Four elders of our political community, all masters in the art of pragmatic politics, met recently to find a solution to the problem created by the withdrawal of ex-president Joseph Estrada’s lawyers from the cases filed against him. They are traversing the thin line between law and politics.
Senators Blas Ople, Edgardo Angara, and Aquilino Pimentel Jr., and Speaker Jose de Venecia are looking for a formula that will defuse an existing volatile political situation while protecting the long-term integrity of our legal institutions. They are convinced that our country faces a dangerous impasse that can only be avoided if we relax our rigid standpoints.
The option they are looking at is virtual exile for the former president. He will be allowed to leave the country under the cover of a necessary surgery to be performed abroad. The trial will be suspended until his return from medical treatment. His stay abroad may be short or it may be indefinitely long. What happens later should not concern us at the moment, they seem to say. The important thing is that the impasse is sidestepped so that the nation can re-focus its attention on more essential problems.
The unstated assumptions of this proposal are worth examining. If we try to understand them carefully, we may be able to decide more easily how to act and what to expect in the days or weeks to come.
I think its first premise is that Erap is politically finished in the sense that his return to the presidency is simply no longer possible. Like a badly wounded fighting cock that can no longer defend itself, he should be allowed to retreat honorably and fade away. The second premise is that, even as his political future is now blank, Erap still commands a large following that can create trouble for the government. From the ranks of the poor who voted him into office in 1998, many believe, to this day, that he could have been their savior if the elite had not unjustly removed him. These Erap true believers form an explosive element in our society. The sooner we stop “persecuting” their hero by releasing him from detention, the quicker it may be to appease their anger.
Modernists, like those who fought at the two Edsas, may share these premises but they vehemently disagree with the conclusions drawn. They think that, yes, Erap is politically finished, but he should be brought to justice for his crimes because he will not quietly fade away. To allow him to walk free now even before the courts have tried him is to mock our system of justice and to make it difficult in the future to enforce our laws against the powerful holders of public office. And, yes, unfortunately, he may well still enjoy some support among the poor. But the basis of this support – money and patronage – is the very thing we want to root out of our political life. The issue strikes at the very core of the social reforms we have been fighting for since the first Edsa. We must face the issue head-on, even if it may mean civil war, if we want to mature as a nation.
I personally think the time for political “back-channeling” is over. The four wise men of Congress should have thought of this before Erap was arrested. The former president is now under the jurisdiction of the courts. The more the legislature and the executive exert pressure on the courts, the harder and more necessary it will be for the judicial branch to preserve its integrity and credibility as an institution. The legal resolution now rests solely with the courts, whereas the political initiative – any move to resolve the situation by extra-constitutional means — may be taken anytime by the Estrada forces.
The courts have no choice now but to let the trial take its course. This means that they must keep the accused under custody, unless they decide to free him on bail or allow him, on humanitarian grounds, to seek medical treatment abroad. The question however is whether the courts can do any of these at this time without appearing to have succumbed to political pressure or blackmail. By impugning the integrity and independence of the Sandiganbayan and even the Supreme Court itself, Erap has boxed himself into a corner. His supporters may decide to free him forcibly, and we just have to face up to that possibility.
A scenario that I would like to see is something like this: Erap recalls his lawyers, a reasonable compromise is reached on trial schedules, the trial resumes, and the pending motions are quickly resolved. The Sandiganbayan may deny Erap’s request to seek medical treatment abroad but it grants Jinggoy Estrada’s petition to post bail. The accused keeps his room at the Veterans Hospital where he is confined and is accorded all the respect that is due him as former president. The trial proceeds with full transparency. Politicians and the media refrain from passing judgment on the merits of the cases.
Two things are on trial today, I think. The first is our ability to maintain an institutionalized system of justice that is fair and transparent. The second is our ability to resolve political disagreements without killing one another. These abilities are not governed by the exact sciences; their practice more properly belongs to the realm of art.
Running a nation is a balancing act between the requirements of modern law and the imperatives of culture. There is no place for absolutism – whether legal, moral or political. To fail to see this is to risk losing the nation.
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