The pessimism of spectators

The more we regard events as having a life of their own, rather than as things we can shape, the more paralyzed we feel.  The less we act, the more our society appears distant from us.  The more we demand guarantees before we can act or believe, the more we feel like outsiders to our own society.

All over the country, in various forums, middle class people are asking the same questions.  Who will replace Gloria?  What assurance do we have that a new set of leaders will be different from the rotten ones we have had in the past?  By resorting to people power all the time, are we not further destroying the very institutions we seek to rebuild?

Sometimes these questions are asked in all sincerity.  At other times they are asked only as a cover for a deeply-rooted apathy.  I want to offer some answers here in the hope of provoking discussion.

Who will replace Gloria?  I am amazed that this question is being asked at all at this time when we are not even facing an election.  On its face it seems so unnecessary.  The more we ask it, the more we encourage Gloria’s narcissistic boast that she is the “best” person to lead this country.  A gifted people like us should be able to easily produce at least a million individuals far superior to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in brains, love of country, experience, and integrity.

But perhaps the question is really being asked to call attention to the quality of politicians who seem to be already preparing to assume the presidency as soon as Gloria is ousted.  I do understand the alarm that the presence of some familiar faces in today’s protest marches tends to trigger.  But I do not understand why we think alternative leaders must automatically be recruited from their ranks. Certainly, if we fail to nurture and offer new leaders, the familiar and the shameless will always be the first to step up to the plate.

Leaders emerge when they are able to express, by their words and by their actions, the collective yearnings of a whole community.  They often capture the imagination of a whole generation.  That was how Ramon Magsaysay in the 1950s became a leader.  That was how the young Ferdinand Marcos emerged as standard bearer of the Nacionalistas in the 1960s. That was how Ninoy Aquino and Pepe

Diokno in the 1970s became the icons of the generation that fought Martial Law.  And that was how Ninoy’s widow, Cory Aquino, came to the presidency in the 1980s, and Joseph Estrada in the 1990s. The moment the message became clear and was accepted by the people, the new leader emerged.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did not come to the presidency by this route.  The presidency fell on her lap like an unripe fruit — even as people power was just beginning to shake the system — by virtue of the abrupt withdrawal of allegiance made by the commanders of the Armed Forces in January 2001.  She was by no means the leader or the face of Edsa II.  Unable to secure popular support for the mandate she claimed, she has since exploited the weaknesses of our political and legal system to keep her grip on power.  As we now have seen, we are paying dearly for the excesses of this failed presidency.

What guarantee do we have that the leader who replaces her will be better?  There is no guarantee.  The best way we, as citizens, can keep our leaders from being corrupt and abusive is by watching them, by demanding answers to our questions, by telling them what’s wrong when they seem to fall out of line, and by applauding and affirming our trust in them when they govern well.  That’s how democracy works.

Are we not weakening our institutions when we speak up, march and protest on issues that have already been referred for resolution to political and judicial bodies? No.  These are rights enshrined in our Constitution.  Their exercise constitutes the kind of vigilance that makes democracy stable and strong.  When institutional processes – like elections and impeachment proceedings – are not conducted fairly and with full transparency, we owe it to our country and to the values we hold to raise our voices in protest.

But is people power the right way to change governments?  Definitely not.  Democratic elections have always been our preferred mode. People power in our country did not explicitly happen as a means for changing governments.  It arose mainly as a tool of non-violent protest.  It acquired the reputation that it can topple governments as a result of the military defections it has been known to trigger.

Soldiers are also citizens.  When they feel they are being asked to execute illegal and anti-people orders, or when they feel that their own professional organization is being manipulated by politicians, they will find a way of manifesting their own grievances.  And this, as we saw in 1986 and 2001, may include withdrawal of allegiance from the existing government.

In some societies, the military may come to a point where it begins to think that the people, unable to trust their political leaders, demand that the soldiers themselves take over government.  This has happened many times and is still happening in many parts of Latin America.  I am very wary of the prospect of something like this happening in our country.  I do not believe in governments run by soldiers.

But the best way to prevent this is precisely by exercising our rights to defend our institutions, by pressuring them to work as they should, and by demonstrating the viability of civilian leadership at all times.  If the question of legitimacy persistently hounds a government, the only recourse for a democracy is to quickly resolve the matter through elections. Failing that, we open ourselves to all kinds of risks.

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