What are we in ‘werpa’ for?
Sen. Chiz Escudero is a political cipher; I always find myself questioning my understanding of his place in contemporary politics. Is that really all he stands for? I always think he is better than some of us give him credit for — and then he says something again that suggests he is not an idealistic young man with a vocation for politics but rather a privileged politician with a readiness for realpolitik.
At a “kapihan” at the Senate last week, he tried to paint a portrait of political normalcy: “Isn’t this like what the past administration did, threaten the former ombudsman with impeachment, who then resigned? Impeach the sitting chief justice, who was [convicted]? Jailed three sitting senators and his predecessor (referring to President Benigno Aquino III’s predecessor, President Gloria Arroyo)? No one said we were headed toward dictatorship then,” he said in Filipino.
That’s because we were not in fact headed toward dictatorship then. We fail our democracy when we use our UP education and Georgetown degree to argue for false equivalence.
The argument that the Duterte administration’s political agenda is just politics as usual tells us more about what the arguer thinks politics is (the allocation of power, plain and simple) rather than current political reality (power is being used to silence critics, create a permanent sense of national security risk, accumulate even more power for its own sake). There is a real danger that the Senate Escudero represents will become irrelevant or even eventually be dismantled if the administration’s plan to capture total control of the political infrastructure—either through a revision of the constitutional order or through the “autogolpe” that is the “revolutionary government” last card—comes to pass.
If the administration’s primary political objective is the elimination of the checks and balances that undergird the political system, through the fullest possible consolidation of power, we have graduated from normalcy to crisis. Nothing less than the fate of our democratic project is at stake.
Am I only being alarmist? Consider:
1. The high officials the Duterte political alliance sees as standing in the way of total control have all been threatened with impeachment: Vice President Leni Robredo, for making a speech; Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, for allegedly purchasing an expensive service vehicle; Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, for literally allowing her office to do its job of holding even the President to account. None of the charges rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
(In contrast, Chief Justice Renato Corona tried to hide some 90 percent of his wealth—surely a disqualifying offense enough to impeach him.)
2. Opposition senators are being systematically harassed. The detention of Sen. Leila de Lima on fabricated charges is only the most egregious example. Sen. Risa Hontiveros is facing patently absurd charges; Sen. Bam Aquino is the constant target of abuse by a mere assistant secretary; Sen. Sonny Trillanes is the subject of threats by the President and his politician-daughter.
(In contrast, the three senators who were charged with plunder used to be part of the supermajority in the Senate in Aquino’s time, and now face trial because of voluminous evidence.)
3. The administration’s demonization of the traditional media and its blatant use of misinformation (starting from the President, who exaggerates all the time and lied about the use of “Chinese rifles” to kill Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute) have created not only a hostile environment for journalists but also an inhospitable terrain for the truth. Has any administration since Ferdinand Marcos’ ever appointed officials whose main responsibility is, not to put the best possible spin on the sometimes unpalatable truth, but to tell outright lies? This culture of misinformation, which even Escudero must be aware of, degrades the ordinary citizen’s capacity to hold government officials to account.
4. The thousands of extrajudicial killings that have troubled our consciences since June 30 last year have intimidated not only the masses but even the political class.
5. The many threats the President has uttered—to disregard Senate findings in the execution of Mayor Rolando Espinosa, to attack officials he doesn’t like, to declare nationwide martial law, to impose a revolutionary government, and so on—are both unprecedented and unpresidential.
In Philippine history, the President’s frank view of transactional politics found its perfect expression in something Senate President Jose Avelino is supposed to have said. (The main version of events, however, has been disputed.) In a candid caucus with President Elpidio Quirino, he reportedly argued against the ruling Liberal Party investigating itself. “Para que estamos en poder?” What are we in power for? In the year of the “lodi,” we can update the question: What are we in “werpa” for?
This much we can and must say: Total werpa, beyond accountability, is dictatorship.
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I am grateful I was able to join last Sunday Xavier University’s 20th weekly mission to the evacuation centers in Marawi that it supports. I will write on this at greater length, one of these days.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand