From crisis to crisis

Since June 6, when Press Secretary and concurrent Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye first bared the existence of the “Garci tapes,” the President has had many occasions to say something about these tapes.

Speaking through Sec. Bunye, she said she would “not dignify” them because their source is patently illegal. A few days later, she told businessmen in Hong Kong she would address the issue at the right time, when the political overheat has subsided.  She has given speeches and interviews in which she argues that the tapes are part of a sustained effort to destabilize her government.

In other words, she has not been silent at all.  On the contrary, she has answered nearly every question on the issue, except the most important one that is on the lips of every citizen of this country: Did she or did she not have private conversations with Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano during the period of canvassing in the 2004 elections?

What is so difficult about answering this question?  If those alleged conversations never took place, why would a straight denial from the President incriminate her?  In fact, one would reasonably expect a person deeply protective of her honor to immediately deny she is one of the parties in those tapes.

But — if she actually had those conversations, then she is probably well-advised to keep her mouth shut.  Anything she says may be used against her in a court of law. Unfortunately, Gloria MacapagalArroyo is not an ordinary citizen but the country’s highest public official.  While she is entitled to a private life like the rest of us, she cannot, as a public official and as a politician, invoke her right to privacy on a question that is of the utmost public concern without seriously damaging her credibility.  The law might protect her, but she would stand defenseless in the political arena.

The content of those tapes pertains to the conduct of the last presidential elections.  They suggest a conspiracy between the President, who was a candidate, and a very high election official whom she had appointed to the Comelec despite his shadowy reputation as a manipulator of election results.  If, instead of flatly denying the veracity of these conversations, she continues to erect a defensive wall of words around her, how long can she expect people to believe she is not hiding something?

It is interesting how much the Palace has contributed to its own problems.  The existence of these taped conversations was first publicly announced by no less than the Presidential Spokesman himself.  June 6 was a Monday.  We can reasonably assume that Malacanang’s crisis team met during the weekend to determine how to handle the tapes.  When Sec. Bunye presented and played two compact discs to the Palace press corps, one labeled “original” and the other “altered”, it is difficult to believe the President did not authorize what he was going to do or say on that occasion.  A presidential spokesman speaking on his own behalf on a vital matter pertaining to the president?  That would have been the height of irresponsibility.

Bunye promptly disappeared immediately after.  When he returned to his post sometime later, he had a different story to tell.  He said he was no longer sure that was the President’s voice on the tapes, and that he was now convinced that both tapes had been tampered with. He could no longer identify the source of these two tapes.  In less than a week, Malacanang moved from pre-emption to damage control, indicating the active participation of lawyers.

For a while, voices sympathetic to the President floated the option of a benign admission of impropriety.  In this scenario, GMA admits she had those conversations with Garcillano, and apologizes for talking to him. But she emphatically denies she cheated in the elections.  That option has now been abandoned.

It is clear that Malacanang has shifted President Arroyo’s bid for survival from the terrain of political debate, where she is losing, to the arena of legal combat, where she hopes to win or, at least, delay her downfall.

The latest Palace line is a model of studied evasiveness: The President won the elections fair and square.  If there are any doubts about her victory, they must be resolved in accordance with the rule of law.  The alleged wiretapped conversations, whether authentic or not, are illegal, and therefore inadmissible in evidence.  The President has not committed any impeachable offense.  Without saying so explicitly, the Palace is daring the President’s detractors to sue her.

The President has the numbers in both houses of Congress.  Her allies can ignore public opinion and throw out any impeachment case at any stage of the process.  The country may go through this wrenching exercise all over again, hoping that truth and justice will prevail in the end.  But in the final analysis, the case will be resolved by a vote based not on any objective appreciation of the evidence at hand but on political allegiance.

The public skepticism about the autonomy of our institutions and the capacity of our political leaders for statesmanship is what is driving the protests in the streets.  Suppressing legitimate dissent will only further damage our institutions.  The crisis of legitimacy of the incumbent president is ripening into a crisis of institutional confidence.  When the President starts ordering the nation’s armed forces to quell the critical voices of its citizens, the whole existing framework of the rule of law is put on the line. At that point, this crisis may well develop into a crisis of the entire social order.

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