The origins of the crisis

If the only issue the “Hello Garci” tapes raise is cheating in an election, what, indeed, is new?  All Filipino politicians are known to cheat in one form or another.  The whole organization of our elections encourages it.  But access to cheating is fairly distributed, and so the candidate who emerges victorious is in all likelihood the real winner. And the candidate who cannot protect his votes deserves to lose.

This was basically the line taken by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when she confessed to calling up an election official at the height of the canvassing of votes in the 2004 election.  Ours is a “degenerated” system, she said in the face of the Garci tapes revelation, but “let him without sin cast the first stone.”  The important thing is that “I won fair and square.”

This is exactly the point of view of those who refuse to be troubled by the massive manipulation of election results in Mindanao suggested in the so-called “Garci Tapes.”  Here is a sophisticated variation of the argument.

Where cheating is done by everyone, it usually does not substantially affect the real outcome of elections.  To know the “real” outcome, one only needs to look at the pre-election surveys and exit polls. When done professionally, these surveys and polls tell a truth that is often more reliable than the official results.  Moreover, one may turn to what international observers and watchdog bodies like Namfrel are saying. If they say the elections have been generally fair and honest, they must be so.

This argument has an interesting subtext rarely acknowledged or articulated.  It goes like this: The choices we make in this world are imperfect.  We find ourselves choosing or sticking by a Iesser evil in order to prevent a greater one from happening.

In her appearance the other day before the Citizens’ Congress, former Arroyo Cabinet member Dinky Soliman spoke of her wish to break out of this moral dilemma.  “I have come here today to account for my own actions because I think it’s time to begin to own up to our part in this situation that we find ourselves in….I have come to realize that my actions, as a public servant (during) my time in the DSWD, (had) its good points.  But during the campaign, in my fear that another actor would become president – Mr. Fernando Poe Jr. – I was party to actions that betrayed public trust as a public servant.” She says she now recognizes this grievous error and asks for forgiveness.

In a culture that assigns a greater premium on personal loyalty and restraint than on moral correctness, Dinky Soliman may not gain much sympathy.  The middle class, to which she belongs, would especially find her message disruptive.  They would excuse GMA’s moral lapses in the name of preventing a greater moral wrong.  Yet this is the same middle class that raised questions of moral fitness to justify ousting Joseph Estrada from the presidency in 2001.  Moral norms, as we may see, seldom account for political behavior.  Rather, their activation in given situations must itself be explained in terms of changes in the general conditions of society.

My own hunch is that the whole liberal framework of constitutionalism and rule of law that defines our form of government is now ironically standing in the way elite dominance, and that the existing order is unable to perpetuate itself without resorting to blatant violations of its own institutional processes.  The crisis of the Arroyo presidency is thus only an episode in the crisis that has beset the country since the declaration of Martial Law.  Therefore an enduring resolution to the crisis must go beyond the ouster of Ms Arroyo, and begin to address the ills of the system itself.

Changes in the composition and function of the Philippine ruling class in the last 35 years have imposed new and greater demands on the State.  These demands have made the control of state power more crucial than ever to economic accumulation.  At the same time, the rapid spread of the mass media even in the midst of poverty has created a politically active population that feels entitled to choose its own leaders.  The entry of mass media celebrities into the political arena is only the most visible symptom of this change.  It has given Philippine politics a dash of unpredictability.

Marcos changed the rules of the elite game in 1972 by establishing a dictatorship.  Because of his regime’s unbridled corruption, he failed and was eventually overthrown.  Cory Aquino managed to reestablish liberal elite rule, but failed to respond to popular demands from below.  Her candidate, Fidel Ramos, almost lost in the 1992 election.  Ramos’s personal choice in the 1998 election, Jose de Venecia, was trounced by the candidate of the poor, the actor Joseph Estrada.  This outcome was unacceptable to the elite.  Two years into his administration, Estrada was ousted by a people power uprising. The vice president, Ms Arroyo was installed and legitimized as successor through a process that strained the parameters of constitutionalism.

In the 2004 election, Ms Arroyo had to face Estrada’s best friend, the iconic movie hero FPJ.  There was no way she could beat him except by literally buying support with public funds and by employing the master technician of electoral cheating, Virgilio Garcillano.  From the railroading of Ms Arroyo’s proclamation in 2004 to the railroading of her impeachment a year after, everything else thereafter, including the ongoing effort to re-invent elite rule via charter change, has been a blatant attempt to save a dying system. This is the heart of the crisis.

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