Making sense of the GMA-Erap deal

The basic task of social analysis is to interpret what is happening to a society, not to agree or disagree with the actions taken by people. Only if we keep this distinction in mind is it possible to observe ourselves as a people, and to see the various ways by which we judge events.

Let us take as a case in point President Arroyo’s grant of pardon to Erap soon after his conviction by the Sandiganbayan court.  Critics say this is a reversal of the judicial process, a mockery of the law.  It does look like that.  But from an institutional perspective, we cannot complain too much.  Conviction is juridical, whereas pardon is political.  The right to pardon is a residue of the majesty of the sovereign, in our case the president representing the people, and so it is, as legal scholars have noted, typically not qualified by many legal restrictions.  To the same class of powers belongs the prerogative to issue amnesty.

It would be a different matter if the Sandiganbayan justices had anchored their decision on what was deemed politically prudent. That would surely have burned the legal system. To all intents and purposes, the Sandiganbayan acted as an autonomous body. Its judgment became final when, on his behalf, Erap’s lawyers suddenly withdrew the motion for reconsideration that they had previously filed. The withdrawal, effectively an acceptance of the decision, completes the legal process.  It made the conviction of the ex-president final. That is not an insignificant achievement for a legal system that has been perennially under pressure from different political forces on this case.

The grant of pardon after conviction is a political act.  As such, it falls under the norm of legitimacy, rather than of legality.  Accordingly, the relevant question is not so much whether the Erap pardon satisfies the law, but whether it satisfies the public. Are people willing to be bound by this presidential action?  The venue for airing such question is not a court of law but the court of public opinion.  Even as it is obvious that the grant of pardon was driven by political expediency rather than by mercy, it does not diminish the value of the Sandiganbayan decision.

What is important in the long term is the conscientiousness with which our society applies the distinction between law and politics. On it rests our ability to handle more complex and troublesome situations in the future. Parallel developments are taking place in other spheres of our national life.  Our economy is demonstrating a remarkable autonomy that accounts for its steadiness in the face of political crises. Our justice system is trying painfully to become self-directing in its own sphere, despite the overt politicization of its prosecutorial agencies. It is our political system that has seemed unable to insulate itself from the effects of inherited inequalities, and to keep its operations from spilling into other institutions.

It is in the context of this reality, in the huge disparities between social classes, that we may locate the logic of Ms Arroyo’s grant of absolute pardon to Erap.  It is definitely a clever political move.  She stands to gain more from it than the convict she has pardoned.  She may indeed lose whatever remaining support she still enjoys among the Edsa 2 middle classes, but that is a small price to pay for throwing the opposition in disarray and defanging its most militant segment — the mass followers of Erap.  More than this, the pardon is clearly aimed at buying herself protection in a future government where Erap will likely still command influence.

The reality is that despite his detention and conviction, Erap is far from being a spent political force.  GMA knows this.  In detention, the ex-president could continue to sponsor destabilization efforts against her.  Pardoned, he could be persuaded not to lend his name to any attempt to oust her. This is political realism in a society where roughly sixty percent of the population remains under the spell of traditional political patrons and mass media celebrities. GMA will pass into political oblivion after 2010, but not Erap.  He will be a force to reckon with, a figure to court for those with presidential ambitions, so long as the majority of our voters are rendered politically vulnerable by extreme poverty.

Realizing its marginal role in Philippine elections, the middle class, the harbinger of modernity, has favored non-electoral modes for effecting transitions — people power, impeachment, coups, calls for resignation, etc. It is this class that gave the country its two women presidents: Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, both of them the beneficiaries of people power.

But people power is caught in a paradox, which limits its potency.  Its spontaneous and unorganized character, driven by a strong moralism, is the source of its vitality.  It is also its fundamental weakness. Middle class activism seldom leads to anything sustainable, like the formation of mainstream political parties.  Even when, to its own surprise, it scores electoral victories, as in the case of Fr. Ed Panlilio’s successful run for Pampanga governor, the engagement tends to stop at the polls. Without a party on which to anchor itself, the middle class espousal of modern governance is quickly drowned out by the pragmatics of political patronage.  No wonder, in the end, trapos like GMA and Erap will always find it easier to deal with one another.

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