Democracy At Trial

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

It is not a circus, it is an impeachment trial. It is of utmost importance to the Filipino people that what is debatable should find clarity, if that which is debatable is crucial to societal well-being.
It is democracy in trial, no less. Philippine society now pays for the shortcomings of history. But more than a karmic consequence, what can happen is that the shortcomings will be addressed and substantially resolved.

Our democracy is a copy of the democracy that America understood and lived by – at the time political independence was granted to Filipinos last July 4, 1946. The elite of our society produced most of the Ilustrados who became part of Commonwealth governance, Filipinos who could speak Spanish and English, went to the best schools available at that time, and had the family fortune to sustain their political careers. Because the Americans really ruled the Philippines despite their liberal posture in allowing limited Filipino participation in governance, the democracy was taught by behavior, democracy American-style. It was at best a confusing expression of democracy as explained by the books, but yet was clear to a people who never read about democracy. To Filipinos, they were race native to the land but governed by Americans after three centuries of being governed by Spaniards. Monarchy and democracy had a strangely familiar taste to the native islanders.

The history of democracy in the Philippines began with an invasion, a bloody pacification or subjugation of natives by American forces. It is no wonder that democracy is difficult to really understand if one is Filipino. Why would our people be invaded and conquered in a brutal manner when we had done no wrong to America, the champion of democracy? But life goes on and we try to survive under all kinds of circumstances that we cannot change. To be fair, the conquerors were civil after the brutal subjugation was complete, and American rule was largely fair and peaceful – except to Muslims who refused to submit to American authority. The sum total of Filipino experience with democracy is democracy according to America, even a democracy that curtsies to American interests and power.

What happens when a Supreme Court Chief Justice is impeached? What happens to democracy as we understand it from experience rather than studied concepts? If there is no jurisprudence in American history of such a case, just as there was no history of a people-powered revolution removing a sitting president, Philippine society goes into a series of hiccups. It can even go into turbulence. But there is no way to avoid it. Experience itself is a maturing ingredient, and the greatest learning moments of a person’s life have mostly been anchored on the most dramatic experiences of that person. Catharsis is an intermittent requirement for growth. For most developed countries, such catharsis was in the form of violent revolution.

Ours is catharsis Filipino-style – which always tries to avoid widespread or sustained violence. Our most bloody periods have been in circumstances which we could not avoid – like the invasions of Spain, America and Japan. Our ancestors tried to retain our freedom, many died for it, but they did not succeed in all three cases. Thank goodness that People Power I and EDSA Dos were peaceful. Thank goodness that the next possible catharsis is only the impeachment trial of Rene Corona. Should it become physical, like an outpouring to the streets in another people power situation, violence does not seem likely. The military is not as restive, not even with some pro-Gloria Arroyo officers still in service. And Gloria Arroyo is disliked, distrusted and most unpopular. She cannot drive a people power initiative. Neither can Rene Corona who is identified with her.

I saw many professionals from the legal profession, and those employed by them, march from Manila-based courts to the Senate to show support for Corona. The funny part was that they were saying, as their streamers were saying, that democracy is dead because there is now a dictatorship. It is so funny because they were there out in the open with the most “free” media in Asia covering them. They said that they were there to defend the independence of the Judiciary as though the exercise of a Constitutional provision like impeachment was, in fact, against the Constitution. Apparently, only judges and justices – and those employed by the courts – know what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, Constitutional or unConstitutional. They do not want the Judiciary to be co-equal, they want it on top of everyone.

Personally, if the leaders and personnel of the Judiciary are the prime examples of integrity and propriety, I would not mind putting them as first among equals. I thought at first that it was so for some time, but it was my youth so naively making me look through rose-colored eyeglasses. There was a time when people talked of corruption in reference to mayors and governors, to higher national officials of the Executive. There was a time when people talked of corruption in reference to the Legislative, meaning congressmen and senators. Well, it is the most open secret that people talk today of corruption in reference to the Judiciary, pointing to judges and justices who sell their decisions. I do not have to tell this to lawyers; they best know how clean or dirty the Judiciary is. If the accusations of corruption are precisely the core of the impeachment of the  Chief Justice, and the Filipino people are not at all shocked, then they have long accepted this to be so.

Democracy is not endangered by the impeachment of Rene Corona the Chief Justice, it proves itself from it. I will not go as far as to say that the impeachment of Rene Corona will save democracy, but definitely the message to thieves and liars is that even a Chief Justice and cohorts in the Supreme Court cannot be shielded from wrongdoing. Impeachment is the wise provision, the last resort that the Supreme Court should be. Two sitting presidents have been removed from office not by any initiative of the Supreme Court but by the frustration of Filipinos. If impeachment works, there will be little need for a direct exercise of democracy.

Let impeachment work then.


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