President Arroyo May Have Won in Congress, but She’s Losing the Street
Manuel L. Quezon III
In operas, the dying always takes a terribly long time, accompanied by grand arias, and large arm gestures. The effort to impeach the President of the Philippines died in the House of Representatives during a 22-hour final act conducted in true operatic style from Monday to Tuesday this week. For Filipinos, who are the first to smile at being characterized by a congenital lack of punctuality, their House of Representatives’ “question hour” being stretched to seven hours, or a quarter of day, was perhaps, to be expected, on Monday. After that, Monday became Tuesday, and in five more hours of debate took place, and as debates in the Philippine legislature go, characterized by booming baritones and shrieking sopranos; and after that, over ten hours for the lower house to cast — and explain — its votes, which was, unquestionably, protracted and unusual: A mind-numbing chorus of doom.
The attempt to impeach President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lasted months — from July to September. It failed because from the start, there were suspicions that a constitutional prohibition on more than one impeachment effort a year was being used by the president, through the filing of an impeachment case by a lawyer associated with a similar tactic while Arroyo was still vice-president, and endorsed by a member of her party in both cases. Still, Arroyo challenged her critics to face her in an impeachment court (the Senate of the Philippines, once the House of Representatives transmitted articles of impeachment), and public opinion, while generally hostile to the president nationwide, agreed with her call. So the battle shifted to the House of Representatives.
It is difficult to summarize the legal issues that resulted in a complicated series of debates over three impeachment complaints (the first filed by Oliver Lozano, suspected of being associated with the president, and endorsed by a congressman allegedly instructed to support the complaint by Arroyo; the second, a useless one; the third, a damning indictment filed as amendments to the first), but the president’s legal strategy was simple. To suggest that only one complaint could be tackled, and therefore, set aside the other two, and then to proclaim that the one being tackled was worthless, after all. This was done after the president’s delegates in the House provoked the opposition into walking out of a committee doing the determination, at which time, in two hours, the president’s strategy was implemented in haste.
The result was a committee report, the acceptance of which would put an end to the impeachment process. To reject the report, under the Philippine constitution, required only a third of congressmen to vote against it. That number was not achieved. It was not achieved because the brothers, sons, daughters, wives, nephews and nieces and friends of congressmen were appointed to various positions by the president, in what her officials explained as being merely a startling coincidence. There were allegations too, of threats to withhold patronage funds, and lavish promises of releasing public works funds to supportive representatives. Even the fear of terrorism was invoked to support the president. Finally, after initially being noisily involved, the forces of the Marcoses and Estradas suddenly fell silent, and abandoned the fight, leading to accusations of a private deal with Arroyo.
The president of the Philippines won the vote in the House of Representatives, and in doing so, she incidentally accomplished one of her cherished dreams. She once said, she wanted to unify Philippine society fragmented between those who participated in the People Power revolts of 1986 and 2001, and the failed poor people’s revolt against Arroyo also in 2001. She has done that. But not in the manner she intended. She has united the opposition against her. Ex-President Cory Aquino, icon of the restoration of democracy in 1986, Susan Roces, widow of the opposition presidential candidate Arroyo claimed she defeated in 2004, have united. All other parties, from the Right to the Left, and the crucial middle class, have united in opposition to Arroyo. That the Marcos family and the Estradas have possibly cast their lot with Arroyo can only help the cause of unity.
Unity, in the end, was, and is, the only choice. The opposition to Arroyo covers not only the length and breadth of the Philippines (80 percent in the capital and 60 percent in the entire country) but Filipinos overseas, as well, such as Filipinos in Saudi Arabia who resented being dragooned to meetings, asked to sign attendance sheets, only for the attendance sheets to be proclaimed in Manila as a manifestation of support for the administration. The biggest liability of Arroyo remains herself -and her people.
It all began with a concerted effort to proclaim Arroyo as the duly elected president, early in the morning in 2004. Her being saved from impeachment took place in the dead of night in 2005. A government that accomplishes its legislative business in the witching hour can only send a sinister message to its people. When the presiding officer’s gavel was finally banged down, to announce the defeat of the impeachment, Cory Aquino and Susan Roces, who had marched two kilometers in the blazing noonday sun, past massed ranks of policemen who retreated in the face of the determined widow, were finally in the House gallery to watch the closure of the last procedural path to resolving Arroyo’s legitimacy.
Arroyo had famously said, in July, for the fight to be taken from the streets to Congress. The legislature has closed the door; the doubts remain; the determination of both sides has hardened. The president and her people have always invoked the “rule of law,” but the law, it would seem, consisted of railroaded proceedings in the Philippine Congress, and massed ranks of riot police confronting two widows and tens of thousands of their countrymen. The last time there were such combined moves, in the legislature and involving the armed might of the state, was during the days of Ferdinand Marcos. And the world knows how that ended.