Something Disturbing in the Plebiscite Demand
by Manuel L. Quezon III
When former President Ramos got this revenge for not being consulted on efforts to call for Mrs. Arroyo to resign by stepping in and breaking the momentum of her fall, it was obvious the crisis would be prolonged. The question then shifted from pushing for resignation to attempting a democratic way to settle the legitimacy question. I said last year that this could all be settled by the administration calling a plebiscite to ratify or reject its leadership. But it refused every possible variation on a plebiscite-as-solution: Whether an outright referendum, or a snap election, or even indirect referenda such as impeachment. All the signs now point to Malacañang Palace being dead set to avoid judgment at the polls in a combined local and national election next year, because it will lose the Senate, 12-0 and the signs indicate it will even lose the local races for the House. Talk in political circles is that the convention wisdom of the past no longer holds true: This time around, national issues will affect the local elections.
So there is something disturbing in the shrill demands for a plebiscite when such a plebiscite represents an attempt to formalize public opinion — and public opinion has been ruthlessly ignored, constantly, by those who demand it now.
Those who keep bleating about millions of signatures and how they should matter assume only they have read the law and understand the rationale behind a people’s initiative option. President Ramos understood it better when he said the public could gamble on a unicameral Parliament if the public were given an example of those in power sacrificing their ambition, to implement it immediately. Beginning with the president. Mrs. Arroyo would not sacrifice her office; so Ramos’s gamble saved her but didn’t save the Ramos proposal. Had the proponents gone through the process transparently, and without subterfuge, no one would be able to oppose them.
But signature-gathering did not envision door prizes and using the barangays as a shield to keep the process closed off from public scrutiny. And so, having accomplished their efforts in the dark, who can begrudge demands for scrutiny? Only those who think democracy should not be a dialogue, but a one-party monologue.
Mrs. Arroyo’s allies operate on the undemocratic assumption that the electorate can’t be trusted to decide who should lead it, and the paternalistic notion that they can only be trusted to decide if the population doing the choosing is smaller — the size of a congressional district. That is to say, having chosen Pichay, Lagman, Villafuerte and Antonino, let’s not push our luck and ever have a public that didn’t choose correctly between Poe and Arroyo ever have the chance to make the same choice again. The public is (supposedly) only bright enough to vote for Villafuerte but too dumb to ever vote for Arroyo. Whatever you call that logic, it is neither democratic nor respectable. It is the kind of thinking that is said to have inspired a bishop to advise government officials that it’s morally acceptable to cheat on behalf of Arroyo to prevent a victory for Poe: Logic that is neither moral, nor acceptable.
And yet the same people on Mrs. Arroyo’s side who question the capacity of the public to select leaders, now says: How dare anyone question the process, when no one questions whether people vote in elections for sober, or superficial reasons, or with or without inducements to neutralize their genuinely-held positions!
They seem the only ones ignorant of a reality all too obvious to observers. We know there have been inducements — the door prizes offered in barangay assemblies — just as we know the subterfuge resorted to — getting people to sign on the basis of the lie that a signature for the people’s initiative is a signature to ensure the president leaves office soon.
What did the president’s legal eagles say during the second impeachment? Who cares what is right or wrong, we must stand by the rules. The rules say, in every public issue the citizenry can oppose or support, and if it’s choice is opposition then it has many legal options to resort to. So please, no more talk denouncing “technicalities” when from the start of the present crisis every conceivable technicality has been made use of by the administration.
And while no one expects a free, fair, and honest plebiscite, it simply isn’t true to say no administration’s ever lost a plebiscite. They have. In 1969, a plebiscite proposal for Congress to constitute itself as a constituent assembly was rejected by the electorate. This resulted in the convening of the 1971-73 Constitutional Convention.
In 1973, President Marcos had to cancel the scheduled plebiscite on the new constitution because it was obviously going to be defeated. Public opinion defeated efforts to extend President Ramos’ term in 1997 and frightened President Estrada when he proposed amendments to the economic provisions of the constitution.
The inevitability of government cheating wouldn’t stop participation just as the inevitability of government cheating in the 1978 and 1984 parliamentary elections led to opposition participation, anyway.