A nation overtaxed by politics

In modern, stable democracies, politics is kept within institutional limits.  It is not allowed to invade other spheres of society, or to occupy the greater part of a nation’s time.  The public remains conscious that there are other equally important things in life worth pursuing.  There is art, there is economics, there is science, there is religion, and there is family life, etc.

Nations undergoing the difficult transition to modern democracy – like the Philippines – tend to spend a lot of time on politics. Every single aspect of public life tends to be politicized.  Thus it is the utterances of politicians rather than the achievements of artists, writers, teachers and scientists that hog the public’s attention.

Politics, of course, is basic to a society’s life.  Through politics, a nation produces decisions that bind every citizen. Such decisions take the form of laws and of government programs.

Crucial to the exercise of the political function is legitimacy.  This is not merely a question of faithfulness to legal procedure, or of possession of valued qualities, or of confirmation by an external authority. More than all of these, legitimacy is a claim to a mandate that, all things considered, a modern nation is prepared to grant.

A head of state whose mandate is in question will have a hard time enforcing the nation’s collective decisions, its laws, and its programs. It may not be able to govern at all.  Its mandate will be continuously challenged before the courts or in the terrain of politics, by opposition parties, by social movements, or by citizens’ groups.

The function of the legal system, says the theorist Niklas Luhmann from whom I borrow these ideas, is to “stabilize normative expectations.” This simply means that it is the task of the law to establish a clear and consistent line between the legal and the illegal.

When courts fail to produce decisive rulings on issues put before them, the tendency is for these issues to be re-politicized.  The political system is the realm of politics, administration, and the public.  In modern democracies, issues are continuously debated by the party in power and the opposition.  The outcomes of this debate, which normally take the form of legislation, are then submitted to the public – which may approve or dissent from them depending upon its perception of their reasonableness.  Administration is the structure through which collectively-binding decisions are enforced.  When administration is co-opted by private agenda and deviates from the legal mode, it loses its effectiveness.

Using these basic concepts, we may begin to understand the profound crisis we are facing today. We can start from any point and unravel the issues.  I find it helpful to start with the events surrounding Edsa II in 2001.

The impeachment of the incumbent president, Joseph Estrada, was then in progress.  Administration and opposition were locked in debate.  The public avidly watched and commented on every outcome of the televised proceedings.  On a crucial vote concerning the admissibility of a piece of evidence, the proceedings were disrupted by the walkout of the prosecution.  The walkout triggered a mass demonstration at the Edsa Shrine demanding the ouster of Estrada.  On the second day of this public demonstration, the AFP Chief of Staff and the commanders of the armed services climbed the stage to manifest their withdrawal of allegiance to the incumbent president.  This was a mutiny by the nation’s soldiers, a political act that patently violated the Constitution.

Estrada refused to resign. Citing the possibility of public unrest in the face of the stalemate, the Supreme Court decided to come to the Edsa Shrine and swear in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as President, without prejudice to a challenge being filed later.  Indeed, at least two petitions were subsequently filed before the SC.  In both instances, the high court ruled that Ms Arroyo’s succession to the presidency was valid.  But no matter how one looks at it, the SC had compromised its autonomy when it collectively took part in a political event whose constitutional validity it would later rule upon.

Still, legitimacy is what people will accept.  While a big segment of the population manifested their rejection of Ms Arroyo in May 2001, the AFP stood by her.  The outcome of that year’s senatorial election confirmed the split in the public’s loyalties.

These events overtaxed our young institutions.  The political instability they spawned might have been put to rest if Ms Arroyo had not run in the 2004 presidential race.  Her decision to be a candidate, even while she enjoyed the full powers of the presidency, overburdened the bureaucracy. The first casualty was the Commission on Elections, which she packed with appointees hardly known for their probity and independence.  Then there were the government agencies that became the funnel for the massive public funds to finance high-profile Arroyo projects during the election campaign. The one institution that bore the brunt of excessive politics was the AFP itself.  The price of this is the military fragmentation we have today.

The way out of this rut, if there be any, is the activation of the remaining institutional processes in order to prevent the monopolization of power by Ms Arroyo and her group.  The courts are crucial here.  Their failure to act with dispatch only encourages Ms Arroyo to resort to coercion to solve her legitimacy problem, and the opposition to employ extra-constitutional means to dislodge her government.

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