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Theres The Rub
Postscript, ante-script

By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:16:00 01/22/2008

Filed Under: Joseph Estrada, Politics

EDSA People Power II was problematic from the start. I recall that many American publications frowned on it, in complete contrast to the way they received EDSA I, which was with boundless praise and enthusiasm. Anthony Spaeth of Time magazine said EDSA II was nothing more than ?mob rule.? Sandra Burton, Ninoy Aquino?s -- and EDSA I?s -- zealous chronicler said there was never a second EDSA, only the first. And the LA Times said it was just a conspiracy of the elite.

A great deal of that perception remains. Only last December, when I spoke at the London School of Economics before a group of Filipinos and foreigners on Philippine media, I heard the same questions asked in the open forum. A couple of academics wondered if initiatives like EDSA II did not just serve to weaken democracy by impairing institutions rather than shoring them up, or indeed by allowing various groups, notably elite ones, to usurp power by stoking public outrage for their ends. EDSA II, they said, seemed like a case in point, the elite knocking off the populist Joseph Estrada to install someone more sympathetic to them.

Well, to begin with, the first EDSA People Power uprising might also be argued to be a conspiracy of the elite, given the composition of the forces arrayed against Ferdinand Marcos, not including the Left. It is no coincidence that Marcos, like Estrada, tried to depict the fight against him as representing class conflict, with him, of course, representing the ?masa? [masses]. Indeed, the first EDSA uprising might be argued to be more elitist than the second in one fundamental respect, which is that it had the stamp of America on it. You can?t have anything more elitist than that, the Americans occupying the topmost rank in this country?s social totem pole.

I did say shortly after EDSA II, in response to the American opinion above, that I suspected the reason they were unhappy about EDSA II was that unlike EDSA I it was largely homegrown. It did not carry the storyline of Filipino exiles in the United States coming home to fight a tyrant and with the help of the US State Department and Congress forcing him to cut and cut cleanly. A modern version of the undying myth of MacArthur?s ?I shall return.? Filipinos overthrowing an SOB are a mob, Filipinos overthrowing an SOB with American help are heaven?s sword.

There is, of course, the difference that Marcos was an illegitimate ruler whereas Estrada was a perfectly legitimate one. Which is the part that bears weightily on the concept of conspiracy, quite apart from whether it was hatched by the elite or not. Marcos merely usurped power with martial law. Estrada won by the biggest margin of all.

My answer to that is that the legitimacy was voided by the betrayal of public trust. By that I do not just mean the legal justifications for Estrada?s ouster and/or Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s inauguration trotted by the Supreme Court, I mean the recognition and acceptance by the people themselves of that verdict. Yes, people and not just the elite. One can never overemphasize the impact of the impeachment trial, which became the most phenomenally popular TV fare ever in this country. It had the same effect, if not more, of Estrada?s action movies -- with him now in the role of villain rather than hero. It was the one thing that brought the poor probably for the first time in their lives, certainly far more than during elections, to experience democracy in action (pun fully intended).

That brings me to my thesis: Contrary to rumor, in a country like ours People Power does not weaken democracy, it strengthens it. It does not impair democratic institutions, it repairs them. Or where they do not exist at all, it builds them.

That is patently so in the case of illegitimate leaders. Ousting unelected leaders does not deny democracy, it affirms it; it does not destroy the institutions of democracy, it restores them.

It?s so even in the case of elected leaders grown tyrannical, though that is less patent. Or so for countries like ours. In other countries like those of the West, the democratic institutions work in practice and not just in theory (in the United States, for example, a Kiefer Sutherland could be thrown in jail for drunk driving). Where the institutions truly, or reasonably, represent the general interest (that?s why it?s called ?representative democracy?), you mount direct citizens? intervention in the political process only at your own peril. In countries like ours, the democratic institutions exist only on paper -- convicted ex-presidents are pardoned and political activists are shot to death; the vote, the most basic democratic institution of all, can be stolen at will. Where the institutions not only do not reasonably represent the general interest but exist to unreasonably thwart it, the law being used to justify, and foment, lawlessness rather than justice, you mount direct citizens? intervention only at your own benefit.

You never experienced the utter pits this country found itself in during Estrada?s time and you?ll see a seemingly indulgent effort to oust a formidably elected president like him as mob rule. You saw what it was then and you?ll see the desperate effort to oust him as ridding this country of mob rule. ?Mob? is a curious word: It can refer to a mindless lynch mob committing a reprehensible action, or it can refer to a mindful, or cold and calculating, group like the Mafia (the original ?Mob?) or a ?Midnight Cabinet? wielding reprehensible rule. In this country, People Power doesn?t just strengthen the democratic institutions, it?s the only thing that unlocks the life, never mind power, of those democratic institutions. Without People Power, or the threat thereof, those institutions might as well not be there.

Question is, if we can oust leaders who are illegitimate or have betrayed the public trust, why can?t we do that to someone who?s both?

More Inquirer columns

Previous columns:
Two for the road ? 01/21/08
Justice ? 01/16/08
?Mindanao Republic? ? 01/14/08
Still, a tale of two cities ? 01/14/08
Sci-fi? 01/09/08
Comedy, tragedy? 01/08/08
Tails and dogs? 01/02/08

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