Confusion and vision

At a student leaders’ conference in the University of the Philippines the other day, Bam Aquino of the National Youth Commission ran a quick survey with the audience. To every question, he requested the participants to stand up to register their response.  The last question was: “How many of you are confused about the present political situation in the country?”  About 80 percent of the students stood up without hesitation. I was shocked.

During the open forum, I began to understand what the students’ confusion might be about.  It is not just about one thing; it is about many things.  They are not sure who is telling the truth, or what the truth is, or how important it is.  They are not sure who is right and who is wrong, or what morality means in politics. They do not know whom to trust among the country’s leaders.  They do not know what feelings they should have, and how they should act.

I realized this is not mere indifference. It is more like a breakdown of moral sensibility resulting in a paralysis of will.  From day one after the Garci tapes surfaced, Malacanang’s operatives have used every means to kill the issue of electoral fraud and to sow the seeds of doubt in the public mind.  On June 6, they announced the existence of an alleged opposition plot to destabilize the government using “altered” tapes that show President Arroyo in conversation with Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.  The “original”, they claimed, only contains innocent conversations between Ms Arroyo and one of her political leaders.  On June 27, Ms Arroyo admitted talking to an unnamed Comelec official, but she said her purpose was not to cheat, but only to protect her votes.  She apologized for “a lapse in judgment,” but refused to address the issue any further.

A week later, she went on radio to say that Philippine politics had become so rotten no one who participates in it can keep his hands clean.  She dared her detractors to “cast the first stone.”  She said that exit poll results show that she may in fact have been cheated of some votes.  In her State of the Nation Address on July 25, she wove her speech around the same theme – a decadent political system is hampering the country’s economic growth.  On this premise, she called for a change in the country’s form of government.

When finally she made herself available to the media, she challenged her critics to file an impeachment complaint against her instead of asking her to resign, so she could answer the charges in the appropriate forum.  She breezily invoked her “rights as an accused person” to justify her refusal to talk about the Garci tapes.

The opposition accepted her dare and filed an impeachment complaint.  But instead of allowing the process to unfold, Ms Arroyo’s supporters in Congress did everything to prevent the complaint from prospering beyond the initial stage. The complaint was finally interred in a tomb of technicalities. Her loyal legislators recited a mantra that equated the law with procedural literalism and stripped it of any normative meaning.  The vote in the plenary affirming the dismissal of the complaint was hailed as the triumph of democracy, as if democracy was synonymous to majority vote, and had nothing to do with reasoned argument and debate.

It is necessary to find our way through this confusion if we are to break the current political stalemate.  Since the start of this controversy, I have traded notes with my venerable friend, the former Ambassador to Germany, Bienvenido Tan, Jr. In many ways, Benny resonates the same doubts that the UP students expressed at the forum.

Benny asks: “How are we to interpret the recent voting at the House? Does it mean we have 51 patriots, 158 traitors, and 8 who cannot make up their minds? To my mind they are all for themselves and what power can bring them.  What have they given up voluntarily for the country or our people? If cheating at the elections is the issue, who can cast the first stone?  Does anyone really care about the ‘true will of the people’?  If it is true that the majority congressmen were bought or convinced by other means, what moral standards is the opposition offering the country to replace those of Gloria’s?”

First, I believe there is nothing wrong with politicians having personal motives.  But for these to have social validity, such interests have to be fused with the wider interests of the community.  That is how leaders are found: they personify the aspirations of an entire nation or community.  Second, cheating in elections must bother all of us who value democracy.  Democracy is meaningless if we do nothing to make elections trustworthy. That is why it matters very much that we know whether Ms Arroyo and Commisioner Garcillano manipulated the 2004 election.  Third, it may indeed be true that many of our present politicians are morally bankrupt. But that should only prompt us to be selective of our future leaders, rather than forgiving of the corrupt ones we have.

Clearly, it is not just confusion we are battling here.  We are also up against cynicism, fear, despair, and the pull of blind affinities like class.  We might begin to overcome these if we could visualize the kind of nation we want to leave to our children.  In my heart of hearts, I know that such a nation has to be one that is self-reliant and capable of governing itself, is run by leaders who inspire trust in their people, who in turn have a reason to be proud of their identity and heritage and fully embrace their responsibilities as citizens.  If such a vision has any value at all, it should show us the way past Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

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