The legitimacy crisis and its effects

At the heart of the nation’s current crisis is the failure of its political system to put to rest persistent doubts about the right of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to continue exercising the powers of the presidency.  The principal cause of this failure is the system’s inability to protect its institutions against abuse by a reckless politician desperate to keep herself in power.

Political legitimacy is the principle underpinning every social order that draws its vitality from consensus rather than coercion. Legitimacy results from the free acceptance by citizens of their leaders, and their willingness to be bound by decisions made in their name.  The absence of legitimacy produces a restless and rebellious public. Left unresolved, a legitimacy crisis can erode an entire political system, and engulf a whole social order.

In modern democracies, legitimacy is not a mandate that comes from outside society. It is rather created by society’s internal processes, in particular by its political system.  This system proposes visions of progress and offers the leaders who are supposed to embody such visions.  The public makes its choices known through elections.  The preservation of the sanctity of the ballot lies at the core of this process.  But legitimacy is more than just winning elections or conforming to procedures.  It ultimately rests on what an articulate public is willing to accept.

In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos mounted a coup against his own government by declaring Martial Law.  He jailed dissenting journalists and opposition leaders after accusing them of participating in what he called a “rightist-leftist conspiracy.” Young activists went underground to oppose martial rule, but the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, and indeed of the general public, led Marcos to think that what he was doing was right.  It took 14 years before the nation would realize it had been deceived.

In the snap election called by Marcos in 1986, a public that had recovered its capacity for outrage in the wake of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination rejected the official results put out by the Batasang Pambansa proclaiming the re-election of Marcos.  A people power revolt sparked by a failed military coup ousted Marcos and installed Cory Aquino as president.  Filipinos — and the rest of the world — enthusiastically welcomed Ms Aquino, who forthwith abolished the rubber-stamp legislature, re-constituted the Supreme Court – another damaged institution, and replaced the 1973 Marcos Constitution with one written by her own appointed Constitutional Commission. The public accepted the legitimacy of these actions even if they were made by someone who, strictly speaking, had not been duly elected president.

In 2001, the second time people power was used to oust a sitting president, the circumstances were somewhat more contentious.  The incumbent president, Joseph Estrada, had a clear mandate from his landslide victory in the 1998 election.  While there were lingering doubts about his fitness for the position, the nation accepted his assumption of the presidency.  On his second year in office, however, initial public anxiety over his erratic work habits and decision-making style erupted in full-blown protests against the criminal company he kept and the corruption that seemed to mark every decision he made.

But Estrada was not a dictator like Marcos; extra-constitutional means to oust him seemed out of place.  Accordingly, impeachment charges were filed against him.  But while the Senate was hearing the charges, the proceedings took a different turn.  At a crucial stage in the hearings, the prosecutors walked out to protest a vote won by pro-Estrada senators.  The walk-out triggered mass demonstrations that came to a head when the top leaders of the military announced they too were withdrawing their support for the President.  This quick succession of events forced Estrada to leave Malacanang.  The Supreme Court justices promptly swore in Vice President Arroyo as President, and later affirmed the validity of her succession to the presidency.  They argued that, by his actions, Estrada had “constructively resigned.”

The sudden appearance of the military commanders, led by the chief of staff, at the Edsa Shrine in 2001 to announce their withdrawal of support was the turning point.  It will likely haunt Philippine politics for a long time.  Yet, I believe that, for all its constitutional ambiguity, there was general public acceptance at that time of Ms Arroyo’s accession to the presidency.

Ms Arroyo’s legitimacy crisis today stems directly from the widespread suspicion, spawned by the “Hello Garci” tapes, that she personally conspired with election officials to rig the 2004 presidential election. Her failure to give a prompt and credible response to the controversy, the evasiveness with which she replied to questions about the wiretapped conversations, and various attempts to cover up the deed, so eroded her credibility that many people are now inclined to review the events that led her to the presidency in 2001.  Was Edsa II spontaneous, or was it a product of a well-executed elite conspiracy?

This is the situation we are in today. Unable to feign, buy, or cajole legitimacy, Ms Arroyo has instrumentalized every state institution to ensure her political survival. In so doing, she has unwittingly exposed the violent foundations of our unjust social order, and encouraged a radical resolution of the nation’s crisis. Like Marcos, Ms Arroyo is fast becoming the communist insurgency’s biggest recruiter.

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