Impeachment as a truth procedure

I do not share the view of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) that impeachment cannot yield any truth unless it is performed according to fair rules and with the common good in mind. I believe that the impeachment of any president, no matter how it is conducted, can be an important source of political truths. It can teach us many truths about our politicians, our political system, the State, and the power that is latent in every citizen.  It is these truths that ultimately prod people to act intelligently and to respond decisively to political crises.

Impeachment is both a legal and a political event.  It is legal in the sense that it is explicitly prescribed by our Constitution as the proper way to remove a sitting president who stands accused of high crimes and betrayal of the public trust.  It is political in at least two senses. First, in the sense that its judgment of guilt or innocence is determined ultimately by a parliamentary majority.  Second, and more important, in the sense that its proceedings are addressed to a collective subject – “the people” — whose allegiance the government endeavors to keep. Impeachment gives the people a chance to reflect on the acceptability of those who make decisions in their name.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that I am one of those who recently filed the 2nd impeachment complaint against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. I believe in constitutional processes like impeachment and elections as much as I believe in people power uprisings. I was among the first to suggest in 2000 that Joseph Estrada be made accountable for his actions through an impeachment process. I also participated in Edsa I and Edsa II.

The fact that Estrada commanded majorities in both houses of Congress did not discourage us from filing an impeachment case against him then.  Why should Ms Arroyo’s vaunted control of the House of Representatives deter us now?  Political events are dynamic and open-ended.  They acquire meanings in the public mind and produce outcomes that cannot be fully anticipated.

The impeachment of Erap was aborted when Edsa II intervened and proceeded to pass its own judgment.  The result was the ouster of an incumbent president who had a valid electoral mandate, and the legalization of what was basically an unconstitutional act.  Edsa II would not have happened if it had not been preceded by the impeachment.  I can only suppose that the replication of this fatal sequence is what scares Ms Arroyo today.

But what kind of truths did the impeachment of Erap reveal that the public did not already know?  Hardly any actually.  The people followed the trial on live television for the dramatic testimonies that would confirm what they already knew from the mass media. But the impeachment confirmed something else – the brittleness of Erap’s power.  This is the truth that all political events bring out – a measure of the power that one is opposing.  This power tends by nature to exaggerate itself.  Only a political event can compel it to reveal its true extent.

By the time the prosecutors staged the walk-out that aborted the trial, Erap’s charisma had already dimmed; his authority over the key institutions of the State – the armed forces and the police, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and indeed the legislature – had also weakened.  Sensing this, the key players and plotters of Edsa II acted swiftly, brought in the military, and swore in Ms Arroyo as successor before Erap could start to gather his political forces. The outrage of his mass supporters exploded three months later, by which time a new administration was already securely in place.

Having arrived in Malacanang by this route, Ms Arroyo knows, perhaps more than anyone else, what damage an impeachment trial can do to someone like her whose claim to authority rests on nothing solid.  That is why last year, when she was most vulnerable, she did everything imaginable to kill the impeachment case before it could reach first base.  The short-circuiting of the whole process through calibrated payoffs was so brazen and persistent it could have set off a political explosion at any point.  But Ms Arroyo was never complacent.  She worked hard to ensure, first of all, the loyalty of the military commanders.  One by one, she visited the leaders of the various churches, and repeatedly wooed the Catholic bishops.  She leaned on the judiciary, and called on the debt of gratitude of those she had put in high positions.  She bought her way into the hearts of local government officials, and obtained the support of a large section of the media.

Last year’s shortened impeachment gave us a peek into the power structure of our society.  It revealed the deep complicity of our basic institutions in the political survival of Ms Arroyo.  It showed how much the middle class has allowed itself to be softened and bent, and restrained from acting by their fear of the masses.  These are painful truths, but they are worth learning even more today as Ms Arroyo goes on the offensive and deploys the coercive power of the State to create a climate of terror.

In time, we may begin to understand what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the corroding effects of illegitimate power.  “Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power, or debased by the habit of obedience, but by the exercise of a power which they believe to be illegitimate, and by the obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive.” This we must resist.


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