Second-best institutions

Sta. Ana coordinates for Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, February 25,2008 edition, pages S1/4 – S1/5.

The best witness against Mrs. Gloria Arroyo to prove her guilt in the National Broadband Network (NBN)-ZTE scandal is herself.  In a radio interview conducted by Joe Taruc of dzRH, Mrs. Arroyo said: “Someone told me about it the night before the signing of the supply contract. This was one of many signings [in China].  But how can you cancel it the night before, considering that you are dealing with another country?” The”it” obviously refers to the high-level corruption.

Mrs. Arroyo’s statement is a gross insult to the Filipino people and to the government of the People’s Republic of China.  She took everyone for a ride.  She didn’t even bother to inform the Chinese government about the irregularity when she went to China for the contract’s signing. China, very sensitive to its reputation as an emerging world leader, would not have signed an agreement tainted with brazen high-level corruption.  She informed China’s President Hu Jintao about the scandal only after the scandal had been publicly exposed.

That Mrs. Arroyo knew of the irregularity ex ante but did nothing to stop the deal was a betrayal of public trust.

She is now insisting that she cancelled the NBN-ZTE contact.  Hogwash.  It took her five months after the contract’s signing to “indefinitely suspend” the deal.  And she had no choice but take a retreat in the wake of public outrage and the Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily stop the contract’s implementation.  Lokohin mo ang lelong mong panot. Stop the bullshit.

Just before she damned herself in Taruc’s radio interview, her Cabinet and the government apparatus continued to defend the NBN-ZTE deal, arguing that it was good for the country and that it was not tainted with irregularity.  Mrs. Arroyo now contradicts the line mouthed by her apologists.  They now have to fend for themselves.

Which only shows that Arroyo would do abominable things—damage China’s reputation and make her allies—the Bunyes and Saludos—look like fools—just to protect herself.

Mrs. Arroyo’s admission that she knew of the corruption even before the signing of the NBN-ZTE deal should convince what my friend Manuel Buencamino calls as “defaulters” to accept and adopt the call for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation.

Some quarters who are critical of Mrs. Arroyo, however, do not like her to resign.  Benjie Tolosa of the Ateneo’s Political Science Department refuses to support the resign call because he fears that this would lead to a military power grab. Winnie Monsod has a similar argument.  In her Philippine Daily Inquirer column (23 February 2008), she argued: “The most important argument against a People Power IV is that it can happen only with another military intervention because Ms Arroyo is ?not likely to go meekly, and it will result not in more freedom and a ?stronger democracy but in less freedom and a weaker democracy.”

Their argument is as false as Karl Marx’s historical materialism—which is actually unfounded historical determinism.  There is no inevitability to a military takeover that “will result…in less freedom and a weaker democracy.” We cannot predict the exact outcome of the current polarization. But that should not immobilize us from taking collective action and expressing our moral and political outrage.  The call for Mrs. Arroyo to resign is also about strengthening the civilian movement and making it the leading force to remove Mrs. Arroyo and thus being the foil to a reckless military adventure.

In their refusal to support the call for Arroyo’s resignation, Mr. Tolosa and the Ateneo-based Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SBL) are reduced to crafting naïve, if not silly, positions.  For example, they want to have Congress form and Mrs. Arroyo appoint an independent counsel who will “investigate and, if necessary prosecute high-ranking officials of the Executive and Congress, including their relatives by affinity or consanguinity within the fourth civil degree charged with malfeasance or misfeasance in office.”

In the first place, having an independent counsel is redundant.  We have the Ombudsman and the other courts.  But precisely because Mrs. Arroyo has damaged these institutions, we cannot expect justice to happen under Arroyo’s courts.  Does SBL honestly think that a Congress dominated by Arroyo’s puppets will allow Mrs. Arroyo and allies to be prosecuted by an independent counsel?  Does it honestly think that Mrs. Arroyo will appoint a genuine independent counsel?

SBL also asks for the revision of the Government Procurement Reform Act “to ensure greater transparency and plug the enormous losses of taxpayer’s money to corrupt officials.”  This is an off-tangent position.

The Procurement Reform Act is a good law.  But Mrs. Arroyo circumvented and thus violated this law by making the NBN-ZTE deal an executive agreement, thus exempting the deal from transparent and competitive bidding.

In short, Mrs. Arroyo has been destroying the institutions, thereby making it futile for reformers to invoke such institutions to demand accountability and justice. Here is a so-called president who won the elections through cheating (“Hello Garci”) and who had used by hook or crook all means to block the impeachment process.

The country’s already inefficient State institutions have all the more become detestable under the Arroyo regime. In light of the failure of these institutions, the people’s only available option is to call for her resignation via people power.

The truth is people power has in itself become institutionalized. We cannot wish it away in the same manner that the Philippine military has become politicized.  The genie is out of the bottle, and that is a constraint that we face as we rebuild institutions.

Surprisingly, what works at present are second-best institutions.  We are happy that the Senate is conducting investigations on Executive wrongdoing when this task is principally the responsibility of the other government agencies. We file a case in an already overstretched Supreme Court whenever the Executive commits grave abuse of power.  And we appeal to the Church to intervene in what are basically secular affairs.

People power should be seen in this light.  It is a second-best but most effective and most appropriate institution to resolve the present crisis. Through people power calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation and demanding accountability and justice, we are actually strengthening institutions.  For we send a powerful signal not only to the politicians but to the whole society that the abuse of our fundamental laws will be severely punished.  The failure of previous episodes of people power was the lack of resolve to achieve accountability and justice. Doing another people power this time, one that likewise asserts institutional reforms, will hopefully lead to its taking a backseat in the future.

Some fear that the use of people power is destabilizing.  This kind of thinking muddles cause and effect.   People power arises because the situation is already destabilized and the formal institutions have become inutile to resolve the crisis.

In the present set-up, to rely on first-best institutions is illusory and will only boomerang.  These institutions are already damaged. The costs for society, including the future generation, will be huge, if we stick to the status quo.  The second-best institutions are our best option at this conjuncture.

Let’s be reminded of what Luli Arroyo wrote (“On bringing down my mother”):

“Unfortunately many people don’t understand this, that the corruption has been built up for at least two decades, and pervades not only government but society in general, and it will probably take at  least that many years to wipe it out of our system, especially when those entrenched are fighting back?and fighting dirty not to be unseated.” (Underscoring mine.)

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