Political transitions and legitimacy

On a cold day like this in January 2001, exactly 13 years ago, the Philippines found itself in the throes of another wrenching political transition. The impeachment trial of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada had been abruptly aborted. The political convulsion that followed thrust Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the presidency. Although her succession to the highest office was repeatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court, questions about its legitimacy hounded the Arroyo presidency until its final days, something Cory Aquino, who also became president via people power 15 years earlier, did not have to deal with.

Legitimacy is the lifeblood of modern political systems. What this means is that any government—no matter how authoritarian it may be—must eventually justify its rule in terms the people can accept if it is to continue issuing collectively-binding decisions.

The question is: What is the basis of political legitimacy? We often associate legitimacy with elections. Indeed, that is the usual form it takes in stable societies. Yet, we all know that elections can be rigged or manipulated in various ways so as to cast doubt on their reliability as the mirror of the people’s will. Therefore, winning elections does not always put to rest doubts about political legitimacy.

Ferdinand Marcos called for a snap election in the fading months of his rule in order to shore up the legitimacy of his government. The political exercise he instigated, that he officially won, instead produced the conditions that led to his overthrow through a civilian-military coup—the event we celebrate as Edsa 1. Joseph Ejercito Estrada was elected to the presidency in 1998 with the biggest margin in the Philippines’ political history. Yet his solid electoral mandate did not make him immune to the effects of Edsa 2, the civilian-military coup we have opted to forget. Because of such events, “people power” has come to be viewed as a direct expression of the sovereign will of the people, a force capable of canceling the mandate given by elections.

But, the term “people power” is a self-description given by those who initiate it. It may speak in the name of the people, but that claim is not easily validated. In other words, it has no analytical value to an external observer who may wish to understand the conditions under which extra-institutional transitions are legitimized in constitutional democracies.

These are issues that have recently been brought to the fore in neighboring Thailand, a constitutional democracy under a unifying monarchy. The events in Thailand, whose economy, interestingly, has remained stable and dynamic despite the ongoing political crisis, make us wonder, once again, what political legitimacy consists of.

In the last two months, leaders and followers of the opposition Democratic Party have poured into the streets of Bangkok almost daily calling for the ouster of duly-elected Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first woman prime minister. In response to this challenge, Yingluck—who is widely derided by the opposition as the mere pawn of her brother Thaksin, the exiled former prime minister—dissolved parliament and called for elections in February, in accordance with the Thai constitution. This did not appease the opposition, which has refused to recognize and participate in the February elections.

The demonstrations have escalated in the meantime, encircling government ministries in an attempt to paralyze operations and force Yingluck to yield power. The demonstrators, mostly from the Bangkok middle classes, demand the installation of an unelected “people’s council” that will clean up government, reform the electoral process, and dismantle the political base of the Shinawatras. Yingluck has denounced these demands as undemocratic and contradictory to the rule of law. The international media appear to be sympathetic to this view, seeing in the opposition’s impunity the tacit backing of the military.

The Shinawatras are themselves not without any support in Thailand. Their followers are among that country’s teeming poor, who have immensely benefited from the populist programs of Thaksin. They, too, have shown their capability as a political force both in the polls and in the streets. Known as the “Red Shirts,” they can actively take to the streets again to defend their leader, and Thailand can be plunged in a civil war. Only the military, with the tacit approval of the King, can avert Thailand’s irreversible slide to political chaos.

As in 2006, when the military hounded Thaksin out of power with the prodding of the Bangkok middle class, royalists, and intelligentsia, the awaited transition can usher in a new government, creating its own justification for the crushing of the old order. But, unless the Thai people accept this legitimation, whatever its basis may be, the new government cannot rest easy. For, soon, elections would have to be called again—if only to lend plausibility to the Thai political system’s projection of itself as a democracy. Ousted, the Shinawatras can be back again.

For that is the nature of legitimacy: It has little to do with obtaining electoral mandates, or conformity with law, or being able to deliver on promises. It is simply the political system’s formula for explaining itself at any given time, in such a way as to render its communications consistent and its claims plausible. As Niklas Luhmann succinctly put it, “Legitimation is the form in which the political system accepts its own contingency.”

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