would have remained president.

At around this time last year, Filipinos contemplated the fate of their nation under a president they did not deserve.  Erap had become the country’s biggest liability in a world that had become harshly competitive.  Yet fearing the effects of prolonged instability upon the nation’s institutions, they were prepared to let him finish his term. Gloria did not loom as an alternative.

In this season of humility, it may be useful for GMA to recall that she became president not because she was elected but because the incumbent president had been ousted.  This is a disruption, not continuity.  Implicit in it is a duty to set things right, to create a new morality in government, to begin a new phase in our national life.

Merry Christmas to one and all!


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