Minimum and maximum

Philippine Daily Inquirer: The Long View

Minimum and maximum

by Manuel L. Quezon III


Let me try to differentiate, first of all, between the court of public opinion and the court of law. While both can be manipulated, both have their place in what’s going on. They are not mutually exclusive.

At stake in the court of public opinion is something President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo does not own by right but rather possesses by permission of the citizenry: her office. Her term of office is dependent on her ability to uphold her oath of office. She herself can be a judge of herself: She can resign or go on leave at any time. Her subordinates can be judges of her fitness for office. For example, the Cabinet can declare her unfit to remain President; if she challenges it, the Cabinet can throw the question to Congress to determine. Congress itself is fit to judge her: The House can impeach her, and the Senate then decides if she should be removed from office or allowed to remain. In any case, the only thing she loses is her office.

At stake in a court of law are things that public opinion has no right to take away: life, liberty and property. This is why even in the case of resignation or impeachment, the only thing a president loses is political office and the protections accorded an individual only for so long as he or she occupies that office (e.g., immunity from suit). What is enough to cost a president his or her job may not be enough to cost his or her liberty or property. Or it may be enough, but it has to go through a suitably long and difficult process.

What do we have in common with our representatives, who are the first in line to render judgment on the President? Everything, which is why the requirements for representative office are so slim: to be a citizen, to be an adult, to be literate. Juan de la Cruz has the same basic competence as anyone sitting in Congress today to determine the political question of whether the President deserves to remain in Malacañang.

The debate over the two courts hinges on this question: Where are we headed? Your choice of which court you prefer, or how the two courts complement each other, depends on how you answer this question. The problem is that the public is confronted with a dizzying menu of choices over what to do.

The simplest option is stay in denial. Continue chanting “But they are all the same!” along with the refrain, “But who will replace her?” and the challenge, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!” I’ve never understood this combination of excuses, not because I think I’m morally superior to anyone, but rather, as someone who’s gotten into his fair share of trouble, they’re arguments used by kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or cheating in exams, or breaking their curfew, or … the list is endless, really.

What’s worse is trying to save face by saying, “I am not an apologist for the President but…” My attitude (and this apparently makes me some sort of extremist) is that there are no ifs and buts about it. The end result of these arguments is a vote of confidence in the President as a leader of uncommon virtue, with a husband without blemish, and sons who are exemplars of tact, refinement, and finesse, and an administration of unselfish public servants with integrity.

But let’s assume that those formerly inclined to give the President every benefit of the doubt have inched closer to the attitudes of those who much earlier decided she’s unfit for office. This is different from assuming that everyone now is on the same page. What then, are the options?

For some, the President should continue in office until 2010, on the off chance she has a Road-to-Damascus moment and repents and redeems herself. But even if she doesn’t, the growing mood of public vigilance will hopefully be sustained, and thus keep her in check. The result will be no constitutional shortcuts, but a President who will bow out of office so despised, and politically weakened, that she will have little say in the choice of her successor. With virtually no hold on the next President, who would then allow her to be dragged off to jail. This is attractive to those who are fearful of things spiraling out of control.

For others, public pressure should be applied on the institutions that have, so far, helped maintain the President in power and on the President’s people to come forward and expose what’s going on. And as the President’s people commit blunder after blunder, an offended citizenry will begin listing down names and vow vengeance at the polls come 2010.

This is a variation on the theme of redemption: The President’s pet congressmen can redeem themselves by impeaching the President in October, and the Senate can redeem itself by being an impartial judge in an impeachment trial. This is attractive to those who want to channel public outrage into political action that strengthens institutions.

Others prefer that the President cut, and cut cleanly. She should resign. Should it end with that? Should the public take its chances with Vice President Noli de Castro? The constitutionalists will argue, the country has no choice. The Vice President could pursue the path of statesmanship, restoring the balance that’s been lost, and pave the way for clean elections in 2010. Meanwhile, the citizenry can keep a close watch on him and lend him assistance, on the principle that it is easier to do the right thing if given a chance.

Or, there’s the proposal for both to resign and hold a snap election, which one wag summed up as follows: “Snap para kay Erap.” [Snap election to favor Joseph Estrada.]

Or the ultimate, nuclear option: regime change, a revolutionary government. As Apolinario Mabini said, “Drown the Constitution, but save its principles!” But who is to say the result wouldn’t be a social implosion or, worse, the rise of a Filipino Pol Pot?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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