IS IMPEACHMENT a bad idea?
That question has been asked not just by supporters of Merceditas Gutierrez or Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo but by completely reasonable people. Their concerns are two.
One is, is it really a matter of right or wrong or is it just a matter of numbers? The latter specifically meaning the numbers you need in the House of Representatives to carry an impeachment vote. The fastest climate change is known to happen in the Philippine Congress, it’s just “weather-weather” out there as Erap “eraptionally” put it. (In case you don’t know what the phrase means, it’s the “Englishized” version of “pana-panahon lang ’yan.”) Easiest thing for the same congressmen to turn from pro-Erap to pro-GMA to pro-P-Noy.
Two is, where does it end? Assuming the Senate gets to convict Gutierrez (which hasn’t happened before), whom do we go after next?
So, is it a bad idea?
Not at all.
Of course, it’s a matter of numbers too. Of course, it’s a matter of politics too. How well the Speaker wields his power to build a coalition. How well government gets Congress to pull in behind it. And so on. But that’s not all there is to it. Impeachment, where it succeeds, also brings the stamp of right and wrong, or the weight of morality, to things.
We saw that in the Erap impeachment trial. I will never tire of saying that that was the most educational thing for us. It gave us an education in the meaning of corruption. That was what turned Erap from hero to heel, from the poor boy with the golden heart and iron fists that he played in the movies to the big boss with the ugly schemes and the uglier henchmen that he fought in the same movies. It gave us an education in law. It made law a grand thing, the right arm of justice and not the safe haven of evildoers, a thing the kids could aspire to champion in their time.
And it gave us an education in democracy.
This last was monumental. It wasn’t just Erap who was on trial in his impeachment, the legal system was, Congress was, government was. It wasn’t just Hilario Davide and the senators who sat in judgment over Erap, the people did: they sat in judgment over all of them. Particularly with the impeachment televised, the whole country found itself in the position to see who among their public officials deserved their position. None of this is to say that numbers and partisanship didn’t play a part there—you had people like Miriam Santiago and Juan Ponce Enrile defending Erap on one side and people like Raul Roco and Teofisto Guingona prosecuting him on the other—but you had to prove your point to the judge, you had to convince the judge, and that judge was ultimately neither Davide nor the Senate, that judge was completely literally: The People.
You can’t have a better lesson that power resides in the hands of the people in a democracy than that. And you can’t have better proof of the impact of that lesson than that the people rose to show that power when they saw it being thwarted.
As to the question of where impeachment ends, that doesn’t make impeachment futile or pointless, it merely points to the real problem to which impeachment has been partly a solution. A small solution arguably, but a solution nevertheless.
That problem is that the people of this country have precious little say in how they are governed. In other countries representative democracy—government run by people the voters elect—works because the people remain even after the elections. They are there in the laws that govern the governors themselves, they are there in the political culture that frowns on wayward behavior, such as pocketing taxpayers’ money, they are there in the citizens voicing their concerns in various ways, amplified by the media. In the US, “Write your congressman” is no more an idle pastime than “taxpayers’ money” is an idle thought. It carries with it a world of meaning, and the backing of sanctions.
In this country, representative democracy works badly because the people disappear after the elections. After elections, public officials expect the public to get out of their way. In theory so they can get on with their work, in practice so that they can do what they want. The exponential rise of corruption throughout the postwar years must testify to what officials being free to do what they want means. There are laws, but they are ignored or used to get around proscriptions. There is no culture to ostracize the corrupt or drive them to commit hara-kiri. There is no (permanently) outspoken citizenry to routinely demand that the wayward be punished and the upright rewarded.
Impeachment is one of the exceedingly few ways the citizens can do to an official who has betrayed their trust. It is one of the exceedingly few ways the citizens can take part in governance between elections. It is one of the exceedingly few ways that, as seen in the Erap impeachment, they can get to sit in judgment over their officials and hold the power in their hands.
Arguably, you can’t have an impeachment all the time to make that possible. That will be costly and time-consuming. What we need is to find other ways to allow the people not only to be heard but to express themselves in day-to-day life. That is the reason I believe in institutionalizing people power, if by that is meant creating the mechanisms that promote the Filipino equivalent of “I’ll write my congressmen,” if by this is meant magnifying the educational opportunities (the classroom is not the only venue for education) that strengthen a culture that reviles wrongdoing. The sine qua non of democracy is a strong people, not a strong government. Democracy can survive a weak government, but it cannot survive a weak people.
But that’s a long road ahead. Meanwhile, I’ll settle for impeachment.
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