Law and politics

Against the majesty of the law, politics appears morally inferior.  This is especially true in societies like ours where the quality of politicians often induces in citizens a desire to completely banish politics from their lives.

But even if this could be done, it would not be wise to do so. Politics allows a society to adjust to new times, and to reflect in its laws and institutions changes in its culture and in the character of its members. To kill politics would be to freeze a social order in time.

We need politics, but it “cannot be treated with levity,” the writer Emerson says. Politicians who have been made cynical by their experience at actual lawmaking may sometimes think they can pass the stupidest law if they are able to get the numbers.  One Filipino lawmaker was once quoted as saying that in Congress you can get signatures even on toilet paper.

“But the wise know,” Emerson writes, “that foolish legislation is a rope of sand which perishes in the twisting; that the State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen; the strongest usurper is quickly got rid of; and they only who build on Ideas build for eternity; and that the form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it.”

It is so for politicians also who may think that the number of votes that won them public office is a rough measure of the liberties they can take with their power.  Their power is a “rope of sand” too.  It is constantly tested in the twists and turns of public life.  Joseph Estrada thought that his popularity gave him a license to flout common standards of decency, just because his voters did not seem to mind the colorfulness of his private life.  What he did not seem to appreciate is how much Filipinos needed a leader they could be proud of and respect.

One year into the presidency, Erap mastered the possibilities and trappings of power but not the responsibilities of his office.  The public caught glimpses of this on television, and read about the shady company he kept.  His unfitness for the position became increasingly visible even to those who initially saw in him a harbinger of a nonelitist order.

But the clincher was the impeachment trial, which the public avidly followed like a political telenovela.  One cannot think of a more consciousness-raising event in the media than the impeachment of Joseph Estrada.  Filipinos are not stupid.  Beyond the nuances of legal procedure, they knew what was fair and right.  They could tell who was lying and who was telling the truth.  They could sense who was resorting to legal maneuver to hide the facts, or to confuse the public.

When the Senate declared a Christmas break in December 2000, the legitimacy of the Estrada presidency was already eroded beyond repair.  The right of the incumbent to continue in office was completely in doubt.  The public had heard enough.  Estrada’s lawyers today argue that President Estrada may have lost his power but not his authority.  By our laws, they claim he is still president.  On the contrary, I think, Estrada had lost his authority before he actually lost his power, if by authority we mean not just consistency with the law but political legitimacy.  The law itself, Emerson reminds us, acquires its life only from the force of living citizens. The competition for the loyalty of that force is what politics is about.

If a significant proportion of the Filipino public had thought that the ouster of Estrada and the succession to the presidency of the vice president on January 20, 2001 was unjust, they would have poured out into the streets and surrounded the usurpers at the Edsa Shrine. They would have done so repeatedly in every plaza of the country until the legitimate president was returned to his office.  This was what happened to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who was ousted by the upper and middle classes of his country.  But unlike Chavez who regained the presidency, Estrada was unable to call upon his constituency to support him.

The poor who voted for him were sorry to see him go, but it was clear they were not prepared to defend his right to remain in office.  Edsa III, which happened four months later, was a largely spontaneous event.  It was triggered not so much by the poor’s urgent desire to reinstall the former president to power, but by the pain they felt at the shabby treatment of a president who at one point had given them hope.

Erap may, for a time, be able to draw upon some urban poor communities in order to periodically launch his own version of people power demonstrations.  But it is doubtful if these can ever catalyze a popular movement equal in strength and credibility to the Erap Resign movement.  Marcos loyalists kept the memory of the former president they revered by staging mass actions after he was deposed.  Their numbers progressively dwindled when he died, though they still show up whenever Imelda makes an appearance before the courts.  Without a legitimate cause that an enlightened public can support, Erap’s loyalists will go the same way.

Though we may often feel that in this age of mass democracy, public positions go to the merely popular, and politics has become nothing more than exposure and name-recall, it is well to remind ourselves that the public mind is never static.  In the end it is great ideas that prevail, not mere numbers.  As Emerson puts it:  “A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom or conquest can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions, out of all proportion to their means.”


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